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Ireland’s Housing Emergency

“At the end of the month (March) when your lease is up, present here to the council offices with some clothes and any medicines you need and we will find you emergency accommodation in a hotel. Because your child is a minor we will appoint a social worker”, the nice lady in the housing department of Mayo County Council told Martha, a Polish lady who has worked in Ireland all her adult life and who has been on the council housing list for nearly 15 years.

Shocked, stressed, exasperated and malnourished from worry for herself and her child, Martha replied: “But what do I do with all my possessions?” “Sell them or ask your friends to store them”, the nice lady said, adding, “The situation is absolutely desperate, not just generally, but in town and the county, it’s never been as bad. There are 30 families in emergency accommodation right now.”

Martha looked for a house and found one available for rent, but at €1,600 a month it is beyond her wage, even when supplemented with HAP.

The nice county council lady made a suggestion: “Try looking for a house to rent in another town.” “But, pleaded Martha, must I uproot my child from school and move him to another school?”

This housing crisis, no, let’s be realistic and use that new term ‘emergency’, has not suddenly appeared. Hence the reason Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, in his trite Christmas 2017 speech, devoid of meaning, promised: “In 2018 we will house 100 families every working day.” Not 100 people, note, but families!

I don’t know how many working days the government had in 2018, but, despite the Taoiseach’s empty promise, the problem worsened, for the Peter McVerry Trust’s website could inform us (in February 2019):

From November 2017 to November 2018, the number of homeless men increased by 13 per cent. Overall, from December 2014 to May 2018 [during Fine Gael’s tutelage of the State] the number of homeless increased by 6,988. In November 2018, the number of adults in emergency accommodation had increased by 130 on October, just one month earlier. The monthly homeless increased from 5,524 in November 2017 to 6,157 in November 2018. This is despite the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, in spring 2018, redefining the categorisation of certain homeless households, which removed 1,606 from the monthly homeless reports!

The housing emergency is no better for those willing to buy. House availability is not the only obstacle: banks no longer require proof of employment, but proof of future employment in the form of a CV; a mortgage will be denied to a couple should both change jobs within the same year, often meaning they cannot migrate to a different part of their own country, at least not together; and in some areas a costly pyrite test is necessary, which takes the guts of a year to complete.

People renting face their own obstacles, and it is particularly weighted against the worker who often exceeds the criteria for a housing assistance payment (HAP), unless of course you are like the young lady working full-time who, when her rent was greatly increased, was advised by the housing officer of her local county council: “You’re working too much, just work four days a week and you will qualify for HAP.” Paradoxically, she now pays less rent since her rent increased than when her rent was lower; the taxpayer is subsidising it.

HAP itself is a problem. Social Justice Ireland has forcefully argued that HAP has the unintended consequence of increasing rents, which punishes those not in receipt of HAP or RAS – usually people in employment.

Although the guideline is that one should not be paying more than 30% of their income on accommodation, the reality is that workers have little choice, and those on HAP frequently have to pay additional cash under the table to the landlord in order to meet the rent because county councils’ threshold for HAP is often too low to cover the full rent.

Here in Co. Mayo there is an interesting twist in the housing tale. Single parents have discovered they have been removed from the council’s housing list, unknown to them.

In each case I am aware of, the unsuspecting mother was told: “We wrote to you but you didn’t answer.” Each of them, all working mothers, denied having received such a letter – their stories being credible.

When one of the women challenged the nice lady at Mayo County Council as to why she was still receiving HAP when she was not on the housing list (being on the list is a requirement for HAP), the nice lady said, “Oh, that’s a different department.”

How convenient! By removing people from the housing list, it massages the homelessness figures, and by continuing to pay HAP the government keeps the masses quiet. And all this despite Co. Mayo having the second highest number of vacant properties in the country, according to the 2021 GeoDirectory database.

Fiona, a working mother recounts her experience:

I’m a single mother of three children. One child has severe asthma, is immune compromised and is sick all the time. Another of my children was born with a rare condition. Because of this he’s had a major operation and will have more in the future. This is known to the council who are aware that I’ve had to take extensive unpaid leave for his care.

I first applied for a council house 13 years ago, and have since had to reapply three times. In October 2021 I received a letter from Mayo Co. Council enquiring if I want to stay on the housing list. I replied that I did. At this stage the heating system broke in the house and my landlord stated he couldn’t get anyone in to fix it till January earliest. I ended up having to get a plumber myself and pay for it. My daughter in turn developed pneumonia from the cold and dampness of the house.

At this point I went to all the local TDs, but only Rose Conway Walsh TD pushed my case, bringing it to the attention of the housing minister.

Because the income criteria is set so low to qualify for housing, especially when domiciliary and children’s allowances are taken into account, and with the criteria now based on 52 weeks’ income wherein it used to be the previous six weeks, the result was that the council took me off the housing list, which also precludes me from qualifying for other forms of social housing.

Sadly, Fiona now feels deceived and abandoned, especially by Rose Conway Walsh TD who – despite being a member of the solipsistically and ironically named Sinn Fein, the “ourselves alone” party – is now claiming “vacant properties should house refugees.”

Now the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has been quoted as saying: “it was factually incorrect for people to say the Government was doing more to house refugees than Irish citizens”, but Martha, Fiona, their children, and thousands of other hard-working Irish citizens are convinced otherwise.

 All names have been changed

 


Stephen Blendell 

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