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Dublin: 13 °C Thursday 21 March, 2019
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Opinion: Severe overcrowding is widespread in social housing and it's harming people's health

There are thousands of families in Dublin living in conditions of severe overcrowding – the worst case I’ve come across was 14 people living in a 2-bed flat, writes Críona Ní Dhálaigh.

Críona Ní Dhálaigh

RECENTLY RTE REPORTED on serious overcrowding in social housing in Dublin.

It is an issue that I’ve been raising in Dublin City Council for years and unfortunately, the reality on the ground is even worse than that report indicated.

Overcrowding is causing incredible hardship to families and its a side effect of the housing crisis that hasn’t been fully explored.

While all the focus has been on the desperate situation of homeless families, there are many others who are stuck living in unbelievably cramped conditions. 

Overcrowding in a flat is totally different to overcrowding in a house – because in most cases the social housing flats are already absolutely tiny.

Most of the overcrowding is happening in flats that you couldn’t swing a cat in.

The worst case I’ve come across was 14 people living in a 2-bedroom flat in an inner city flat complex.

A family like that won’t report the conditions they are living in, to the council, because that level of overcrowding wouldn’t be allowed and permission to reside would not be granted.

But even according to the official stats there are as many as 11 people living in a 2-bedroom home and as many as seven people living in a 1 bed.

I know countless families where children are sleeping in the same bed as their mother, sometimes there are two sisters who both have children and they are all living together in one room. There are people sleeping on floors, sofas and even baths in some cases.  

How can children possibly get a proper nights sleep, or do their homework while living in these conditions? 

I’m convinced that the overcrowding is contributing to the dampness in the flats too – which in turn causes asthma and breathing problems. The impact that overcrowding has on people’s mental health cannot be overstated.

Declaring yourself homeless is always the last, last resort and the vast majority of families are trying to avoid doing that.

How many?

The Dublin City Council housing manager Brendan Kenny told RTE that there are approximately 2,000 households who are overcrowded and waiting for social housing transfers.

But on top of that, there are thousands more families who are living in overcrowded social housing. They are “doubling up” – that is living with the grandparents, often in situations of chronic overcrowding.

They wouldn’t be on the housing transfer list because they are households in their own right – so they would be on the main waiting list for social housing.

Currently, there are approximately 6,600 people on the main waiting list for social housing who were living in overcrowded accommodation. 

From my work in my clinics, it certainly appears to me that the majority of those families who are on the social housing waiting list due to overcrowding are already living in social housing -  because they are living in their parent’s local authority homes.  

Additionally, there are also a few hundred high priority cases (medical needs etc) who are on separate lists and some of them are also overcrowded.  

No way out

I’m not a medical professional but I believe that the severe overcrowding I’m witnessing in social housing in Dublin contributes to both physical and mental health problems.

I’ve met people who are suffering from depression, anxiety and feelings of total despair. They know their housing situation is not going to get better, they feel totally trapped –  there is no way out.

Before the housing crisis and under the old allocation system for social housing, people who were living with severe overcrowding got extra points so they might eventually be housed.

But the way that the housing list works nowadays is that the allocations are done according to the amount of time the household has waited.

That means that young parents with children won’t be offered housing for many years, regardless of how severe the overcrowding is. Waits of 10 years are now normal. 

The problem is that there is such a crisis in private rental, so even with the offer of rent subsidies most people just can’t secure a tenancy.

That means that the grandparents have very little choice but to allow their children and grandchildren to remain living with them. 

I have the grannies coming to me, saying: “I can’t do it anymore – I just can’t.”

But they can’t put them out on the streets either. No one wants to see their children go homeless and especially not their grandchildren.

Solutions

As a council, we are slowly but surely refurbishing and replacing social housing flats.

The new apartments will be built to the highest specifications, with proper storage space and room sizes, they’ll be well insulated and ventilated. But those projects will take many years to deliver.  

In the meantime, we should look at our system of allocations and see if there is any way we can facilitate more internal transfers for young parents within the flat complexes they come from.

Some elderly people living in houses might be willing to transfer to a flat but don’t want to transfer to a one bedroom. That might be because it’s an elderly couple who sleep in separate rooms or it might be an elderly person who lives alone but wants a spare room so someone can stay with them if they are ill.

I think we should allow that transfer if it frees up a much-needed family home.

But what we need to do urgently is to increase our social housing stock.

The only way to do that is by building on the vast tracts of land we already own. We are doing some rapid build already but we need to be doing a lot more – I believe that rapid build is the way forward as it’s much quicker. 

We have thousands of families in homeless services and now we have thousands more living in situations of serious overcrowding, which is impacting on mental and physical health.

Unless there is a major change in housing policy – the problem of overcrowding in social housing will continue to worsen throughout 2019. 

Críona Ní Dhálaigh is a Sinn Fein Dublin City Councillor and former Lord Mayor of Dublin.  

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