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Column: Dark, damp room or the street – this is the choice faced by many

Cuts to rent supplement are forcing people to make impossible choices, writes Bob Jordan of Threshold.

Bob Jordan

IMAGINE YOU HAVE to look for a new place to live. The first property you view has no cooking facilities, and is dark and damp. In the second, the tiny single bed takes up half the available space. In the third, you can’t stand up straight. And at the back of your head, all the time, is the knowledge that you must choose one of these sub-standard living spaces or run the risk of ending up on the streets…

This scenario is a reality for many people in receipt of rent supplement.

Since the Government cut the maximum amount available to rent supplement recipients, countless people have been forced to leave homes in which they had lived for years to find alternative accommodation within their reduced budgets. Often, the only choice available in their price-bracket is sub-standard bedsit accommodation. And, in some cases, even that is out of reach – leaving people with no other choice but homelessness.

Despite assertions to the contrary from the Department of Social Protection, Threshold knows rent supplement cuts are making people homeless. We’re dealing first-hand with people who have been left with no other option because they can no longer afford to pay their rent.

Take Laura, for example. As advised by the Department, she asked her landlord for a reduction in her rent once the rent supplement cuts came into effect. He refused. She’s living in bedsit accommodation, and has been unable to find any other property within her available budget. In an attempt to avoid homelessness, she has begun making ‘top-up’ payments to meet the full amount of the rent. As a result, she’s falling behind on other bills and struggling to buy household basics each week.

Making ends meet

Michael, another client of Threshold’s, became homeless five years ago. In February, he came to our Access Housing Unit (AHU) looking for help with his housing difficulties. The AHU began looking for accommodation for him in March. Despite accompanying him to several viewings, however, we have been unable to source good-quality accommodation for him within his €475 rent cap. As a result, he continues to reside in homeless accommodation.

And then there are the families: Susan is a single mother with two children. She should be focused on getting her daughters ready for the return to school in September, but instead she has spent the summer worrying about how to make ends meet. Due to the rent supplement cuts, the family is in danger of having to leave their current home – where they have lived for six years – and move to another area. If that happens, her children will have to change schools.

These are just three of the 92,000 people who depend on rent supplement support to keep them in their homes. And we must remember that, for many people on rent supplement, where they live is their permanent home and has been for many years. They are not looking for temporary accommodation to tide them over; if they have to leave because of the rent supplement cuts, they suffer the same anguish and upset as home-owners would if they were arbitrarily asked to move out of their house.

Savings

Threshold understands that the Department of Social Protection, like all government departments, needs to make savings in line with reduced budgets. But targeting some of the most vulnerable people in society – and, potentially, causing an increase in demand for costly homelessness services – is not the right way to do this.

The Department made cuts to the rent supplement payments based on the incorrect assumption that rents are falling throughout the country. While this was true at the start of the recession, the reality for the past few years is that demand for rented accommodation – especially in urban areas – is rising and, as such, rents are rising too.

Many young couples who traditionally would have happily climbed aboard the property ladder are now choosing, instead, to remain renting. Simultaneously, many of those who have been living in private rented accommodation on a long-term basis have had their wages cut or have lost their jobs, forcing them to seek cheaper accommodation towards the lower end of the market.

This has a knock-on effect for those in receipt of rent supplement. There is now more demand for rental properties overall, and more demand for properties at the lower end of the market, in particular. And, against this backdrop, rent supplement recipients have been given reduced payments and been told to negotiate directly with their landlords to secure reductions in their rent.

Bureaucratic nightmare

The changes to the rent supplement scheme were introduced by the Department in a haphazard way. Asking vulnerable tenants – people with health problems; people who experienced homelessness in the past; those who have recently lost their jobs – to negotiate directly with landlords is farcical. Threshold has encountered many cases where people’s rent supplement payments were delayed or even temporarily stopped as they waded through the bureaucratic nightmare brought on by the changes.

The Department needs to get real about the housing need of vulnerable people and the realities of the rental market. There are a number of steps they could take to relieve the rent supplement nightmare. Firstly, responsibility for rent supplement should be transferred from the Department to local authorities.

Secondly, rent supplement should be paid directly to landlords, rather than to tenants. This would mean the Department or the relevant local authority could negotiate discounts with landlords and ensure only those in compliance with minimum standards and other relevant regulations received rent supplement payments.

Finally, the Government must act to ensure State money is not being used to pay for sub-standard accommodation. It is Threshold’s belief that bedsits wouldn’t exist if rent supplement didn’t exist. The Department of Social Protection seems to be the only entity willing to pay for such shoddy accommodation.

Ultimately, the State has a responsibility to house people who cannot afford to house themselves. Threshold believes there is a very real prospect that Ireland will face a housing shortage in the next two years, as demand begins to outstrip supply. Unless the Government acts swiftly to support the most vulnerable people in the private rented sector, the rate of homelessness will increase; standards in rental properties will fall; and thousands more people across the State will be forced to leave their long-term homes in the search for cheaper rent.

The names of the people in this article have been changed.

Bob Jordan is the executive director of Threshold. For further information about Threshold’s work, or advice on any housing issue, go to threshold.ie.

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