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The other crisis

'It's a perfect storm': Sharp rise in Rent Supplement payments raises concerns over post-Covid crisis

There has been a 15% increase in the number of people receiving Rent Supplement since Covid-19 restrictions began.

IRELAND COULD SEE a huge spike in the number of people evicted from rental accommodation when the current ban on tenancy terminations expires, housing groups have warned.

On Saturday, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy indicated that the government would extend a rent freeze and the temporary ban on evictions introduced in March to protect renters during the Covid-19 crisis.

The two bans currently run until the end of June, and a decision on extending them beyond that date is expected be made by Cabinet following the government’s publication of a roadmap for lifting Covid-19 restrictions last week.

But a significant rise in the number of households receiving the Rent Supplement welfare payment in recent weeks has led to concerns that many will become homeless when the eviction ban is lifted.

It is believed that many of those currently on the support may be accumulating rent arrears debt during the crisis, which they may not be able to pay when the ban ends.

There are also worries that many renters work in low-paid or precarious jobs, with no guarantee their working hours will return to normal, leading to an inability among this cohort of people to meet their monthly rent. 

Figures obtained by Sinn Féin housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin via a Parliamentary Question show that there was a 15% increase in the number of people on the scheme since the government brought in restrictions on work and travel in March.

The figures show there are now approximately 18,200 households in receipt of the welfare payment, an increase of almost 2,500 households since 14 March.

The scheme is a means-tested welfare subsidy for those living in private rented accommodation, who cannot afford to pay their rent because of a substantial change in their circumstances.

It differs from the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP), which is the payment made to those qualified for social housing support and on the local authority’s housing list.

Although HAP is paid to individuals via their local authorities, the Rent Supplement scheme is paid by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection (DEASP).

Additional figures show that 3,778 applications for Rent Supplement were received in the period from 12 March to 18 April. 

It comes as housing charities say they have experienced a significant rise in the number of people contacting them after losing their jobs or being put on reduced hours since the beginning of the government’s restrictions.

Threshold Chief Executive John Mark McCafferty told that the profile of those contacting the charity had noticeably changed since the restrictions were imposed.

He explained that the ban on evictions meant that the charity has seen a notable drop in the number of people contacting Threshold because their tenancy has been terminated.

“What we’re seeing instead is people calling us who have never come to us before, who’ve never had any problems in the rental sector because they’d always been working,” he said.

“There’s been a significant drop in income for people, with the context of rents having been historically very high and quite unaffordable for a large portion of the population.

“It’s a perfect storm for the risk of rent arrears, which leads to a risk of a rise in the number of tenancy terminations whenever the emergency rental measures expire.”

Change to eligibility criteria

McCafferty also explained that many of those who have contacted the charity after being laid off are young, single, and working in the hospitality and service industries.

“A lot of them will be in house shares, where for example they’re renting a property with other people, and the lease was signed on the understanding that there were four people in the house paying €2,000 a month between them,” he said.

“In the last six weeks, people in these houses have left to go and mind an older family member who’s cocooning or who’s had to self-isolate at home, so that there are maybe only two of four people left to pay the full €2,000 rent on their own.”

However, despite the 15% rise in the number of households in receipt of Rent Supplement, the government has been criticised for not advertising the scheme more widely. understands that a circular issued to social welfare offices in March gives welfare officers more discretion in allowing individuals to receive the payment.

Under previous rules, only those who lived in private rented accommodation for six of the previous 12 months could avail of Rent Supplement.

However, it’s understood that the circular allows those with shorter tenancies, who can prove a loss of income related to the pandemic, to receive the payment at the discretion of local officers.

The application form for the payment has also been shortened in recent weeks.

No eligibility changes have been advertised on the DEASP’s website or social media channels, nor were they issued in a press release to the media.

Asked to comment, a DEASP spokesperson said that internal circulars are used as guides to provide clarity to welfare officers and are not intended for publication.

Keeping cost down

Ó Broin previously suggested that the changes to the scheme had not been advertised as a deliberate attempt to keep the number of Rent Supplement claims and cost of the benefit to the department down.

He called on the DEASP to publish the guidance issued to social welfare offices so that renters know if they are entitled to the payment.

“The Covid-19 rent supplement payment is a vital support to renters who have lost their jobs,” he said.

“I don’t understand why the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection are not doing more to promote it.”

A spokesman for the department said that anyone whose income has been adversely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and who requires financial support to meet their rent can apply for Rent Supplement and should contact their local social welfare office.

Along with Threshold, Focus Ireland called on Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party to commit to retaining the ban on evictions and rent freeze in the new programme for government.

“The last month has demonstrated these measures huge potential to address the homeless crisis,” the charity’s Advocacy Manager Roughan Mac Namara said.

“What we need to do now is to help more people who are homeless to make the most of these short-term opportunities and make a lasting move out of homelessness.”

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