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The myth of the free council house: 'We're not just handing them over, that would be crazy'

Dublin City Council tenants paid a total of €78.3 million in rent last year.

Image: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

LAST YEAR, SOCIAL housing tenants paid almost €351 million to local authorities in rent.

According to Mary Hayes, administrative officer for Dublin City Council housing allocations, getting a local authority home is “not as easy as people think”. 

And she said no one is simply handed a ‘free house’.

There is a strict set of criteria that must be met before a person can get on the (often years-long) waiting list in their area. 

“It’s not a process of handing over houses for nothing. That would be crazy, particularly in the context of Dublin housing,” Hayes said.

So, how does a person qualify for social housing?

In order to be eligible for social housing, a person must be able to demonstrate a genuine need.

If a person owns their own home, they are not eligible. A young person living with their parents also would not be considered but, for example, if they have children and are sharing their parents’ home with other siblings and their children, then they would be eligible.

There are exemptions when it comes to owning property if a couple is separated or divorced and the home cannot be sold because it is the children’s family home, or if a person is at risk of homelessness.

When it comes to income bands, they differ depending on the local authority. In Dublin, the net income threshold for a single person is €35,000 and the maximum threshold for a family of three adults and four children is €42,000.

In Co Cork, the single person income threshold is a net €30,000 and for a three-adult and four-child family it is €36,000.

In counties like Carlow, Monaghan and Westmeath, the single person threshold is a net income of €25,000 and for a three person and four child family it is €30,000.

How much rent are people paying?

Again, this amount can differ depending on both income and location in the country.

For Dublin City Council residents, rent is calculated as 15% of the principal earner’s weekly income which exceeds €32 if it’s a single person and €64 if it’s a couple.

After the principal earner is taken into account, it’s another 15% of the income of each subsidiary earner on top of that. Assessable income includes payment for employment or self-employment, any social welfare payments, training allowances and income from pensions.

Shift allowances, travel allowances, bonuses, commission and overtime are all included.

Child benefit, fuel allowance, scholarships and charity assistance are not included so rent cannot be based on those.

Last year, there were 24,000 Dublin City Council tenants paying more than €78 million in rent. On average, tenants paid €272 per month.

Tenants of Wexford County Council are charged €30 on income up to €171 and an extra €0.24 for every additional €1 after that. 

In Co Cork, tenants are charged €15 a week on earnings up to €140 and then 20% of all additional assessable income on top of that, plus a further 3% of that total calculated rent.

So, for example, two adults on social welfare payments with two dependent children would pay €238 rent per month in Cork county.

Click here to check the total rent paid in your local authority in 2017.

What about people who don’t pay their rent?

All social housing tenants are expected to pay some level of rent. There are, as in the private sector, tenants who do not pay and who build up arrears. The total arrears countrywide at the end of last year was €73.6 million. 

But that figure has to be viewed in context, as arrears are carried over from one year to the next. At the end of 2017, Dublin City Council’s arrears figure was €23.4 million but it had started 2017 with incoming arrears of €22.5 million. 

Some councils have much lower arrears than the average – in Westmeath for example, there was a 97% rent collection rate in 2017. The council finished the year with €6.2 million in rent collected and €201,000 arrears. 

Mary Hayes of Dublin City Council said rent arrears are an issue for local authorities but she said there are consequences for tenants. 

“We don’t do maintenance and repair – unless it’s absolutely essential – if they have arrears… they can’t transfer unless there is an urgent medical need. So they are restricted from a lot of options if they have arrears.

We are pursuing people so there are risks of homelessness attached to failure to pay rent. 

She said the council is trying to move as quickly as possible through the waiting list but she recognises some people have been waiting a long time.

“There were people who had been waiting 10 years on the list and they were just on the point of being knocked off because their income was creeping up, so we did have to balance things out and pay more attention to the general housing waiting list.”

Earlier this year the council made the decision to stop prioritising homeless people on the waiting list. Instead they are being encouraged to take up the Housing Assistance Payment.

Now Hayes said the local authority goes through the list in order, so people who have been waiting the longest are taken care of. 

“We are trying to meet all the needs with a certain amount of stock.”

She said people can underestimate the importance of stable housing in people’s lives and how it can have a knock-on effect.

“Housing is critical and when it comes to homelessness I am a true believer in the housing first strategy. We are pouring money down the drain with health and addiction services if we don’t have stable housing. It is always money well spent.”

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