Seanad debates

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Commencement Matters

Local Authority Housing Waiting Lists

10:30 am

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Fianna Fail)
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I have raised the issue several times in the past of how Carlow County Council has one of the lowest income thresholds for people seeking inclusion on its housing list. As the Minister of State is aware, unless a person is on a local authority housing list, he or she will not get rent allowance or housing assistance payment, HAP. To qualify for Carlow County Council's housing list, the maximum net income for two adults with one child is €26,875 and €27,500 for two adults with more than one child. In Kildare, the limit is €38,000 for two adults with one child and €39,000 for two adults with more than one child.There is a difference of approximately €11,000 between Kildare and Carlow. The difference between Kilkenny and Carlow is approximately €6,500. Given that ours is the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency, why would people want to apply to Carlow County Council when they can join the housing list in Kilkenny while earning €6,500 more? That is a significant amount. The difference between Wicklow and Carlow and Wexford and Carlow are similar at €11,000 and €6,000, respectively. The only authority that is equivalent to us is Laois. These two authorities have the lowest thresholds.

I will provide some statistics. Recently, I dealt with three or four cases in my clinic. In one, a family had just one working member who was bringing home between €350 and €400 per week, which entitled that family to the family income supplement, FIS. When people qualify for FIS, it means that they are not earning enough and the Government is helping to bring them up to what they should get. However, someone in receipt of FIS does not qualify to get on Carlow County Council's housing list because it puts people over the threshold. Imagine someone with an income of €500 and rent of €250 per week being told that he or she does not qualify for Carlow County Council's housing list due to being over the threshold.

We have a housing crisis, yet people who are trying to work and make ends meet and who qualify for FIS are being told that they do not qualify for a housing list. Do they give up work, get their entitlements and go on the housing list or are we not meant to tell them that they can work and we will help them? By giving them FIS, we are putting them over the threshold for the housing list. I have encountered several such cases recently. It is an awful situation for any family to be in.

I also wish to discuss HAP, which gives rise to a similar issue. Under HAP, a one-time payment for a deposit is allowed, but it comes from the Intreo offices of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. I recently encountered a number of cases in this regard. When someone finds a house and a landlord who will accept HAP, the person is delighted. If a deposit is required, fair enough. If it is a first-time deposit, I will tell the person that he or she is entitled to get a deposit but that it will be needed quickly. If the person instead borrows for the first-time deposit, which many do because a landlord will naturally want that security, he or she will be told that there is no entitlement as a result. Young people and families who have borrowed from families and friends are approaching me. They might only be borrowing the €1,000, which is a great deal, as €200 here or €200 there. I will give them a letter vouching for that. However, when they attend an Intreo office, they are told that they do not qualify for their first-time deposits because of the money they borrowed. This means that they will lose their houses, rendering them homeless.

We have Rebuilding Ireland and the Minister of State is doing his best, but there are many teething problems and the people on the ground are being forgotten. I hope that the Minister of State will address these points and revert to me as soon as possible.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this issue. On 1 April 2011, the social housing assessment regulations introduced a new standard procedure for assessing applicants for social housing in every housing authority. This included the introduction of maximum net income limits for each housing authority in different bands according to the area, with income being defined and assessed according to a standard household means policy.

Before the new system was introduced, there was considerable inconsistency in the approaches taken across local authorities. Some authorities had income limits for social housing, some had none. How income was assessed against limits also varied widely, with different arrangements in place in housing authorities. This meant that applicants for support who were on similar incomes in areas with similar housing costs could be treated differently just because of where they happened to live. This approach was neither efficient nor fair.

The income bands and the authority area assigned to each band, which were introduced in 2011, were based on an assessment of income needed to provide for a household's basic need, plus a comparative analysis of the local rental cost of housing accommodation across the country. The limits also reflect a blanket increase of €5,000 introduced prior to the new system coming into operation in order to broaden the base from which social housing tenants were drawn and thereby promote sustainable communities.

The maximum bands apply to one-adult households and can be adjusted by housing authorities to take account of additional household members. These allowances are 5% for each additional adult household member up to a maximum of 10%, that is, two additional adults, and 2.5% for each additional child up to a maximum of 10%, that is, four children.

There are currently three income bands applicable across the country, with Carlow County Council in band 3, as are 15 of the other 31 local authorities. This reflects the fact that the cost of rental and housing accommodation in the county is relatively lower than higher band counties, such as those in the greater Dublin area. The Senator mentioned Kildare. The threshold for a two-adult and two-child household in County Carlow is €27,500 net income after tax, PRSI and USC, with higher limits applying to larger households up to a maximum of three adults and four children.

Under the household means policy, which applies in all housing authorities, net income for social housing assessment is defined as gross household income less income tax, PRSI and the universal social charge. The policy provides for a range of income disregards and housing authorities have discretion to decide to disregard income that is temporary, short term or one-off in nature.

Given the cost to the State of providing social housing, it is considered prudent and fair to direct resources to those most in need of social housing support. That said, I will confirm to the Senator that, as part of the broader social housing reform agenda, a review of the income eligibility limits for social housing supports has commenced. My Department is working in conjunction with the Housing Agency on this review and I expect the results to be available for publication later this year. We signalled this last year, as we recognised that the limits were set in 2011, since when much had changed. There will be an update on the review shortly, but there will be no change until it has been completed.

Thankfully, the Senator is a fan of HAP. Some people recognise how important it is and that it helps. In most cases, people are able to return to work and increase their incomes thanks to HAP. Previous rental supports did not allow for that or cater for people who wanted to better themselves and earn more money. That is why the scheme exists. That it works well has been recognised. It does not work well for everyone, but it is another option in the set of available actions and supports. I am not claiming that it solves the problem for everyone, but it does for quite a few.

I will raise the Senator's local concerns directly with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Since the start of January, the homeless pathfinder scheme has kicked in in all counties. Where a homeless person applies to a local authority for HAP through the pathfinder scheme, the deposit and the first month's rent will be paid by HAP, which differs from the current system in most counties where social welfare kicks in. If there are doubts in this regard, we will have them clarified. It should not be the case that, if someone manages to find money somewhere else to cover the deposit, he or she loses that entitlement.

As the Taoiseach stated in the Dáil, when it comes to raising money for rent or deposits, people often turn to family members, friends and other mechanisms. That is exactly what the Senator is saying. The Taoiseach recognises that because, like the Senator, he is in touch with people on the ground.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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We have gone well over time, so the Senator must be brief.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State. It is important that Carlow's threshold of €27,500 increase to at least €31,000 or €32,000. People cannot stay within that threshold and they will not qualify for mortgages because they are not earning enough. Since timing is crucial, the Minister of State will revert to me as soon as possible. It must not be left until the end of the year. The report must be completed as quickly as possible. The threshold needs to be changed.