Demand for social housing reaches record high in Offaly

Thursday, 11 January 2018

THE DEMAND for social housing has reached a record high in Offaly with the number of applicants on the Housing List increasing month on month during 2017.
The January meeting of Birr Municipal District was told by Mary Flynn of the Housing section of Offaly County Council that in January 2017 the number of people awaiting social housing support was 1,476. By the end of December this had risen to 1,701 people. 
She pointed out that in tandem with this the number of people on the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) scheme rose dramatically, from 18 in January to 428 in December.
HAP is a replacement for long-term Rent Supplement and is available nationwide. Under HAP, local authorities can provide housing assistance to households with a long-term housing need. HAP tenants find their own accommodation in the private rented market. When the landlord agrees to rent their property to the HAP tenant the local authority makes a monthly payment to the landlord. The HAP tenant pays a rent contribution to the local authority. There is little doubt that if there was no HAP system in place then the current crisis of the lack of social and affordable housing would deteriorate to the level of a catastrophe.
Ms Flynn said there were 143 homeless presentations to the County Council during 2017. "The actual figure of homeless people is probably higher," she remarked, "because many people are couchsurfing and are not presenting to us."
 She added that the number of complaints about anti-social behaviour decreased over the year from 12 in January to one in December. There were 67 complaints in total during the year.
 Cllr Peter Ormond, Chairman of Birr Municipal District, said the facts speak for themselves and the figures make for unpleasant reading.
Cllr John Carroll said the Housing List is "very disappointing. I don't know how we are going to overcome this problem. Another problem is that some tenants are living in very poor conditions. Can we do more inspections and can we put pressure on landlords to provide better homes and apartments? Some of the properties being offered to tenants are not fit for habitation. They can be cold and rundown. 
"The housing problem is a huge headache for us because we are constantly being called and approached about it but it is very difficult for the staff in the Council's housing section because they are in the frontline.
"Local authorities built houses in the '40s, '50s and '60s. Now we are leaving their construction to approved housing associations. It is not working. It worked when the local authorities were overseeing it and it should go back to them. There are 80 or 90 housing associations in the country. It is crazy."
Cllr John Leahy commented that the Mid Offaly Housing Association received the good news recently that they had been given Planning Permission to construct four houses in Mountbolus. "This will make a huge difference to Mountbolus," he said. "The village lost its Post Office and it lost a shop. It needs this good news boost." He said the four houses will cost €800,000 and will be constructed this year.
Cllr Leahy criticised the HAP scheme, pointing out that its private nature was making it difficult to operate. "I always felt that HAP would not be sustainable in the long-term. Every second phone call we councillors are receiving from the public is in relation to HAP and the fact that one of the landlords has decided to sell his house."
He agreed with Cllr Carroll about the poor condition of some HAP houses and also asked what power the Council has over landlords to improve their properties.
 Cllr Leahy said Conor Skehan, the Chair of the Government's Housing Agency, was criticised recently when he declared that families in emergency housing might be "gaming the system" and they might be "declaring themselves homeless to jump up the waiting list."
"We unwittingly created a problem," said Mr Skehan, "by prioritising self-declared homelessness above all other types of housing need, which created a distortion in the waiting list system and may have encouraged people to game the system."
Cllr Leahy said the situation is more complicated than some people think, and some of Mr Skehan's comments were astute and had the ring of truth. He pointed out that it is wrong to ignore the truth because we deem it to be unpalatable.
He praised the Offaly County Council Housing Department for their incredible hard work regarding homelessness. "As a result of their hard work there is no one in the county sleeping rough. There is no one in sleeping bags or in doorways. By working with B&Bs, hotels and the Simon Community people have been given a warm, safe place to sleep and live. 
"However, much of our focus is on social housing. We need to focus much more on providing affordable housing for the working poor. There is no one gaming the system when they are working. The price of houses and the rents are going up and up making it very difficult or impossible for the working poor. It is very disappointing that the government hasn't got to grips with this problem of providing affordable housing.
"A year ago we were promised by the Minister that the Mortgage to Rent Scheme would be reformed. Is there any update on that?" (The Mortgage to Rent scheme is a government initiative to help homeowners who are at risk of losing their home.)
Cllr Eamon Dooley agreed with Cllr Carroll. "I know of one elderly lady who is living a very cold house. It is a totally unacceptable situation."
"The fact that the housing list figure is constantly going up month after month shows that there is a big problem out there," commented Cllr Seán Maher. "The rents in our District are also rising. In Birr now the average rent is €800 a month. The result is that people are not able to afford rental accommodation. We are leaving a cohort of people behind. 85 per cent of people in Birr Municipal District are earning €30,000 and below. We need to look after this huge number of people and provide affordable housing."
 Cllr John Clendennen pointed out that in Dublin the Gresham Hotel announced that it won't accommodate homeless people anymore. "Are we in danger in Offaly of losing an accommodation provider for the homeless?"
  Regarding the 67 anti-social behaviour complaints he asked what is the enforcement and what are the consequences for the offenders. "The issue has been pointed out to me on a number of occasions in recent months. It's being claimed that some of these anti-social incidents aren't being dealt with in an appropriate manner by the Council.
  "Regarding the high housing list we need to change our focus and look more at bringing vacant and derelict buildings on stream."
  Cllr Ormond commented that there are a lot of derelict and empty buildings throughout the county. "We need to get this turned around quickly and get them filled quickly. It is very difficult for the Council to buy a house. The vacant and derelict premises may go some way towards dealing with the housing list problem. We have to think outside the box. We should talk to the government about this derelict premises idea.
  "HAP is the only show in town at the moment. It is working not too badly. One of the missing pieces in the jigsaw is the fact that some of the houses are in a poor condition. Because they can't get anywhere else people are having to settle for substandard accommodation.
  "The rents are too high. In Birr and Shinrone it is €850 to rent a three bedroom house.
  "In reality if we are ever to get the housing list significantly down we need to start building social houses."
  Ms Flynn said the Council will increase its HAP premises inspections in 2018. "We will have to and if the landlord refuses to carry out the improvement works then we will issue a Prohibition Notice which means it will go to court."
  She said the HAP income band for applicants is currently €25,000. It is proposed to raise this income band during 2018.


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