What HAPpens Next Ireland?

If the situation arises where financial aid is required to afford somewhere to live, there are schemes put in place to assist. The HAP scheme is there to help, or at least, it’s supposed to be. The HAP scheme is majorly flawed, and is skewing the market for everyone, not only the HAP tenants. The lack of sufficient social housing has thrown a considerable number of social housing candidates into the deep end of the private rental sector. It’s time to talk about that. 

There’s no place like home

The first struggle met having been awarded the HAP (Housing Assistance Payment) is finding a rental property that accepts the payment. In the early days of its existence, landlords reserved the right to refuse tenancy due to the applicant being in receipt of the HAP. 

However as of January 1st, 2016, it became illegal for a landlord to refuse a tenancy on HAP grounds. If you get Rent Supplement, HAP, or any other type of social assistance benefit, you cannot be discriminated against when renting due to what is referred to as the “housing assistance” basis. This implies that landlords can no longer state that the Rent Supplement (or HAP) is not accepted when advertising housing, and they can no longer refuse to rent to a person because you receive a social welfare payment under the Equal Status Acts.

This was a move in the right direction in terms of equality for renters although securing a property to rent remains an issue even still. The private rental market has been saturated with HAP applicants and non-HAP recipients alike. Images of dozens of people queuing to see rental properties have swamped online media outlets, illustrating the intensity of the demand for housing in the capital. 

The hunt for a place to live can take weeks, and potential renters will grasp at any chance to be approved. However, when one person is among a mob of 30 or more lining up around the block, the experience can feel quite defeating. The battle to find a rental property can also leave room for sub-optimal properties with low standards to be accepted as last resorts which can then lead to much more serious problems. 

Photo by Simon Hurry on Unsplash

Condition concerns 

Local authorities are required to undertake inspections within eight months of the commencement of the lease.  If the property has already been examined within 12 months prior, the council is not required to repeat this process. An article from the Irish Times reported that most Hap properties fail to meet the statutory criteria on the first inspection. The failing criteria is usually because of minor infractions, such as not having smoke alarms or fire blankets, issues that are easily rectified and generally are quite fast.

If a property fails to fulfill the local authority’s standards, it may be issued improvement notices, and payments may be suspended pending the property’s improvement. This only happens in rare instances, however if the property is no longer viable for a tenant to live in, the tenant is responsible for finding alternative suitable housing. The circle of viewing properties begins again. 

During the pandemic, the number of inspections of rental housing dropped by about half. As a result, local authorities are experimenting with “virtual inspections,” in which video confirmation of compliance with requirements is required.

The extent to which existing minimal criteria are maintained is unknown. The reason for this is because private rental houses are not subject to mandatory inspections. Inspections carried out by local authorities are mostly requested inspections. In addition, the overall rental stock receives very few inspections. As a result, the inspections reveal a significant level of non-compliance with requirements.  They also do not differentiate between severe non-compliance and mild non-compliance.

“If you are a local authority and you’re only inspecting 5% of the local stock and if that’s on request of the foot of a tenant complaint for example, that’s only going to capture things that are a problem.”  

Deputy Eoin Ó’Broin, Sinn Feín TD for Dublin SW, believes that the solution to this problem is a 100% mandatory inspection of all private rental properties over the course of 4 years.

We need mandatory inspections of all private rental Properties once every five years. That idea would be, every year 25% of all private rental tenancies are inspected, all of them. That means by year four it’s 100% inspection. “ 

If your property is compliant as a landlord, you will get a cert, we call it an NCT style certification for minimum standards, which has to be displayed on the inside of the front door of the rental property, A little bit like your BER energy rating cert. So, if when inspecting a property, you can see if the landlord is compliant and if they are not, you can report them to the RTB.

The proposal of an NCT style cert for rental properties was addressed and accepted well during an Oireachtas debate of the joint committee on housing, development and local government in July 2018.

“We talked about the NCT,” Fianna Fail Deputy Jennifer Murnane O’Connor remarked. It’s most probably a matter of wording. There needs to be a proper NCT for private rentals. ” 

“The NCT is one of the best systems we have and it makes a lot of sense,” Senator Victor Boyhan said in response to the issue. It’s fairly straightforward.”

Photo by Michal Balog on Unsplash

Fear and loathing

The Residential Tenancies Board oversees resolving disputes between landlords and tenants in Ireland. Prior to the RTB, a tenant who had a problem with their landlord would have to go to court to resolve the matter. The tenant would be liable for the financial burden of hiring a solicitor, as well as the court fees if the tenant lost the case. In this respect, Ireland is quite lucky. There is no cost attached to the RTB, they are judicial-free arbitrators that find in favor of the tenants in over half of the cases that come across their desk.

The RTB, however, can only do as much as government legislation allows them. It is possible to get around the legislation with exceptions. 

There is very strong protection of your security of tenure in theory in the residential tenancies act.” Eoin Ó’Broin says “You sign your lease agreement and after six months you should have five years guaranteed interruption free tenancy. It’s called a part for tenancy, it’s enshrined in law. That’s a strong protection. The problem is there are a bunch of exceptions in the legislation.

With these exceptions, a landlord can issue you with a notice to vacate for any number of reasons, whether it be selling up, property needed for own or family use or to carry out significant renovations in the property, they are well within their rights. The problem is that there is nothing that requires the landlord to prove that any of this has occurred, and by the time this is made clear to the now ex-tenant, it’s too little too late. There are no penalties for these actions. 

 “A landlord should not be able to evict you because they are selling their property. If a landlord is selling their property, they should sell the property as a rental unit with the tenancy attached. The only grounds on which the landlord should be able to evict you is if you are willfully non-compliant, if you are damaging the property or are engaging in antisocial behavior. For all these reasons you should have an indefinite tenancy. We have a good principle but too many get out clauses.”

Landlords aren’t thrilled about the concept of selling a property with a tenancy attached being incorporated into legislation.  “I don’t have a problem with improving tenure for tenants; though I draw the line at preventing the sale of your own property.”  The general consensus among landlords appears to be that if you’re considering selling, now is the time to do it.

The fear of the knock on the door is crippling for many tenants. Antisocial behavior or falling into arrears is not the only grounds for eviction anymore. Tenants sometimes fear speaking up about issues within the rental property for fear of being served with a notice to quit. The power imbalance between landlords and tenants is staggering, the legislation needs to be amended to remove the “get out” clauses to regain equality within the renting relationship. 

“Landlords don’t have to prove that their property is sold” says Lord Mayor Alison Gilliland, “You can only prove that as a tenant and find that it’s not sold, it’s back up for rent at which point the landlord can claim well I couldn’t get it sold, so there’s an anomaly there.”

Photo by Ev on Unsplash

Homeless is good?

Homelessness is the symptom of a larger problem, not a crisis in and of itself. The issue is that homelessness is often imposed upon us due to the lack of housing and the weakness of housing support. In relation to the HAP, homelessness, a drastic and traumatic situation for anyone to find themselves in, is sometimes used as a method to achieve sufficient assistance and to get a leg up in the rental market. 

Homeless HAP offers up to an additional 50% of the rates awarded to recipients of the regular HAP. This makes Homeless HAP more appealing to landlords as it meets higher rent prices and is more reliable. Homeless hap drives up rents which affects those on regular HAP and those who aren’t receiving any assistance at all but are also trying to survive in the private rental market. 

Lord Mayor of Dublin, Allison Gilliland believes that HAP rates should not be based on the circumstances of the individual but should be based on the unit for rent. We spoke about the effect on homelessness through HAP. 

“We are finding that people can find themselves homeless as a result of losing a tenancy in a private rental sector.” 

Lord Mayor Gilliland is also advocating for reform within the HAP system and has put forward suggestions to the Taoiseach and Minister for Housing that would circumvent the action of going homeless to access a higher rate of HAP. 

“One of the things that homeless HAP offers is you get a higher rate, and that is the one thing I would advocate for, that people who are offered HAP are also offered the deposit. They get back at the end of that tenancy and then they can use it again for another tenancy if needed or return it to the council.” 

Eoin Ó’Broin references the idea of a deposit retention scheme. When beginning a new tenancy, the deposit would not go to the landlord, rather, it would go to the RTB, who would hold it until the end of the tenancy. When the tenancy has ended, both parties would make a case to the RTB as to who gets the deposit back. This method is fair and impartial and is an easy solution to the wrongful withholding of deposits.

Solutions

Upon commencement of a HAP tenancy, the tenant is removed from the local housing list and placed on the transfer list. This happens because in the eyes of the state recipients are now technically homed and are no longer in need of housing. Renting doesn’t suit everyone, and at the end of the day all that is asked is that everyone has a place to call home. Somewhere secure, where the risk of being served a notice to quit is extremely low. A place that can be decorated and made comfortable to raise families, if not for a family, a place to retreat to when a cup of tea and a night on the sofa is sorely needed. 

Ireland needs more social housing. How much higher must the market rise before the government intervenes? The private rental sector cannot meet everyone’s housing demands. 

Written ByJulieanne Doyle 

Thank you to all my contributors, Go Raibh Milé Maith Agaibh Go Léir. 

Follow Lord Mayor Alison Giliand – Here

Follow Eoin Ó’Broin – Here

lNote Why not listen to the podcast PursuitofHAPpiness, which is also part of this series on the HAP Scheme in Ireland.

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