Gary Brandon has two emails and a text from different letting agents and landlords who either turned him down for a rental property, or make it clear he wouldn’t be eligible.
That’s because he and his partner, Carl, are signed up to the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) scheme, he says.
Despite changes that came into effect on 1 January of this year, which mean that landlords aren’t allowed to discriminate against those who rely on any kind of housing assistance payment, some still give it as a reason for refusal.
“When we get blatant answers like that back, it’s kind of just, it really puts you down. It’s so disheartening and you feel there’s nothing you can actually do,” said Brandon.
No, No, No
Brandon and his partner have been looking for a new flat for about a month and a half, he said. They have to leave their current place after they, and others in their building, got notices-to-quit.
The couple registered on the emergency housing list and signed up for the HAP scheme, without which they would be unable to cover their rent, he said.
But nobody seems to want to offer them a place. They have a pile of good references, he said: from his partner’s job, councillors, TDs and local people around who he has worked with.
Since the rules changed in January, it is rare to find listings on Daft.ie or other sites that state explicitly that a landlord won’t accept tenants on rent supplement or HAP.
Property websites do seem to have cracked down on that since the legislation came in, says Mick Byrne from the Dublin Tenants Association. “It’s a good step in terms of changing the culture in that being acceptable, but it doesn’t prevent landlords from discriminating at all.”
Brandon said they during their home search, they’ve had a few rejections that have mentioned the housing assistance that they will rely on.
On 6 June, they got a response from one landlord to an application. “I have read through all the information you sent but I have decided against the HAP scheme,” wrote Siobhan Foley in the email.
Foley told me that she had been under the impression that once she signed up to the HAP scheme, she would be locked into it for several years. Later, she learnt that wasn’t true, she said, but she rented the property to a single guy instead, because she felt that would mean less wear and tear.
On 14 June came another response, this one from Flynn Associates: “Unfortunately the Landlord of this property has no interest in participating in the HAP scheme at this time,” read that email.
David Quirke from Flynn Associates said in an email that the landlord had wanted tenants for a maximum of 12 months, and in the end they hadn’t placed anybody in the property.
On 7 July, the couple got a text alert about a viewing arranged by CityHomes.ie. “No rent allowance or HAP accepted sorry,” said the text, signed by “Stephen”.
“Apologies for this,” said Stephen O’Grady from CityHomes.ie in an email to me. He said that the text messages had been sent by somebody in reception, and he has spoken to them.
“So it will not happen again,” he said. “I am aware of the legislation and have discussed the importance that these rules are adhered to.”
Brandon said that they have forwarded on replies they get to a variety of government and non-governmental agencies. “I don’t think there’s anything they can realistically do,” he said.
It’s too early to say how the system of complaints is working.
At the moment, despite protestations about a lack of resources earlier in the year, complaints are dealt with by the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC).
“This can be confusing as people associate this with employment disputes and not accommodation issues,” said Stephen Large, the Dublin services manager of Threshold. And the process isn’t exactly simple.
If a person feels they have been discriminated against, they have to write to the person they are complaining about within two months of the incident and tell them that they’re going to file a complaint. The other party can then respond.
“Specific forms are available to do this,” said Large.
If the tenant is still unhappy, then they can fill out another form and file it with the WRC within six months of the discrimination, he said. The WRC can order compensation of up to €15,000.
It’s all still new, said Large. “But our experience previously is that, whilst welcome, victims of discrimination are focused upon finding accommodation and very few will then follow up after the fact to take a case which could take a number of months to resolve.”
Byrne of the Dublin Tenants Association says he thinks tenants need to make sure that they take cases when they think, or know, they have faced discrimination, rather than just taking to social media and leaving it at that.
“What I’ve been saying to people when it comes up on Facebook groups and stuff, is that if you have the experience you have to take the case,” he said.
At the moment, the WRC aims to issue decisions within five months of a complaint, said a spokesperson for the commission.
Brandon thinks that the process should be faster. “There needs to be an immediate process where they can be investigated or fined,” he said.
Can We Make It Better?
Brandon and his partner were supposed to have moved out of their flat on 1 July, he said. But, unable to find somewhere to move on to, they’re still there, paying the landlord the rent to make it clear that they’re not trying to freeload.
“So we’re just sitting here, waiting to be kicked out,” he said.
During their search, Brandon has tried to approach landlords in all kinds of different ways, he said. They’ve hidden that they rely on housing assistance until the last minute. But then that deal fell through.
They’ve laid out their situation in the application and tried to do a hard-sell on the advantages of HAP: it’s paid direct from the council to the landlord’s bank account; landlords get 100 percent tax relief on the mortgage interest.
“There are incentives there,” he said. “When it comes down to it, it’s just basically because we receive a rent supplement, we feel.”
Large, of Threshold, said there are a few reasons why tenants who rely on rent supplement and HAP will continue to be at a disadvantage: the rates might still be below market rent, the scheme is seen as bureaucratic, landlords don’t want to prove they are up to date on taxes, or they have had bad experiences in the past.
There are some further changes to the system that Large would like to see, which might make it easier for Brandon and those like him to find accommodation.
“Whilst the [rent supplement] increases are welcome, ultimately we would like to see a level playing field where the support given enables an individual [or] household to access market rent and that the source of the rent is not known,” said Large.
They’d like to see a system, too, where it’s not just up to vulnerable households to take cases, but bodies such as the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the Residential Tenancies Board, or Threshold itself could also pursue breaches, he said.