Clare McLaughlin joined the Dublin City Council housing list when her eldest son was one year old.
Her son, now 27 years old, has moved out of their family home, but McLaughlin remains on the housing list with her younger son, she says.
When her two sons were young, McLaughlin, a single mum, was living in a rented house and receiving rent allowance, so she was on the council list, but the house was old, run-down and had no heating upstairs, she says.
She was worried about increasing rents in her private rented accommodation, pricing her out of the property.
Back then, people advised her that in order to get a house she should go to the council offices regularly to stress the desperation of her situation and put pressure on them, she says.
“This idea that we are supposed to play some game with the council, we are supposed to go in every day and prove that we really want it,” she says.
Are we supposed to beg, to get on our knees, she says by phone on Monday.
“What is the point of a waiting list then?”
Recent figures, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) show that some people have been on the housing list for more than 20 years. Some councillors would like to see independent scrutiny of the allocation of social housing, while others say the system is complex but not corrupt and that there are often legitimate reasons why people, who appear to skip the queue, are entitled to the house.
According to Dublin City Council records released under FOI, McLaughlin is one of just 20 households who has been on the housing list for more than 20 years.
Dublin City Council housed 517 households last year, most of whom had been waiting for a home since the mid-2000s, according to the documents.
The average waiting time was more than 12 years and one of the households had been on the list since 1996.
All those who have been on the list for more than 20 years and the applicant who joined the list in 1996 had turned down previous offers of accommodation, according to the council records.
But there are instances of other people who have been on the list for more than 15 years who have never received an offer.
A small number of households were also housed very quickly. Seven households joined the list in 2019 and were housed in the same year.
“The Dogs on the Street Knew”
Back in 2009 and 2010 Independent Councillor Mannix Flynn raised concerns that social housing in Dublin was not being allocated fairly.
“It seems to me that most of this was coming from … politicians, who were then convincing allocations staff to allocate houses to people, that they weren’t really entitled to,” he says.
“The dogs on the street knew that was how it was done,” he says.
Independent Councillor Cieran Perry says that Mannix Flynn did uncover evidence of the corruption of the social housing list. “100 percent,” he says. “It was crystal clear there were misallocations.”
It was a small sample but the wrongdoing was blatant, he says.
Flynn says his revelations resulted in an internal investigation but Dublin City Council didn’t answer questions about this in time for publication.
Flynn says things have improved since then but his constituents are still unhappy with the lack of transparency in how the housing list is administered, he says. “There is widespread disquiet out there.”
He would like to see independent audits of the housing allocations system conducted every few years. “That somebody who is totally independent comes in and sweeps the whole system,” he says.
Perry says that approved housing bodies (AHBs) are “cherry picking”, the tenants they want and that this may be contributing to widespread confusion about how the housing list is supposed to work.
AHBs allocate most of their housing to people on the social housing list, but they often hold interviews among people who are high up on the list, rather than offering the home to the next household on the list, says Perry.
“Nearly everyone who is onto me says that someone else has jumped the queue,” he says.
He has looked into five cases in recent years after his constituents in Cabra approached him saying there was a misallocation. “In each case, I’ve checked to see and I’ve never found any discrepancy,” says Perry.
Independent Councillor Noeleen Reilly says the situation is similar in Ballymun. She is certain there is no corruption, she says, but almost everyone thinks there is.
“There is no one in the housing office in allocations prioritising one person over the other,” she says. “You would hear and you would know, people are watching it too much.”
Allocations are exclusively done according to the person’s position on the list, she says, which is the only fair way.
Still, Reilly says she is regularly approached by people who think that she can get them housed, she says. “I don’t have any control over allocations. People think that councillors have a load of keys in their back pockets.”
“I think that used to be the system years ago,” before she joined the council, she says.
21 Years Later
At one point, after being on the housing list for many years, McLaughlin said she discovered that she had no housing points, she says.
(The old system was a points-based system where applicants accrued points for time on the list as well other reasons, she says.)
She says she was removed from the list for having an excess bedroom in a privately rented property.
She had moved into a three-bedroom house sharing with another household, a friend who was a single mum with one child, she says. The friend eventually moved out and so McLaughlin ended up with an excess bedroom, she says.
Dublin City Council told her that she was not entitled to any housing points because she had too many bedrooms, she says.
Sinn Féin TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh successfully advocated for her to get her back the points she had accrued for the years she had been waiting, she says.
Reilly, the independent councillor, says that lots of people get removed from the list when they shouldn’t. Most people who think they have been on the list for 20 years have actually been removed from it, she says.
It is fairly easy to be struck off the list and lose all the precious years you have accumulated, she says.
“You have to fill in the housing needs assessment form every three years and people don’t fill that in,” she says. The last time it was examined there were thousands of families in Dublin city who didn’t return the form, she says.
“Hundreds” of people have come to her in that situation, she says. They had lost all their time on the list due to not returning that form. Only on one occasion was she successful in getting the person back on, she says.
Households that were receiving rent allowance were especially vulnerable, she says.
If they moved house and then updated their address with social welfare (which administered the rent allowance scheme) often they thought that meant that the council was updated too, she says.
Then the council was writing out to the person at the wrong address and removed the household from the list.
“That system in itself is wrong,” says Reilly. “It is artificially cutting the numbers but all those people still have a housing need.”
Perry says he thinks the council makes more of an effort to contact people in recent years, he also thinks that system should be changed.
How Does the List Work?
The Scheme of Lettings outlines the way in which the housing list works; the list is divided up into three bands.
Band A is for people with a priority. That includes care leavers, Travellers and those who have been assessed as having medical priority and welfare priority, as well as emergency cases including people whose current accommodation is unfit or dangerous.
In May 2018 the scheme of lettings was altered and homeless priority was removed.
Band A still includes those homeless households who joined the list before that change was introduced.
Band B is for people who are overcrowded in their current accommodation and those who had welfare or medical priority points under the old system but don’t qualify as priority cases within the new system.
Band C is all other households.
Housing is allocated to people in Band A according to the date they got the priority but to those in Band B and C according to the date they joined the housing list.
Band A is broken down into several lists, says Reilly, so there isn’t one “priority” list and this also leads to confusion.
Once you are on those lists though, you are up against much fewer people and so the time you will have to wait is reduced.
Medical priority can also cause confusion, says Reilly. Lots of people have illnesses so they think they should be entitled to be on that list, but in her experience it is granted in really extreme cases.
People get frustrated when they apply and don’t get it and they think that is unfair, she says, but if the council opened that list up to all illnesses then the medical priority list would soon be nearly as long as the regular list, she says.
According to the scheme of lettings, exceptional medical priority is only granted if the applicant’s current accommodation is unsuitable because of the medical condition.
The only area where the council exercises discretion, says Perry, is when it comes to allocating a house between those on top of their respective lists.
“They try and allocate evenly across the list, so if you had six houses each of the lists would get a house,” he says. “If there was only one house they would look at the circumstances and make a decision based on that.”
Sometimes complaints of unfair allocations result from a misunderstanding of how the lists work, he says.
For example, a family with several children needs a three-bed property, but there are very few three-bed properties in some areas, so a smaller family, who can live in a two-bed, will be housed first, he says.
Then the larger family may complain that they were on the list for longer, he says.
Likewise, people often don’t know that another family has been homeless so it looks like that family has skipped the queue, he says.
To add to the complexity, the council occasionally advertises properties that anyone on the housing list can apply for, regardless of their position.
This allows some people to get housing very fast and may account for those seven people who were housed in the year they applied.
After being removed from the list and being reinstated the years continued to slip by without an offer of a permanent home, says McLaughlin.
She had been on the housing list for around 21 years when she received her first offer, she says, but that wasn’t in an area she had chosen.
According to McLaughlin, she went along to the viewing in Ballyfermot but the council staff member never showed up. Yet even though she never got to see the property the council counted that as her having received an offer, she says.
McLaughlin says she was then instructed that she had to accept the next offer she got or she would stop accruing points on the housing list, she says.
But the next offer wasn’t a permanent social home, it was a privately owned property rented by Dublin City Council through the Rental Accommodation Scheme(RAS).
Soon after she had accepted the offer, her landlord told her she would be evicted in a year, once his contract with Dublin City Council was up because he intended to sell the property, she says.
The landlord issued notice and McLaughlin is still living there though currently overholding, she says. Now she is praying that Dublin City Council might purchase the house from him, she says.
Finally, after around 25 years on the list, she started to get offers from the council for permanent homes in her chosen areas, she says. “I’m only getting offers because I’m getting eviction notices.”
That also indicates to her that the housing list doesn’t operate as a straight-up waiting list, she says.
It could be that she is now classed as an emergency case since she is being evicted but Dublin City Council didn’t provide a spokesperson to answer questions about the operation of the housing list.