Speaking by phone last Friday with her children playing in the background, Sarah Stephens recalled the time in 2014 when she discovered she had been removed from the Dublin City Council housing list.
She joined the Dublin City Council housing list in 2007, because she wanted to be near her sister who lived on Pearse Street, she says.
But after giving birth to a stillborn baby in 2013, she began to struggle with her mental health and was desperate to move back to Dublin to be closer to family and friends, she says.
So in April 2014, she rang Dublin City Council to find out what was happening with her housing application.
She found that Dublin City Council had removed her and her family from it. “They said they sent me a letter that I never returned,” she says.
She was shocked, she says, and explained to council staff that she couldn’t remember receiving a letter, due to the depression surrounding losing her child. “They didn’t care about the circumstances,” she says. “I was 39-weeks pregnant — it was a full-term baby.”
“I tried to fight it but they said it was pointless trying to fight it or appeal it because you will get nowhere,” she says.
She didn’t have parental support and had been discharged from state care without any follow-up support so she didn’t know how to advocate for herself, she says.
“If someone had told me, ‘here throw your hands in the flame to get house’, I’d have done it,” she says.
Since 2016, councils have been writing out to all those on the housing list every year to check if they are still eligible for and in need of social housing, says a spokesperson for Dublin City Council.
If the applicant doesn’t respond to those letters and fill in a Housing Needs Assessment form, they are removed from the housing list. Last year Dublin City Council removed more households in this way than it housed.
Some say that this system is unfair and is falsely reducing the numbers on the social housing list.
A Dublin City Council spokesperson says that the council now writes to applicants three times when carrying out the assessment and makes every effort to contact them. And that vulnerable applications can get back on the list if they show evidence of a range of issues that may have affected them.
Stephens was renting in Arklow in 2007 when she applied to the housing list, receiving rent allowance until the landlord decided to sell the house, she says.
After that she moved to various rented properties, mostly outside of Dublin where there was a better chance of rent subsidies meeting the cost of rent, she says.
“My kids have been in three primary schools and ten different properties over the years,” she says.
Because the family is always moving around the children can’t make friends, she says.
Four years ago, after she found out that she was removed from the Dublin City Council housing list she joined the Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown Council housing list, she says.
Then in 2017, she was evicted from a rented property in Carlow and couldn’t find anywhere else to live so the family ended up in emergency accommodation.
She says that council staff advised her she had to accept a Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) property in Ringsend.
According to Stephens though the house was not really habitable.
She accepted it and the environmental health section in Dublin City Council gave the landlord a list of jobs to do, she says. But the landlord didn’t do any of them.
There was major maintenance work outstanding in the house including the fact that there was no heating so in winter it became unsafe for the children to keep living there, she says.
Stephens won a tribunal case at the RTB against that landlord in November last year, but at the time the family ended up back in emergency accommodation.
In the meantime, a new rule was introduced in 2018 which said that homeless people were no longer entitled to priority status on the housing list, she says.
“We should have had homeless priority because we were in there in November  and that new rule only came in later,” she says.
Council staff told her to take the house in Ringsend, she says. But now most of the other families, who were in emergency accommodation at the same time as her in 2017 have got permanent homes, she says.
Stephens says she would take a house anywhere if it was a permanent home for her children. “I’d take a shed down the country,” she says. “As long as my kids are safe.”
A spokesperson for Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown council said it cannot comment on individual cases.
Reducing the List?
In 2016 Dublin City Council removed 6,200 households from the housing list for failing to return the housing needs assessment form, according to reporting from Olivia Kelly in the Irish Times.
Last year, Dublin City Council housed 517 households.
In the same year, the council removed 634 households from the housing list, because they didn’t respond to the Housing Needs Assessment, says the spokesperson.
“However any applicant who contacted before the year-end was reinstated if there was a reasonable reason for non-reply,” she says.
Independent Councillor Noeleen Reilly says this process is “artificially cutting the numbers,” on the housing list because the majority of the households removed in this way still need to be housed.
In 2019, Fingal Council removed 22 households from the list for failing to return the form, says a spokesperson for Fingal Council.
Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown council removed 47 for that reason last year, says a spokesperson.
South Dublin County Council didn’t respond to queries in time for publication.
The Minister for Housing can direct the housing authority to prepare a summary report of social housing assessments and he has done that each year since 2016, says the Dublin City Council spokesperson.
As a result of that, the council then writes to all the households who were approved for social housing more than a year ago and asks them to confirm if there has been a change in their circumstances and if they still need social housing.
Nowadays Dublin City Council sends three letters to the address provided by the applicant during the reassessment period, says the spokesperson.
The assessments are not sent by registered post, she says.
Focus Ireland Outreach staff working with rough sleepers previously said that often people who are homeless on the street in Dublin are not on the housing list, because of the bureaucratic burden involved in getting on the list.
Anti-homeless campaigner, Father Peter McVerry said by phone last Thursday that a cynical person might suggest that the main purpose of sending out the Housing Needs Assessment each year is to reduce the numbers on the list.
But he said homeless people are not likely to be knocked off the list because they have more constant contact with their council than others on the housing list.
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council says that people in emergency accommodation are generally exempt from the housing assessment and will remain on the housing list as long as they are still eligible.
Some councils say it is the responsibility of the applicant to update their address with the council but that they do take vulnerability into account.
“Every effort is made by the council to establish contact with an applicant including the issuing of a reminder letter, phone or email contact with the details provided on file records,” says a spokesperson for Fingal Council.
A spokesperson for Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown Council says it holds on to the files for three years so an applicant who has been removed can ask for a review and it deals with all requests to have applications reopened in a fair and equitable manner.
“Where the council is aware, or suspects, that an applicant may be vulnerable all efforts are made to make contact with them,” says the spokesperson Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown Council.
Dublin City Council says it does make allowances for vulnerable households if they can produce evidence of their issues.
Vulnerable applicants can get back on the list if they can show evidence that poor literacy skills, learning difficulties, mental health or other issues “impacted on their understanding of what was required”, says the spokesperson.
Reilly says she has advocated for “hundreds” of cases but only succeeded in getting one of those people back their time on the list.
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing says that the Summary of Social Housing Assessments is carried out in order to count the number of households who qualify for social housing support but their housing need is not being met.
That allows the Department to plan for the delivery of the right types of housing support, he says.
Before 2016 this was done every three years, but now it is done every year because “the provision of social housing is a demand-led service and it is vital to have regularly updated information on the scale and nature of demand,” says the Department of Housing spokesperson.
He said the application can be reactivated “if the household subsequently responds with the information required within a reasonable time.”
He didn’t directly respond to queries about how this system affects vulnerable people, including those with literacy problems, mental health problems, and learning difficulties issues.