An Increasingly Common System for Allocating Social Homes Is a Mystery to Many on the Housing List

Andrew Connors has been homeless for two and a half years, together with his wife and five children.

Families who became homeless more recently have now got permanent homes, he says. He hopes that means that his family will soon get an offer, and wonders if there is a cap on how long a family can be homeless.

South Dublin County Council – where Connors, who is from Tallaght, is on the housing list – mostly shares out its social homes through a system called “choice-based lettings”, a council spokesperson said last year. Hopeful tenants have to nominate themselves for each house.

Connors knows that system exists, he says, but he didn’t realise that was how most social housing was being allocated.

Neither he nor his wife can read or write, so it’s difficult to apply. “I can’t do it myself, do you get me?” he says.

It isn’t fair if that means that they miss out on a chance at a home, he says. “There is a lot of people in the same boat I’m in.”

Social Democrats Councillor Mary Callaghan says Dublin City Council, where she is a representative, has started to share out more homes through a similar choice-based lettings system. “It’s shockingly unfair,” she says.

At a meeting of Dublin City Council’s housing committee last Wednesday, Callaghan and others raised their concerns about choice-based lettings creeping in, without any say from councillors.

Council housing manager Coilín O’Reilly said that a big plus with choice-based lettings, is that the council can allocate homes much faster. But he said he will work together with councillors on the housing committee to agree on a policy in the next few months.

How It Works

Dublin City Council used to allocate most homes by writing to the person on the top of one of the housing lists for that area when a home came available and offering it to them.

(There are multiple lists and the system for allocating the homes is outlined in the Dublin City Council scheme of lettings.)

If that person didn’t accept it, the council would write to the next person on the list and so on.

Several people might refuse a house. Prospective council tenants can refuse two properties. That all meant it sometimes took a long time to allocate an unattractive home, and that the council sometimes tried the choice-based route to find a tenant.

With choice-based lettings, it’s the other way around. The council advertises properties on their website and in their area offices and people can apply for the homes they want.

But it wasn’t usually done that way, says Callaghan. “In the past, choice-based lettings was only used when there was a property that would appeal to a very small number of people.”

Recently, Dublin City Council is using it a lot more, she says. “The indications we are getting is that it is all moving that way.”

There are advantages to choice-based lettings, she says. Because people apply only for homes that they want, it is a faster way to share them out.

If several people put in for the same home, it goes to the person highest on the social housing lists for that kind of property, says the Dublin City Council website. Applicants can apply for homes within the areas they have already chosen and the short application form can be returned by post or email.

A spokesperson for South Dublin County Council says that it allocated 627 new homes last year and 59 percent of those were through choice-based lettings.

The rest of the homes were allocated to people on priority lists, they say.

“Choice Based Letting allows applicants to declare their interest in available properties for letting on a weekly basis,” says the spokesperson.

No One to Help

For the last year, the Connors family has been staying in hostels in Gardiner Street in Dublin’s city centre. The children are still in school in Tallaght.

Connors and his wife get up around 5:30am each day to get their children to school on time. They’ve asked for a transfer to a Tallaght hostel, says Connors, but can’t get one.

When he phones South Dublin County Council to ask about housing, council staff advise him to try to find a home through the rent subsidy scheme, the Housing Assistance Programme (HAP), he says. “Every time I phone them.”

Given that Travellers face widespread racism and discrimination, it is very unlikely that Connors would manage to find a private-rental home to rent with HAP.

South Dublin County Council has never told him that most social housing is now allocated through choice-based lettings, he says.

He sort of understands the choice-based lettings system because a cousin who had used it explained it, he says. “He was homeless, so he knows it.”

His cousin applied for properties for him in the past but they weren’t picked, he says. Connors thought he could get offers outside of that as well, he says.

To do the applications, Connors needs to go to his cousin’s house in Lucan to sit alongside and make sure the house they go for is the right fit.

If an applicant applies for a choice-based letting property and then doesn’t accept the home, they will be suspended from choice based lettings for 12 months,according to the citizen’s information website.

In theory, each homeless family should have a support worker, known as a key worker, to help with paperwork.

Connors had a key worker in Tallaght, but she closed his case when he moved into the city centre, he says.

He has asked repeatedly for a new one, he says. At first, he was told he couldn’t get a key worker while living in a hostel – until he moved to a family hub.

Three months ago, he moved into a family hub, but still has no key worker, he says. Staff can’t help with paperwork, says Connors.

A spokesperson for Dublin City Council, which manages homeless services, said that there is no waiting list for keyworkers, which are provided by Focus Ireland.

Dublin Region Homeless Executive housing support team also support families with housing, they said.

“The support teams make every effort to contact the families accessing the accommodation under their remit, but on occasion may experience difficulty when trying to make contact with a family,” says the spokesperson.

A spokesperson for South Dublin said that council and library staff “are fully trained to assist housing applicants that may have difficulty accessing the CBL system or expressing interest in properties”.

Internet access is available in libraries and the choice based lettings system is mobile friendly, they said.

Many Travellers he knows – as well as some settled people – are in a predicament similar to his family’s, says Connors. They can’t read and write.

According to the OECD Adult Skills Survey, carried out in 2012, around 18 percent of adults in Ireland have trouble with reading and writing and 42 percent struggle to use technology.

Connors was expecting to get an offer of a permanent home soon, he says, unaware that he needed to apply for choice-based lettings every week. “I may phone the cousin today,” he says on Friday.

On Tuesday, Connors said that South Dublin County Council has changed the Choice Based Lettings system, and now his cousin can’t work out how to use it either.

“It’s all different now, he can’t make heads or tails of it,” he says. “I may go to the council today and tell them I can’t understand it.”

Agreeing a Policy

“A lot of people who are due to be housed will not be aware that there are opportunities they are missing,” says Callaghan, the Social Democrats councillor.

Those with access to information are leap-frogging those without, she says.

Dublin City Council hasn’t clearly told the applicants that its system is changing, says Callaghan.

It didn’t tell the councillors either, said independent Councillor Cieran Perry at the meeting of the council’s housing committee on 9 March 2022.

Choice-based lettings used to be a niche system for properties difficult to allocate, Perry said. “That policy now appears to have morphed into something totally different.”

“I would imagine, given that this is a policy committee, it should at least have been discussed here prior to any decision being made,” he said.

He needs to know about major changes like this so that he doesn’t misinform his constituents, he said.

Alongside those with literacy issues, others with learning difficulties and mental-health challenges might not be in the loop, said Callaghan, the Social Democrats councillor.

People who aren’t on social media may also be blindsided, as choice-based lettings adverts often circulate on local Facebook pages, she says.

Vulnerable people are having their hopes of getting a home raised only for them to be dashed again and again, she says.

One constituent wrote a long letter to the council explaining why they think they should get the property. “They put such an effort into it,” she says.

But the council just picks the applicant that is highest on the list and some people applying are very low on their list and so they won’t be housed for a long time, she says.

“There is almost a frenzy of need for housing,” says Callaghan. “There are so many people in such dire circumstances, that putting out a morsel of hope and then dashing that hope, is really quite disturbing.”

O’Reilly, the council’s housing manager, said that choice-based lettings speeds up allocations a lot. “You are not waiting five or six months as you are working through the list and giving people time to come back to you.”

The council should work out an agreed policy for allocations over the coming months, he said. “Let’s get something down on paper and get it agreed.”

There is a possibility that a compromise between the two systems could be worked out, says Callaghan. “Let’s change it to something that works.”

Author:

Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

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