The Main Exit Route From Homelessness Is Collapsing

Keith Maguire emails 15 to 20 estate agents and landlords each month, trying to find a place to live, he says.

Most months, he’ll get three viewings. But so far – even though he has help from a rental subsidy, the Homeless Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) – never an offer.

“The disappointment of not getting offers is the hardest thing for people,” Maguire says.

It’s been like that since he became homeless roughly two and a half years ago, says Maguire, a blogger, who also works in retail and volunteers with a homeless soup run.

Most of the people he knows from homeless hostels have jobs, he says, like his roommates, one a healthcare worker and the other in security.

But Maguire says he can’t remember the last time somebody moved out and into their own tenancy. “Some aren’t even looking because they know how difficult it is at the moment. It’s a mess.”

For at least the last five years, finding a home with the help of Homeless HAP has been the main route out of homelessness for those in the Dublin region. Hundreds of families have also been granted the rental subsidy to prevent them from becoming homeless.

But the region is this year on track for a 66 percent drop in households getting new tenancies supported by Homeless HAP, compared to last year.

“HAP has fallen off a cliff compared to last year,” says Labour Councillor Darragh Moriarty, who got the figures from Dublin City Council. Most available homes are outside the HAP price caps, he says.

Mike Allen, director of advocacy with Focus Ireland, said people are getting stuck in homeless hostels and homelessness is likely to grow for the rest of this year. “I can’t see any other way of reading it.”

No Way Out

In 2021, 2,478 households got a new home supported by Homeless HAP, show council figures.

So far this year just 422 new Homeless HAP tenancies began. If another 422 begin in the second half of the year, that would mean a 66 percent drop from 2021 to 2022.

Off the page, those figures mean more people stuck in homeless hostels.

In February 2021, 179 households moved out of emergency accommodation into homes, and 126 of those new homes were private-rental homes with the tenants supported by the HAP subsidy.

In February 2022, the number that moved out of emergency accommodation was much lower at 84 and just 38 of those were HAP tenancies.

Says Moriarty, the Labour councillor: “The numbers demonstrate how paralysed the system is for HAP tenants, who really should be getting a social house.”

Large families in particular have it bad, because almost all the new homes coming on stream in the city are one and two-bedroom apartments, he says.

The February 2022 report says the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) will research whether ineligibility for social housing, large family sizes or other factors are affecting families’ ability to exit homelessness.

A council spokesperson said DRHE has done research on families that entered emergency accommodation in 2019, and will publish that later this year.

Neither Working?

There are two types of HAP.

Under the Homeless HAP scheme, homeless households and those at immediate risk of homelessness can get a higher rate, around €1,912 per month for a family with two children.

Homeless HAP applications are fast-tracked, so people avoid the waiting times of around three months associated with applications for the standard HAP payments. The council pays the tenants’ deposit too.

Maguire is approved for Homeless HAP. As a single person, he is entitled to around €990 per month for an apartment to himself, but he isn’t looking at those because he says he won’t find one around that price.

He can also spend around €800 a month for a room in a shared house. That’s where he has focused his search, he says, but still hasn’t had any offers yet.

“I would hold out hope for HAP,” he says. “But it takes a lot of searching.”

Some landlords don’t want tenants on Homeless HAP, he says. They might make assumptions about people who are homeless. Some others only take students.

Meanwhile, tenants already living in the house often have set requirements about who they are willing to live with, he says. For example, some are looking for others of the same nationality.

Maguire doesn’t hold out any hope that he will be offered social housing, he says, because he is way down the lists.

A Recent Tweak

For families who have not experienced homelessness, and are not in imminent danger of it, the standard HAP payment is €1,275 for a family with two children.

Council staff can add to that at their own discretion. Until recently council staff could add 20 percent, but as of 11 July 2022 they can add 35 percent.

But that payment is just not competitive, says Moriarty. “People are being locked out of what is available,” he says.

Lots of families are narrowly avoiding homeless accommodation by living in overcrowded conditions with relatives, he says. Often their situation isn’t much better than those in emergency accommodation.

He doesn’t think that the recent changes to the scheme will help them. “Is that really going to address what seems to be facing tenants in DCC [the Dublin City Council area] where rents have just gone bananas?” he says.

Tenants eligible for standard HAP face other barriers too. Some have about getting into debt while waiting three months for the payment, which isn’t backdated, to be processed.

The numbers succeeding in renting properties through the standard HAP subsidy in Dublin have been falling for a while. In 2020, 1,655 new households accessed the scheme, while in 2021 that dropped to 1,226, according to the Dublin City Council statistics.

In the first half of 2022, just 335 new households started tenancies through the standard HAP scheme in the Dublin City Council area, putting the city on track for a 45 percent drop from this year to last.

Allen, of Focus Ireland, says that recent changes are only to the standard HAP. But the Housing Agency is carrying out separate research into the Homeless HAP.

“The fundamental problem is that there are more households looking for somewhere to live than there are dwellings to put them in,” he says.

Is There Any Solution?

For Maguire to be in with a good shot of getting his own apartment with Homeless HAP, the rate would need to significantly hiked.

That would add to the Department of Housing’s HAP bill, which rose from €465 million in 2020 to €542 million in 2021.

While raising the Homeless HAP rate would increase the government’s annual costs, Allen says he doesn’t think increasing HAP amounts would necessarily drive rents up further. “Because in Dublin there is rent control,” he says.

But, if a property is being rented through Homeless HAP for the first time, Dublin City Council doesn’t check that the rent level is in line with rent pressure zone (RPZ) legislation, a council spokesperson said in November last year.

In any case, Allen says the problem as he sees it is that increasing HAP just helps one group of tenants to compete with another, he says. This can be justified if they are homeless, because that is such a damaging experience, he says.

The real solution is, of course, more housing, he says. “The medium answer is they need more private rental and the long-term answer is they need more social housing.”

Allen says homelessness looks set to increase for the rest of 2022. “The only thing that could happen is that people increasingly find ways of being homeless without entering homeless services, doubling up and so on.”

The DRHE is currently looking for new emergency accommodation both for single people and for families, says Allen.

Said Moriarty, the Labour councillor: “Ultimately we need a complete overhaul of how we manage HAP as a stop-gap for people.”

In the short term, there should be incentives to try to reduce the number of landlords leaving the market, he says.

But the real solution is a massive increase in the number of homes the council builds, he says. “It’s about building. It comes back to the supply of public homes.”

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

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