Social and Affordable Housing Eligibility – TOPICAL ISSUES DEBATE

February 26th, 2015 - Pat Breen

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Social and Affordable Housing Eligibility

Deputy Pat Breen: I thank the Office of the Ceann Comhairle for facilitating me in raising this issue. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Paudie Coffey, for being present and congratulate him on the work he is doing in reforming the delivery of social housing. The social housing strategy for the period to 2020 provides the roadmap in terms of tacking our social housing crisis. Some 35,000 additional social housing units will become available over the next six years. This is important and is really tackling the issue. It is a substantial effort, and I thank the Minister of State in that regard.
One of the knock-on consequences of the recession is that additional demands have been placed on social housing. We have significant waiting lists, and this has been compounded in recent years by the recession, falling incomes and mortgage difficulties. In addition, the rise in rents for residential properties is driving more low-income households to seek support. In my county, County Clare, there are more than 3,000 approved applicants on the council’s housing waiting list. They are approved applicants on the basis of the current maximum net income limits that apply. However, I have come across a number of cases in which low-income households are falling outside these limits. Their circumstances need to be addressed.
Let me give a practical example of what I am speaking about. I met a couple recently in my constituency office in Ennis who are living in a one-bedroom apartment with their three children. One partner is in receipt of jobseeker’s allowance and the other is working but her take-home pay is very low. Their total household income is €608 per week and out of that they have to pay €500 per month for rent. In order to qualify for social housing under the current limits, their net income would have to be €528. In accessing their net income, the means test can take account only of PRSI, PAYE and USC payments. Although this family’s income is extremely low and there is much demand on that limited income, the local authority cannot take into account its outgoings, such as rent or other reasonable expenses.
These tight income restrictions are forcing low-incomes families into even more serious hardship because, in cases like this, the option is for the working partner to reduce her working hours so as to be able to pass the social housing assessment. Effectively, people are being driven out of work and into the social welfare system when the objective should be ensuring that work pays more than the social welfare system.
[Deputy Pat Breen: ] No household should be forced into greater poverty. The solution is to increase the income thresholds in Clare and bring them into line with the thresholds which apply in a number of our neighbouring counties such as Limerick, Galway, Kerry and Cork. Currently, Clare is included in Band 3, with the maximum net threshold for a single person assessed at €25,000, an allowance of 5% for each additional adult and 2.5% for each child. The maximum limit was increased by €5,000 in 2011. However, the disparity between the various local authorities is a real problem and it should be bridged in order to give low income families in Clare the same opportunity to access social housing as low income families in other areas.
An increasing number of low income families are becoming at greater risk of homelessness. I appeal to the Minister to consider the situation which applies in my constituency of County Clare and increase the income limits in the context of the Social Housing Strategy 2020.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government (Deputy Paudie Coffey): I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue.
On 1 April 2011, the Social Housing Assessment Regulations introduced a new standard procedure for assessing applicants for social housing in every housing authority. The aim of the new system is to move closer to a transparent, consistent and fairer approach to eligibility for social housing. The regulations include maximum net income limits for each housing authority, in different bands according to the area, with income being defined and assessed according to a standard household means policy.
Before the new system was put in place, there was considerable inconsistency in the various local authorities across the country. Some authorities had income limits for social housing, but some had none. The way income was assessed for limits also varied widely, with different disregards and policies in the various housing authorities. This meant that applicants for support who were on similar incomes could be treated very differently depending on where they happened to live. This approach was neither efficient nor fair.
The income bands and the authority area assigned to each band was based on an assessment of income needed to provide for a household’s basic need plus a comparative analysis of the local rental cost of housing accommodation across the country. The limits also reflect a blanket increase of €5,000 introduced by this Administration prior to the new system coming into operation. That was done to broaden the base from which social housing tenants are drawn and thereby promote sustainable communities. As a result, the net income threshold for a one adult, two children household in County Clare, for example, is €26,250 net income after tax, PRSI and the universal social charge, USC, with higher limits applying to larger households.
Under the household means policy, which applies in all housing authorities, net income for social housing assessment is defined as gross household income less income tax, PRSI and the universal social charge. Most payments received from the Department of Social Protection are assessable. The policy provides for a range of income disregards, and housing authorities also have discretion to decide to disregard income that is temporary, short-term or once-off.
Given the cost to the State of providing social housing, it is considered prudent and fair to direct resources to those most in need of social housing support. I am satisfied that the current income eligibility requirements generally achieve that. However, I recognise that the current limits may discriminate unfairly against certain classes of households and these limits will be considered in the context of the review of social housing assessment procedures currently being undertaken by my Department, as part of the broader social housing reform agenda outlined in the Social Housing Strategy 2020.

Deputy Pat Breen: I thank the Minister. The last paragraph of his statement is helpful in that he recognises that the current limits may discriminate unfairly against certain classes of households and said that the limits will be considered in the context of the review of social housing assessment procedures being carried out by his Department.

I would like the Minister to consider the example of the couple I mentioned. Many low income families are now at greater risk because they are trapped in the system. They cannot afford to get on the property ladder. They cannot get a mortgage from the banks, and they are not qualifying for social housing. I gave the Minister a typical example of a couple with a net income of €600 a week but their rent of €500 a month cannot be taken into account, which is unfortunate, although I understand where the Minister is coming from also.

The Minister might outline the different bands. Clare is in Band 3. I do not understand the reason for the discrepancy in terms of the counties I mentioned, namely, Kerry, Limerick, Cork and other counties because housing is scarce in County Clare. There are 3,000 approved applicants for social housing. There is never enough housing to meet demand. There is always a significant demand for social housing, but I will consider what the Minister said about the review his Department is carrying out. I ask him to personally look at County Clare in the context of that review, bearing in mind the example I gave him. That couple genuinely want social housing, and they are not in a position to get a mortgage to buy a house of their own.
Deputy Paudie Coffey: I note the points the Deputy has made. I am satisfied that the current income limits generally provide for a fair and equitable system of identifying those households unable to provide accommodation from their own resources. These limits generally provide that a household in receipt of social welfare will not breach the thresholds. That is illustrated by the fact that the Summary of Social Housing Assessments 2013 reported that of the 89,872 households on waiting lists nationally, 65,151, or 72%, were entirely dependent on social welfare. The comparable figure for County Clare is 78%. However, as I have indicated, the income thresholds will be examined as part of the review of social housing assessment procedures currently under way. This examination will look at the policy applied to determine the types of income that should be counted in the assessment and which should be disregarded.
In terms of particular anomalies in the current system that discriminate unfairly against certain classes of households, I would be happy to consider any general issues such as those of which the Deputy has made the House aware. I am precluded from becoming involved in any specific applications to a housing authority but I can assure the Deputy that we will examine anomalies in the overall review to see if we can address those and ensure, as I said at the outset, that the process is fair and efficient, and in the best interests of all the tenants who badly need this assistance.