There have been a few headlines recently about some families losing their rental accommodation as rents increase and becoming homeless (see these stories: one, two, three, four; also listen to this radio piece on RTE). It is reported that homelessness is on the rise and a homeless crisis is emerging in Dublin in particular. According to Dr Dáithí Downey, Deputy Director of Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE), paraphrased in Saturday’s Irish Times, the homeless crisis is ‘bloody awful and getting worse’, with Jan O’Sullivan TD, the Minister for Housing, admitting that there is ‘no doubt’ that the issue of homelessness among families is a growing issue.
So what is the situation in Dublin at present?
According to DRHE, in 2013 a total of 4,613 unique individual adults used homeless services in Dublin (across all funded NGO’s and statutory services – a full report for 2013 is available from DRHE upon request). The demand has strengthened and changed in character since Autumn 2013 with more families with child dependents experiencing homelessness. The Simon Community report that in 2012, there was an increase of 24 per cent in those using their services, to over 5,000 individuals and families.
During the week beginning April 28th 2014, the DRHE confirmed there were 184 households with dependent children accommodated in 21 commercial hotels across the Dublin region in lieu of provision of more suitable emergency accommodation for families due to a lack of capacity in usual emergency accommodation. The majority of these families were welfare dependent private tenants. The decision to use hotels is seen as a last resort taken in order to prevent any increase in rough sleeping in Dublin, especially among adults with dependent children.
Dublin’s homeless services secured an exit to tenancies and independent living for 793 persons in 2013. This is down by 10 per cent on the previous year’s 879 exits, and a similar downward trend exists for 2014.
So what is causing the rise in homelessness, especially amongst families in Dublin?
Here’s what I think is happening.
1) From 2012 onwards there has been an increasing shortage of supply of property for purchase and rent in Dublin city due to in-migration and lack of construction.
2) The increasing demand for tenancies has led in turn to a rise in rent due to demand outstripping supply.
3) The rise in rent has been bolstered by new institutional investor owners, and by buy-to-let landlords facing a move from forbearance to foreclosure, seeking a certain yield by squeezing tenants – moving rents up at a rate significantly above inflation (25% to 30% increases in some cases)
4) Families who are income insecure – low wage, uncertain hours, flexible working, dependent on welfare – cannot afford the increase in rent, and rent supplement is not sufficient to cover the gap. They are being priced out of their homes in favour of those who can afford the new rental price. Such pressure is not aided by tenants often not knowing their full rights or seeking redress through the Private Residential Tenancies Board.
5) These families find it difficult to find alternative private rented accommodation due to rent inflation across the rental sector and landlord preferences for tenants not reliant on rent supplement and discrimination against such tenants. This is also reducing exit routes from homelessness.
6) There are nearly 90,000 households on the social housing waiting list and it is therefore almost impossible to parachute newly homeless families immediately into social housing. Consequently, those pushed out of the private rental sector end up in emergency homeless accommodation.
7) This process of creating new homeless families is likely to continue as rents rise given the present reliance on private rental sector for new social housing provision. Moreover, it might be bolstered if repossessions increase as expected from this summer onwards, with former homeowners becoming homeless.
So what is the solution?
DRHE recognise that the use of hotels is both an inadequate and inappropriate way to meet the housing needs of homeless families and can only be considered a short-term respite from being shelter-less and also that it is financial unsustainable. They are projecting a final year cost of over €4.5m for the use of hotels in 2014 if no alternatives are brought forward. So what is required?
First, the state needs to invest in creating new social housing – both refurbishing empty, unoccupied and derelict housing stock in the city and creating new suitable stock in control of the local authorities not private landlords. The Dublin local authorities have already submitted plans to government for the acquisition and refurbishment of stock for homeless households that will requires a projected capital budget of at least €10.5m to realise.
Second, rent control needs to be introduced that limits unregulated rent increases that are far in excess of inflation. This needs to be accompanied by an increase in tenant rights that offers them enhanced protections as is common in continental Europe.
Third, there needs to be an additional investment into homeless services to provides the resources that will enable them to more adequately deal with the crisis. Wishing it will to go away will not work.