The economic crisis provides an opportunity to address Ireland’s housing problems through the acquisition of vacant properties and land-banks by the State, according to Threshold, the national housing organisation. People who are very vulnerable in the private rented sector should be offered this housing on a permanent basis, the organisation believes.
Launching its Annual Report today (21.09.09), Threshold said that – in the event that NAMA goes ahead – the Government should analyse the housing stock and land-banks acquired by the Agency: where considerable housing need in areas is matched by vacant housing stock and land-banks, the State should retain these properties to meet housing needs.
According to Aideen Hayden, Chairperson of Threshold, “During the boom times, housing policy shifted away from State provision of housing to meeting needs within the private rented sector. While private accommodation works for many people, it can be hugely problematic for more vulnerable groups.
“Whether through NAMA or another mechanism that may be introduced to deal with the banking crisis, the State will be using taxpayers’ money to effectively take ownership of vacant housing units and land-banks. Rather than selling off these properties to the first carpet-bagger that opens their cheque book, the Government should take a look at the property portfolios and identify those that could be retained to meet housing needs.”
Threshold said that single men and lone parents tend to get stuck in poor-quality and unsuitable rented accommodation, which contributes to the development of a whole range of health and social problems, including homelessness.
According to Ms. Hayden, “As it is, poorer people in private rented accommodation are being assisted by the State to meet rent costs through the Rent Supplement payment. Using the banking crisis to buy up property to meet housing needs would reduce the State spend on Rent Supplement while – at the same time – offering a permanent solution to people’s housing problems.
“The Government has – for the past decade – acted as an enabler in the housing market. This has manifested itself in a whole range of problems, not least the collapse of the construction industry. Now, as we begin to look at ways of pulling ourselves out of the mess we are in, the Government should look to become a director in the housing market instead. It needs to acknowledge that it is, in fact, a major player in the market, paying for 91,000 tenancies as we speak. As such, it needs to act more directly and assertively.”
The Threshold Annual Report refers to figures from the Department of Social and Family Affairs, which show that 91,000 tenants are currently in receipt of Rent Supplement. This represents 40 per cent of private rented tenancies.
Threshold is calling for the establishment of a National Housing Agency, which could work alongside NAMA to manage the housing stock and land-banks that should be used to meet housing needs. This Agency could be an expanded version of the Affordable Homes Partnership, and should have overall responsibility for directing national housing policy and allocating land and housing. It should also regulate standards and be responsible for the delivery nationally of the Homeless Strategy. The National Housing Agency could also incorporate the Dublin Homeless Agency, the Centre for Housing Research and the National Building Agency.
The Annual Report has revealed that Threshold assisted 700 landlords in 2008. “Threshold is primarily a tenants’ organisation but, increasingly, we are being contacted by inexperienced landlords who want to know how to deal with problems relating to their rental properties. The economic downturn has produced a generation of reluctant landlords who purchased properties as effective pension investments. Because of income pressures, many are now resorting to renting out their properties,” said Ms Hayden.
Threshold reported that the most significant tenant-related issue in 2008 was that of unreturned deposits. Last year, the organisation dealt with 3,688 cases of unreturned deposits, compared with 1,603 in 2007.
“No doubt, the economic downturn is contributing to this trend,” said Ms. Hayden. “Cash-strapped landlords simply don’t have the cash to refund compliant tenants at the end of their lease. Meanwhile, some tenants are breaking their lease because a change of circumstances – such as a job loss or income reduction – means that they need to find cheaper accommodation.
“For many tenants, the €1,000 deposit they pay to a landlord at the commencement of their tenancy represents their only effective savings. When this is not returned at the end of their tenancy, they are often left very vulnerable, with no way to get on the property ladder again. In some cases, Threshold has worked with clients who have become homeless as a result of unreturned deposits.
“We have received positive signals form the Minister for Housing, Michael Finneran, about our proposals for the introduction of a deposits protection scheme. We would like to see a system put in place, whereby deposits collected by landlords would be lodged with the Private Residential Tenancies Board and returned to compliant tenants at the end of their tenancy. Such systems already operate successfully in England, Wales, Norway, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
“These systems are not anti-landlord and are not intended to discriminate against landlords in any way. Where tenants are in arrears or have damaged a property, landlords are obviously perfectly entitled to retain some or all of their deposits. Introducing a deposit protection scheme would minimise such disputes and lead to greater efficiencies all round. Threshold looks forward to working with the Minister for Housing on the early roll-out of the implementation of a deposit protection scheme as soon as possible,” said Ms Hayden.
During 2008, Threshold also saw an increase in the number of clients affected by evictions, early termination of tenancy agreements and those seeking information and advice on their housing options. On the positive side, the number of clients contacting Threshold about standards of accommodation and repairs fell by over 150 last year to 980. According to Threshold, this is a welcome trend and suggests that standards of accommodation are improving due to guidelines set by the Minister for Housing.
Threshold’s frontline information, advice and advocacy services dealt with 20,136 queries in 2008. While Threshold’s services were mainly accessed by people living in the private rented sector, a growing number of clients comprise people living in social housing and those who experienced homelessness. Threshold was forced to close its Limerick service in 2008 due to insufficient funding and is continuing to work to re-open the service.
Threshold was founded in 1978 and is a not-for-profit organisation whose aim is to secure a right to housing, particularly for households experiencing the problems of poverty and exclusion. Its main concentration of work is within the rented sector. The organisation operates a national office, based in Dublin, and three regional offices. In 2008, the organisation provided advice and representation to over 20,000 people. Further information is available at www.threshold.ie.