Societal and Legislative Attitudes Toward Social Housing Tenants in Ireland: Critical Evaluation of Housing Law and Policies, Statistics, Case Law and Literature

By Tatiana V. Kelly
2013, Vol. 5 No. 08 | pg. 2/4 |

Further interesting point to note is that in Ireland, Local Authorities are empowered to develop certain guidelines in relation to housing assessments. They can specify categories of applicants in greater need20 and give them priority on waiting lists, but what is criticized in Ireland and England is that all too often, social housing does not support those in genuine need, particularly hard working class of people on low incomes.21 Those border-line families are often being pushed down the societal ladder, with their status degrading to second-class citizenship due to policies in prioritization for social housing. Grant Shapps made a welcome proposition in England where under the Department for Communities and Local Government new guidelines, Councils will be required to prioritize hard-working families in the queue for social housing. Such approach may promote faith in Irish government too by this category of applicants and public in general.

Ireland is presently faced with a growing problem of increasing poverty and social exclusion among some of its citizens. A new report published by Social Justice Ireland in 2013 provided some controversial statistics in relation to poverty and disposable income among Irish citizens. It showed that more than 700, 000 people are living in poverty. To have a job is not a guarantee that one lives in a poverty-free household. The report also controversially found that the poorest 10% of households have an average disposable income of €210 a week, compared to an average of €2,276 a week for the richest 10% of households. Recent Social Welfare Benefits cuts produced phenomena where the minimum payment falls below the recommended minimum income that one adult needs to be the poverty line, particularly in relation to younger job-seekers between the age of 18 and 24.22 Such legislative approach towards the most vulnerable members of society raises questions about equal treatment of all classes of citizens in Ireland.

Current Standards of Social Housing Estates in Ireland

Despite an ongoing regeneration of social housing estates in Ireland and the duty of care imposed on Local Authorities under the legislation and recent Regulations, the overall condition of accommodation remains below acceptable levels. Guidelines provided by in 2007 by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government are still a long way from being fully implemented and are not giving due priority by the Government at present.23The development of standards is slow, based on cases in tort law, legislation and recent Regulations.

Section 114 of the Housing Act 1966, repealed by Sections 37 and 38(5) of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1992, places an obligation on the landlord to maintain accommodation reasonably fit for human habitation. Such objective definition resulted in a number of cases, which assisted in determining, to some extent, as to what accommodation may fall short of such standard.

In the landmark decision in Siney v Dublin Corporation,24 there was a flaw in the design of the accommodation. CJ O’Higgins held that there was a breach by the local authority of the implied warranty contained in the letting contract and the accommodation, with a number of health-concerning defects, was considered to be reasonably unfit for human habitation. It was also found that in the special circumstances of the letting, the defendant owed a plaintiff a duty of care to ensure that the flat was fit for human habitation and the duty was breached because the inspection was defective.

Further, in Burke (a minor) v Dublin Corporation25 the conversion of the heating system by the landlord, which resulted in one of the tenants suffering asthma, was discussed. The Supreme Court established a continuous obligation on the local authority to inspect and render heating system defects if there is a concern that it may lead to unfitness of accommodation and pause health and safety concerns. It was further held by CJ Finlay that the duty of a housing authority under the Housing Act 1966 involved the provision of accommodation capable of being healthily, safely and properly heated and the defendant was in breach of the implied warranty of fitness for human habitation.26

In more recent times, the inquest into the controversial death of Rachel Peavoy on the 11th of January 2010 in her Dublin City Council flat brought, once again, great public attention to the housing conditions of council tenants. Despite the fact that the initial allegation against the City Council in relation to heating arrangements was dismissed;27 that the Dublin Coroner has returned a verdict of death by misadventure; that no breach of duty by the Council was established in the case - in was recommended at the outcome of the inquest that the City Council would review its de-tenanting procedures during the regeneration.28 It is surprising that the requirement of proper heating of the flat in winter, as suggested by CJ Finlay in Burke,29 was not discussed. Improvements in relation to heating have been made through the Regulations of 2008 which apply to existing local authority tenancies since 1 February 2013.30

Standards of accommodation should be interpreted in light of current living standards, not those at the time of the enactment of the Act, what, arguably, seems to be the approach. Despite continuous economic decline and harsh budget cuts across all sectors, the hospitals continue to provide medical care equally to public and private sectors, at least in the emergency department, then why, when it comes to providing emergency accommodation to vulnerable population, the approach differs? Would it be because of the knowledge that only certain classes of citizens occupy such accommodation? Is it perceived that they may have a weaker voice in advocating better standards due to the nonexistence of any representative body? These questions remain to be answered.

Prescribed standards for rented houses are further provided for in a number of Regulations. Even though more recent Regulations placed higher standards for all rented property, only some of those apply to local authority housing.31As a result, lower standards in relation to heating, food preparation and laundry are permitted for local authority tenants in comparison with private tenants.32

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