Arrears by social housing tenants have doubled in the last eight years, leaving councils owed a staggering €65m in unpaid rent.
But while thousands of households are under repeated default warnings every year, only a tiny number of cases are pursued to court and just a handful of evictions are sought as councils are also responsible for housing people if they become homeless.
A leading expert on housing policy says it may now be time to provide rent-free social housing in certain areas.
Dr Padraic Kenna of NUI Galway said a pilot scheme would be useful in evaluating the idea.
“There is an argument to say we should have zero rents in local authorities because the cost of implementing and the cost of collecting them and court fees is quite significant,” he said.
“It wouldn’t be popular because we tend to feel people should pay something but the economics of it make sense.
“You are dealing with people on such low incomes and the whole business of setting rents, collecting rents, administrating rents, recording rent arrears, chasing people for arrears, court actions — if you add it all up there’s very little gain at the end of the day.”
Arrears at the start of 2008 stood at €32.8m but jumped by 25% the next year to more than €41m and by a further 24% the following year to €51m. Since then the increases have been less dramatic but have continued each year.
Of the 19 councils that responded to queries, arrears last year ran from as low as 3.6% of rent payable in the case of Co Laois to 28% in the case of Co Louth.
Cork, Waterford, Galway, and Dublin cities all exceeded 20% as did Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown.
Just eight evictions were enforced in total — in Cork City, Dublin City, and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown — while four orders for repossession were granted and 10 other cases were going through the courts.
All other actions were in the form of reminders and warnings.
Dr Kenna said his own research had recorded 12 evictions in total last year. He said councils were very limited in the action they could take because they could not behave like private landlords.
“At the end of the day, If you pursue people for rent arrears, what tends to happen is they don’t pay their utility bills. If you evict people, particularly people with children, they have to be rehoused, so it’s a cat and mouse situation.
“The way things are set up, local authorities see themselves as property managers when really it is a social service more than a property management role they fulfill. That’s where looking at alternatives such as rent-free zones might be useful.”
Joe MacGrath, chief executive of Tipperary County Council and chair of the County and City Management Association, said the arrears had to be viewed in the context of the very significant economic downturn.
“Notwithstanding this, recent figures indicate that there has been a general improvement in local authority housing rent collections,” he said.
The Department of Housing said it encouraged local authorities to require all new tenants to sign up to the household budget scheme so welfare payments were deposited directly in the post office and rent was automatically paid out of them.
A complete review of local authority rents was promised under the programme for government with a view to standardising the way they are set, revised, and enforced.
Housing Minister Simon Coveney told the Dáil recently that this review would be complete by next summer.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved