Has the Eviction Ban 'Failed'?

Author: Mike Allen and Emma Byrne

Even the Government’s hasty introduction of a Winter Eviction Ban has failed to halt the rise in the total number of individuals in homelessness. The November 2022 homeless figures are the first to reflect the impact of the ban, which came into force at the start of the month but, rather than the decrease that some had predicted, they showed a further increase of 145 to yet another new record level.

The number of people in emergency homeless accommodation has risen every month for the last 11 months and now stands at 11,542, up 27% from the same time last year. The most rapid increase in is family homelessness which has increased by a staggering almost double (46%) over the year. 

But like most ‘hot takes’ on complex issues, it is not that simple. The number of homeless children increased by 138 between September and October, before the ban came into effect. In November the number of homeless children increased again, but only by 14. Not as much of an increase, but very important if you were one of the children or parents who might have otherwise lost their home. 

 

So, what is going on and has the eviction ban ‘failed’? 

Several eviction bans were introduced on and off between March 2020 and April 2021 during the Covid pandemic. These contributed to significant falls in homelessness over that period, leading some commentators to call for a new eviction ban amid expectations that it would have the same effect. From the start of the pandemic overall homelessness fell by almost 20%- from 9,907 in March 2020 to 7,991 in May the following year. Significantly, most of the decline was in family homelessness – with the number of homeless children falling by a third from 3,355 to 2,148 over the same period. Adult-only homelessness (adults without accompanying children) on the other hand largely stayed the same or rose during the same period as shown in Figure 1. 

 

Figure 1:

Click here to view Figure 1 in more detail.

But while the eviction ban played an important part in cutting the total number of people in homelessness, it was not the only factor. The eviction ban reduced the number of families becoming homeless but the impact of this was amplified by a significant increase in the number of families leaving homelessness. This rise in exits from homelessness was itself driven by two factors. First, many local authorities quietly increased the proportion of social houses allocated to homeless households as a public health measure. Secondly, more homes became available to rent in the private rental sector as the collapse in tourism led landlords to shift from short-term holiday rentals to long-term rentals of homes.

Families who did not have independent tenancies continued to become homeless, and Focus Ireland looked at some of their experiences here. As noted above, the Covid eviction ban had little effect on the number of adult-only households (mostly single people) becoming homeless.

So, while we can expect the 2022/23 Winter Eviction Ban to replicate the Covid-ban in reducing the number of families with tenancies becoming homeless, we should expect other families and single people to continue to become homeless. Furthermore, in the absence of the factors which increased the rate of exits during Covid, we should not expect to see a fall even in family homelessness.

Contrary to recent statements by Minister for Housing, Darragh O’Brien, that ‘exits from homelessness are pretty good’[1], the declining number of households leaving homelessness by securing a private rental tenancy (with HAP) has been a cause of concern for some months – having collapsed from an average of 95 a month in 2019 to 33 a month in 2022[2].

These complex shifting patterns of entry and exit to homelessness can be seen more clearly in Figure 2, which show the data for the Dublin Region. In the early months of the 1st Covid eviction ban, there were significantly more families exiting homelessness than entering emergency accommodation. In May 2020, for every 1 family that became homeless, nearly 6 families exited. The Covid evictions ban that were in place on and off in 2020 and early 2021 ended in April 2021, but the impact of this on families becoming homeless took a few months to emerge. On the other hand, exits from homelessness for families in Dublin started to decline from the date when the eviction ban ended, in April 2021, and have remained low since.

 

Figure 2:

Click here to view Figure 2 in more detail.  

In some senses this is the opposite of what might have been expected – with warnings of a ‘tsunami’ of newly homeless families when the eviction ban was lifted, and no expectation that exits to new tenancies in the private rental sector would collapse.

In the event, the number of families entering homelessness has been relatively stable, with some monthly variation, during this period. It is the reduced exits which has caused the overall number of families in homelessness to increase month on month since June 2021 (apart from the usual annual decrease around Christmas time).

One potential (partial) explanation for the non-emergence of a post-Covid surge of newly homeless families is that emergency accommodation quickly became full and increasing numbers of families were declined emergency accommodation and persuaded to remain in unsuitable or overcrowded circumstances. Focus Ireland services reported an increased number of families at risk of having to sleep rough during this period, although most of these were at risk due to complex factors rather than eviction. The data for ‘becoming homeless’ reflects that number of people are offered emergency accommodation and stay in it for at least one night. The paradoxical consequence of this is that if there are not enough emergency beds for everyone who presents as homeless, this excess is not included in the figures.

This absence of emergency accommodation for families is undoubtedly one of the factors involved, but it is unlikely to be the full explanation of why there has not been an increase in families becoming newly homeless between the covid and winter eviction bans.

On the other hand, the decline in exits to the private rental sector (with HAP) are more easily explained. In October 2022, only 6 homeless families in Dublin were able to leave emergency accommodation by securing HAP tenancies, the lowest in five years. This decline would appear to be the entirely predictable consequence of the widely documented crisis in the private rental sector, with large numbers of small landlords apparently leaving the market[1].

 

What actions can be taken now to reduce homelessness? 

Most of the dramatic impacts of the housing and homelessness crisis have taken place in the private rental market over the last number of years. This has led to a huge concentration on that housing sector and endless attempts to ‘fix it’. While there are a number of measures the Government could (and should) take to alleviate the current contraction of the private rental sector (read more here about Focus Ireland’s recommendations to Government on this ‘evict to sell’ crisis), but it is not the underlying cause of the crisis and the solutions are not to be found there. Government policy should concentrate on preventing further collapse of the private rental market but it is not realistic to expect a significant increase in rental opportunities in the private sector allowing it to become again the primary route out of homelessness. We need to look elsewhere.

1. Prioritise new social housing allocations on a vulnerability-basis

Government would appear to have the resources for some significant impact in the public housing sector, with the Minister of Housing, Darragh O’Brien still apparently confident of reaching his target of 9,000 new build social homes in 2022. There is considerable scepticism about this in some quarters, as the figures for the third quarter of 2022 (published just before Christmas) show that only 2,706 new build social homes were delivered between January and September 2022. While the final figures for the year won’t be published until March, Minister O’Brien must be receiving on-going reports and have some reason for his confidence that the final three months of the year will transform the picture. Most of the political and media debate concerns the absolute number of homes built and, and while this is important, it can obscure the equally important question of how we allocate the new homes to have greatest impact on homelessness. If the Minister’s confidence is any way realistic, several thousand new homes will have been completed in the final weeks of 2022 and (taking into account when a house is considered ‘completed’) will be available for allocation in the Spring of 2023, the same time the eviction ban is due to end.

If this is the case, this will be one of the largest allocations of social housing we have seen for many years. Of course, people who have been waiting their turn on waiting lists for many years need to be allocated many of these new homes. But we need more innovative ways of ensuring that vulnerable families and individuals who have been homeless for long periods, but not always registered on waiting lists, get some benefit too. During the pandemic we quickly came to realise that ‘fairness’ in access to vaccines involved pushing some people – the most vulnerable – to the front of the queue. The number of people who have been homeless for more for than six months is increasing and in Dublin there are now 165 families and 570 single people who have been in homeless accommodation for over two years. We need to develop a similarly vulnerability-informed sense of fairness about how we allocate social housing.

 

2. Utilise the ‘breathing space’ that the eviction ban has created

It is important to remember that the eviction ban was not introduced a part of a long-term Government strategy but as a hurried measure to deal with a situation where over 1,000 landlords had issued Notices of Termination on the grounds that they were selling up in the first half of 2022 alone, while every local authority was warning that all emergency homeless accommodation was full (see here). The fear of rising street homelessness, including homeless families with children on the street during the winter, was the deciding factor in the Government’s sudden change of policy on the issue. Focus Ireland front-line services shared these fears, and the organisation fully supports the eviction ban for that reason. But from the start we recognized that the ban would not have the same impact as the Covid-ban and that it does not address the underlying problems.

That is why Focus Ireland and others have been emphasizing that the real value of the eviction ban is to allow breathing space to roll out a range of actions which will have a longer-lasting impact on the underlying issues. Unless other actions are taken, when the eviction ban ends in March, we face the risk of a Spring tide of evictions into emergency accommodation which remains totally full. Along with colleagues across the sector we have set out a range of initiatives which believe should be implemented urgently which includes:

  1. Engaging with Landlords on live NoTs to clarify their reasons for leaving the private rental market and explore incentives which could possibly lead to a reconsideration of leaving the rental market.
  2. Develop and implement a Strategy for the Private Rented Sector to give certainty on what the regulation and plan for private rented accommodation is expected to be for the next 5-7 years.
  3. Accelerated use of Vacant Homes. The existing efforts and commitments by local authorities to identify vacant housing stock should be accelerated and any regulatory barriers to bringing vacant stock back into use should be explored with appropriate industry stakeholders.
  4. Identify and Address the Reasons for Delays with New-build Social Housing

There are perhaps a few signs that Government has taken these warnings seriously.

Leo Varadkar, in preparation for returning to his role as Taoiseach consulted with CEOs of the leading homeless organisations and set up personal meetings with leadership figures including, Sr Stan, Focus Ireland’s life president. The new Taoiseach has also included housing and homelessness as one of the core issues he wants to tackle and has shifted the role of the Department of Taoiseach to include engagement not only with the housing delivery aspects of ‘Housing For All’ but also with homelessness, which previously sat only with the Minister for Housing and a cross Departmental ‘Action Committee’ which the Minister convened and chaired.

One of the Government’s priority actions for 2023 is to conduct an analysis of each component of cost of construction of house and apartment development, informed by cost comparisons with comparable EU countries. This analysis must be prioritised immediately to identify and address the reason for delays with social housing construction projects.

As well as projects already in the pipeline, the Government is planning to speed up the construction of social housing on land which had purchased by local authorities during the Celtic Tiger era but had been unused due to the level of debt burden associated with it.  The proposed  combination of innovative financing, modern construction  methods  and stream—lined  planning  are exactly the sort of urgent initiatives Focus Ireland have been proposing for years. Moving quickly also has its risks, and it is crucial that there is effective communication with neighbouring communities and that the homes are delivered to the highest standards, if  that can be delivered this will be a very welcome initiative, speeding up the delivery of two or three additional thousand social homes.

There are no quick solutions to the housing and homeless crisis, and it is now clear that previously unthinkably drastic actions like an eviction ban only provide breathing space rather than lasting solutions. Housing and homelessness has been a ‘crisis’ for every year for a decade, but 2023 is set to be the most challenging yet. Without a change of pace and direction, we will be looking into a very bleak winter of 2023/24 with all emergency accommodation already full and no new ‘emergency bans’ to call on – but it does not need to be like that, there are real opportunities over the next few months – concerning how Government allocate new social homes, stabilise the private rental market, accelerate public housing construction, regulate short-term lettings and tackle vacancy/dereliction – which could signal the real change of direction we need. Close scrutiny of the extensive data about what is really happening for people experiencing homelessness would help ensure that the most effective decisions are made.

[1] Target of 29,000 homes for 2023 can be met – RTE News At One – RTÉ Radio 1, 10th January 2023 https://www.rte.ie/radio/radio1/clips/22194183/

[2] Dublin Region Homeless Executive ‘Monthly Report to Dublin City Councillors on Homelessness’ November 2022 https://www.homelessdublin.ie/our-work/news/drhe-monthly-report-november-2022

[3] RTB data hub- https://www.rtb.ie/data-hub/notice-of-termination-received-by-rtb

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