Two charities have told an Oireachtas committee that many people in receipt of the Government's Housing Assistance Payment are struggling to pay their rents.

There are around 59,000 households currently supported by the payment.

In an opening statement to the Housing Committee, housing charity Threshold said that many tenants are struggling to pay rent even with the support of HAP.

The organisation's Chief Executive, John-Mark McCafferty, told members that tenants are paying "top-ups" to their landlord to meet rent.

This is rent paid directly by the tenant to the landlord in addition to the rent the landlord receives from HAP.

He pointed out that many tenants are struggling to find a landlord to accept HAP.

Mr McCafferty said that Threshold had carried out research into this issue in 2019 and surveyed 116 tenants eligible for HAP.

The Society of St Vincent de Paul were also observing similar trends and both charities came together to publish a report and recommendations.

He said that monthly rent limits for HAP have remained unchanged since July 2016 and now fall far short of market rent in many instances.

Mr McCafferty said that there are enormous short falls in HAP caps for single people.

He said a single person looking to rent a one bed apartment in Cork city, Dublin 15 and Limerick city could potentially pay a top up of €760 to make up the shortfall.

He said that it was a similar story for families with three children looking to rent a three-bed house with a potential top up of €400 or more for these families.

The Society of St Vincent de Paul said that HAP limits are insufficient in meeting market rents, making it very difficult for low income households to access private rented accommodation.

In an opening statement, Social Justice Policy Officer Marcella Stakem said that the payment fails to provide sufficient security of tenure and cannot meet the needs of people who have a long-term housing need.

She warned that this has resulted in households being in a constant state of worry about where and how they are going to live.

She said that it cannot meet the needs of people who have a long term housing need.

Ms Stakem said that families are struggling to make ends meet and cutting back on essentials so that their rent is paid on time.

She said real affordable rental and purchase and an increase in local authority building are needed to address the lack of housing supply. 

The charity is calling for a complete review of the payment and its interaction with the private rented sector.

The organisation said if a tenant who is engaging with the local authority falls into arrears on their rent or top- up, a repayment plan should be worked out to clear the arrears over time.

Committee told of ten-week HAP application process

Sinn Féin's housing spokesperson, Eoin Ó Broin said that it is taking up to ten weeks for many local authorities to process HAP applications. 

He said that very few private landlords, especially those who are paying mortgages, can wait ten weeks for a payment.

Deputy Ó Broin said that HAP was badly designed and needs an urgent review. However, he said that if HAP limits are raised there is an incentive for landlords to push the rents up. 

He asked what the Housing Committee can do to improve the situation.

Responding, Ms Stakem said she would like to see a complete review of HAP. Mr McCafferty said that the barrier is around single people trying to access housing from emergency accommodation.

He said that they hope affordable rental properties will come on stream in the future. 

Fine Gael TD Emer Higgins said that landlords and often estate agents still discriminate against HAP tenants and she said it was a "serious problem". 

She asked how it can be made easier for HAP tenants to gain access to accommodation. Ms Higgins also asked about the impact of Covid-19 on HAP tenancies.

Mr McCafferty said they are looking to do further research in the area of Covid-19.

However, he said that there has been a huge "protective effect" of both the Pandemic Unemployment Payment and access to rent supplement. 

He said he was struck by the low take up of rent supplement this year given the circumstances. 

Ms Stakem said SVP have noticed an increase in calls for assistance because of loss of income and loss of employment. 

She said that people tend to look for help with food or a utility bill but when members call to the house the family is struggling with rent arrears.

A spokesperson for the Minister for Housing Darragh O'Brien said that increasing HAP limits could have a negative inflationary effect on the wider rental market.

The statement also said the Department and local authorities are aware of the importance of minimising HAP processing times and the need to keep this under review.