The rights of tenants to avail of the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) scheme has been strengthened following a decision by the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC).
A WRC adjudication officer awarded almost €43,000 to three tenants who were found to have been discriminated against by their landlord.
According to WRC director general, Oonagh Buckley, “the law was changed in 2015 to help people who are struggling to source private accommodation because they depend on State assistance.
“Since 2015, the law has outlawed discrimination on the housing assistance ground at all stages in the provision of rental accommodation – in advertising and making offers of new tenancies, in bringing existing tenancies to an end and in the treatment of tenants during the term of an existing tenancy”.
Ms Buckley pointed out that the WRC can play an important role for anyone seeking to make a complaint about any discrimination. Making a complaint is free and can be done on line.
The Equal Status Acts 2000-2015 prohibit discrimination in the provision of goods and services, accommodation and access to education.
A new clause, prohibiting discrimination based on a person’s eligibility for housing assistance, was added from January 2016.
This includes rent allowance or the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) or any payment under the social welfare acts.
FLAC, the Free Legal Advice Centres, welcomed the WRC finding that the landlord had refused to facilitate the three tenants access to the HAP scheme.
Three almost identical cases were brought against the same landlord to the WRC and heard together.
The landlord contended that it was not obliged to accept HAP as the new law did not apply to existing tenants.
All three FLAC complainants were referred to FLAC by a Citizens Information Centre. FLAC assisted the tenants in lodging their complaints with the WRC and advocated on their behalf.
The cases were heard together in March this year and it was contended that the protection under equality legislation extended from the pre-tenancy phase through to the ultimate termination of the tenancy and that the legislation would be ineffective if it did not protect sitting tenants.
The WRC decision clarifies that the protection from discrimination extends to not only prospective tenants but also sitting tenants.
FLAC chief executive Eilis Barry explained the significance of the WRC decision saying that it “clarifies not only that landlords cannot reject prospective tenants eligible for the housing assistance payment solely on that basis, but also that the new housing assistance equality ground also applies to existing tenancies.”
“In this case,” said Ms Barry, “our clients were all under severe financial pressure and one client was borrowing from relatives to meet their rent obligations.
“They were advised by the local authority that they were eligible for HAP, which would have reduced the impossible financial pressure on each of them as low-income families.
“However, the landlord declined to accept the new arrangement, saying they were not required to do so and repeatedly refused to complete the necessary paperwork, although there was no financial loss to the landlord in doing so, and the rent would be paid automatically by the State.”
According to FLAC, “This case makes clear that tenants who are entitled to housing assistance to meet the cost of their rented accommodation can feel more secure in asserting their right to avail of such financial assistance.
“The awards made in these three cases are significant and should send a strong message to landlords that to refuse to facilitate tenants with access to social housing supports including rent allowance and HAP, may have serious consequences.”
In her decision, the WRC adjudication officer said it was difficult to understand the landlord’s attitude towards “model” tenants who had always paid rent and honoured the terms of their tenancy agreements.
The adjudication officer found that the discrimination was on the more serious end of the scale, causing considerable financial hardship to each of the tenants.
She awarded the three tenants €14,977, €13,365 and €14,405 and ordered the landlord to take the appropriate action to enable each of the tenants to accept HAP payments from the relevant local authority forthwith.