Sunday 18 March 2018

Council rent arrears in sharp rise to €5million

The number of council tenants in rent arrears has continued to rise, with almost €5million now being owed to Louth County Council.

Dundalk councillors heard at the May meeting of the Municipal Committee that there is a total of €4,914,796 in rental arrears.

Cllr. Maeve Yore highlighted the 'alarming' figure at the meeting, saying 'We need action taken, I am very concerned about it.'

She added that €5 million would 'build a lot of social housing in Louth.'

Senior Executive Office Aoife Lawler told members that the local authority had recently taken a case to court where rent had not been paid for three and a half years. The case was successful in that the council were handed back the property.

She said Louth County Council wanted to 'help people as far as possible' but that they were continuing to be 'more aggressive' in their pursuit of rental arrears. Ms. Lawler explained that the background to the ongoing rise in rental arrears was that it followed a rental assessment carried out by the council. This had unearthed a lot of back rent owed by tenants who had not declared a change in circumstances or income.

The meeting heard that these arrears also came about after the sharing of information with the Department of Social Protection, so variations emerged in the income or circumstances declared.

She added that the overall figure remained high as the process of working with people to pay back arrears 'took time.'

'Tenants do not pay off ten years of arrears within in a few weeks, it can take three or four years.'

Cllr. Maria Doyle urged people who are in arrears to work with the council to pay off the sums owed. She added that the council should intervene at an earlier stage, before tenants owe more than 12 weeks in back dated rent.

'Once people get to a stage where the arrears are so large that it is like climbing a mountain, it is much more difficult to work with.'

She added: 'We haven't dealt with this issue adequately over the last few years, just because we have had one court case does not meant that we are making in-roads'

Cllr Doyle said she accepted that letters were sent out to tenants, but advised that staff members 'go out and make contact with tenants.'

Cllr. Emma Coffey added that it was 'advisable to make contact with tenants as early as possible,' and before a significant sum of arrears built up.

Senior Executive Officer, Aoife Lawler explained that all tenants, before being handed keys to any accommodation, are made aware of obligations to pay their rent, through the tenancy training programmes. Those in arrears are then also reminded of the figure in their rent statements which are sent out a number of times a year.

She pointed out that despite the 'considerable effort and workload' involved in getting tenants to commit to re-payment plans, many then breach the agreement, which leads to the process beginning again.

Ms. Lawler added that the local authority had attempted to use a number of strategies to deal with tenants who were in arrears and had not made contact with the council. This included not carrying out maintenance works in properties until tenants engaged with the council, which despite drawing criticism from councillors had proved to be effective in getting tenants to make contact.

The Argus