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Housing and COVID-19: Frequently Asked Questions for Housing Associations

The ICSH will continue to provide our member organisations with the most useful and up-to-date informlation that can assist them in carrying out their operations over the course of the COVID-19 crisis.

On 15 September 2020, the Government introduced a plan to manage the pandemic, called Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021: Plan for Living with COVID-19. The plan, identified as a move from a short-term emergency response approach to a medium-term approach, sets out 5 levels of restrictions. Level 1 is the least restrictive and Level 5 the most restrictive. The level that applies to each county depends on the current Covid-19 situation in that county.

On 24th October 2020, the Government introduced the Residential Tenancies Act 2020 (RTA 2020). This new legislation modifies the usual operation of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 (RTA 2004) to provide that tenants are not required to vacate their rental properties during an Emergency Period, except in limited circumstances relating to specific breaches of tenant obligations. This means that the moratorium on evictions is now in place again for the duration of the level 5 restrictions. https://www.rtb.ie/emergency-measures-ended-new-protections-introduced-for-the-rental-sector.

These temporary restrictions were and will be based on any emergency periods that impose restrictions on travel outside of a five kilometre radius of a person’s place of residence. This means that whenever the movement of a person is restricted to within five kilometres of their home, the temporary restriction on ending a tenancy will apply. This currently applies since the Government announcement on January 6th 2021 re-imposing Level 5 restrictions with further enhanced limitations to movement and activities. The current government restrictions are outlined in full here.

(On 2nd August 2020, the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020 became law. The commencement of this Act, ended the original emergency measures introduced for tenants back in March 2020).

Housing Management

Can rents be increased/reviewed at this time?
Is rent collection and rent assessment being affected?
How should rent arrears be dealt with?
Can evictions take place now?
Can tenants now gain their Part 4 rights again?
Are the RTB dispute resolution processes operating as normal now?
What are the timeframes for the dispute resolution services at this time?
Are allocations still taking place?
Can pre-tenancy training continue?
Should AHBs be carrying out repairs?
How can we make tenants in our multi-unit development aware of the advice on Covid-19?

Housing Development

Is Construction considered an Essential Service?

Sheltered / Supported Housing

Insurance

Some of our units are void pending refurbishment – do we still need to do weekly inspections?
Is separate insurance required for employees working from home?
Can the annual servicing of gas boilers be postponed if they are due during this emergency period?
Are there insurance implications if properties are allocated for health service staff or as self isolation units as requested by the  authorities?

Human Resources

What Protocols and policies do we need to have in place before returning to work?
Does there need to be a designated staff member responsible for the implementation of these protocols and measures?
Is there training required for returning to the workplace?
Is there guidance around travelling to and from work?

Housing Management

Can rents be increased/reviewed at this time?

Yes, from 2nd August, rent reviews and rent increases can now take effect again as long as the usual rent setting and review rules for AHBs are adhered to. Rent increases become payable by the tenant with no back-dating permitted. Rent decreases continue to be allowed, whether the rent review notice was served before or during the emergency periods under the Covid-19 Act 2020 or the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020. Please note that if the tenant meets the criteria in relation to rent arrears as per Part 3 (Residential Tenancies) of the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020 (PDRTA), he or she is not required to pay an increase in rent during the period up to and including 12 April 2021. See further information here: https://www.rtb.ie/emergency-measures-ended-new-protections-introduced-for-the-rental-sector/dealing-with-rent-arrears-after-the-emergency-period

Is rent collection and rent assessment being affected?

Door-to-door rent collection or receiving rent payments in person is relatively rare. However, AHBs should contact tenants that make rent payments in person and encourage them to make their rent payments through other means for the duration of the restrictions. This is a time of considerable financial uncertainty for many with the slowdown in economic activity having a knock-on effect on some employment. We would advise members to deal sensitively with any tenants facing such worries or uncertainty. The ICSH advises its members to:

  • encourage tenants to approach them at an early stage if they are worried about their finances.
  • assure tenants on differential rents that any changed income will be factored into their rent calculations, while being realistic that these calculations may not be done immediately and may take some time to resolve.
  • keep tenants informed of social welfare assistance available to them.

How should rent arrears be dealt with?

The RTB have implemented a new 10-step process as per the new rules and requirements under Part 3 (Residential Tenancies) of the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020 (PDRTA) for both landlords and tenants relating to tenancy terminations due to rent arrears during the period of 11 January up to and including 12 April 2021. The PDRTA replaces the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020, which was in place from 1 August 2020 until 10 January 2021 inclusive. Failure to adhere to these steps will lead to a Notice of Termination being deemed invalid. Further details of the process can be found here: https://www.rtb.ie/emergency-measures-ended-new-protections-introduced-for-the-rental-sector/dealing-with-rent-arrears-after-the-emergency-period. AHBs are encouraged to actively engage with their tenants throughout this period where there are concerns about payment of rent.

Can evictions take place at this time?

In accordance with the RTA 2020, notices of termination can still be served, as usual, during an Emergency Period, subject to certain exceptions (as below). A Notice of Termination cannot take effect during an Emergency Period. The duration of any Emergency Period will not count as part of any termination notice period given.

As such, the RTA 2020 introduces a revised termination date upon the expiry of any Emergency Period. The revised termination date factors in the Emergency Period plus an extra 10-day grace period. Effectively, a revised termination date will be calculated counting:

  • all (or the remainder) of the original termination notice given;
  • all (or the remainder) of the Emergency Period; and
  • the 10-day grace period.

The earliest someone can be made to leave their accommodation is 10 days after an Emergency Period is lifted.

The temporary prohibition on tenancy terminations is subject to a number of exceptions. This means that the temporary prohibitions on tenancy terminations taking effect will not apply in these cases. This applies where a tenant has failed to comply with their obligations, including:

  • Anti-social behaviour; or
  • Behaviour that invalidates a landlord’s insurance; or
  • Use of the dwelling other than as a residential accommodation unit, without the landlord’s written consent; or
  • Behaviour that threatens the dwelling.

In these instances, a landlord is entitled to serve a Notice of Termination to end the tenancy following usual rules.

For more information, please refer to the RTB website: https://www.rtb.ie/emergency-measures-ended-new-protections-introduced-for-the-rental-sector

It should be noted that, even in times of lower restrictions, where a tenant is in rent arrears as a result of Covid-19, the protections under the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020 apply.

Can tenants now gain their Part 4 rights again?

Part 4 rights cannot be gained from the period of 31st December to 31st January as NoTs cannot be served nor evictions carried out at this time.

The RTA 2020 provides that a tenant will not acquire any security of tenure rights under Part 4 of the Act by virtue of the restrictions imposed on Notices of Terminations taking effect or a tenant being allowed to remain within a dwelling during the emergency period.

Are the RTB dispute resolution processes operating as normal now?

From the 16th March, all face to face hearings for RTB Adjudications and Tribunals were adjourned. Telephone Mediations are continuing as normal. Paper Based Adjudications (where an adjudicator reviews the case files without a hearing and liaised with all parties remotely) began in April and Telephone Tribunals resumed in June. The RTB are currently working towards virtual and a safe return to face to face hearings for both Adjudication and Tribunals.

What are the timeframes for the dispute resolution services at this time?

Due to all RTB staff working from home and the government restrictions, cases have not been scheduled for a number of weeks leading to a backlog. As a result of this, the RTB have advised that there could be a delay of 6 to 8 weeks on top of the usual timeframes for their dispute resolution services.

Are allocations still taking place?

It is clearly important that allocations of social housing in local authority and AHB housing continue to occur as they not only give a household a secure tenancy they also, in many cases, free up a private rented unit for another household. It is imperative that allocations continue to happen as long as compliance with HSE advice is possible and the guidance on the ICSH’s website is applicable in this regard.

It is noted that during this next six-week period ordinary allocations may be delayed, but it is important that urgent allocations proceed in order to support the immediate health and welfare of the persons involved. We would ask that AHBs stay in touch with local authorities and work together, as they did in the last lockdown, to prioritise urgent cases as identified by the local authorities. If any difficulties arise in terms of your staff being able to conduct this very important work, please advise us and we will work through any issues.

Allocations should continue if they involve moving people out of homeless or otherwise unstable or unsafe accommodation. For other allocations that you are unsure about continuing with, consult with the relevant local authority to ascertain if they are priority allocations that should proceed. With any allocations you may have concerns about, consult with the relevant local authority to determine if there are additional measures to be considered when organising an allocation. Housing associations should risk assess before carrying out any interviews for allocating new or void units in person and minimise the need for face to face interaction as much as is possible. Creative ways of carrying out interviews should be considered such as over Skype or other video messaging or over the phone. Consideration should also be given to the fact that new tenants may still find it a difficult time to move with reduced family/friend support and still a somewhat reduced access to goods or services. Each case should be looked at independently, having regard to the safety and stability of an applicant’s current housing situation and whether or not they are in an at-risk group. A full risk assessment should take place and social distancing and strict hygiene protocols should be followed at all times if carrying out interviews in person or during all aspects of the letting process.

Click here to download a guide on current practices being adopted by AHBs to ensure that they can continue allocating properties to priority households whilst maintaining safe social distancing practice (Dated 24th April 2020).

Can pre-tenancy training continue?

Under Level 5, no organised indoor activities can take place – this would include pre-tenancy training. When indoor activity resumes again, it should allow for physical distancing of 2 metres and have adequate ventilation if taking place indoors. Housing Associations should be mindful that people are being asked to limit the number of people they come in contact with and to keep the meeting timeframe to a minimum to reduce the possibility of Covid transfer. Details of all those present will be required for the purposes of a log and can serve as a contact tracing tool if someone present should become ill. It is however acknowledged that these guidelines could be difficult to follow in any organised indoor setting and other methods of pre-tenancy training should be explored where appropriate, such as online information sessions or delivered by post.

Should AHBs be carrying out repairs?

The supply and delivery of essential and emergency maintenance and repair services to businesses and places of residence (including electrical, gas, plumbing, glazing and roofing services) can be carried out at this time under Level 5. Please note additional information below on construction works permitted during this emergency period.

Tradespeople must adhere to the HSE guidelines on hygiene and social distancing. New measures have been implemented in order to carry out this work such as PPE acquiring and training or have other considerations such as childcare, responsibility for a vulnerable family member or even be at risk themselves, so we would advise you to speak with contractors to gauge your own capacity to deliver these services. You should signpost your contractors to the current government guidance available before providing a service to the AHB. Contractors must ensure they are following the guidelines for social distancing and hygiene and should also carry out a risk assessment of the situation and act accordingly. Details can be found here.

If a repair is required in a property where there is a suspected or confirmed case of Covid-19 or where someone is self-isolating, then the HSE should be contacted regarding best practice and in relation to protective equipment for any tradespeople. The HSE Live number is Callsave 1850 24 1850 / 041 6850300 and is manned 8am – 8pm Monday to Friday and 10am – 5pm Saturday and Sunday or via their website.

How can we make tenants in our multi-unit development aware of the advice on Covid-19?

AHBs should consider putting up HSE posters in common areas with advice on social distancing and preventing the spread of COVID-19. These posters are available from the HSE website. Communication by notices posted to letterboxes, or posters erected in lobbies, halls, lift cars, and carparks may be most effective.

Depending on the level that your county is in, returning to workplaces and other activities may be resuming, therefore it might be worth reminding tenants of the House Rules, and that respect and consideration for neighbours will continue to help communities to continue to effectively work together during the pandemic. Email or written communication would be the most appropriate format for such a reminder.

Housing Development

Is Construction considered an Essential Service?

Under the current Level 5 restrictions, construction will close from 6pm on Friday 8 January, with limited exceptions including:

  • social housing projects, including voids, designated as essential sites by Local Authorities based on set criteria
  • housing adaptation grants where the homeowner is agreeable to adaptions being undertaken in their home
  • supply and delivery of essential or emergency maintenance and repair services to businesses and places of residence (including electrical, gas, plumbing, glazing and roofing services) on an emergency call-out basis

The criteria that apply in relation to social housing projects, which are contracted by or on behalf of a local authority or an AHB are as follows:

  • the housing project is essential to prevent, limit, minimise or slow the spread of COVID-19;
  • the contractor employed by the local authority or the Approved Housing Body/Lessor has confirmed that they can undertake the works in accordance with HSE and all Government COVID-19-related guidelines and recommendations, including the Return to Work Safely Protocol;
  • the local authority confirms that the completion of the housing project is necessary to alleviate homelessness, overcrowding, the numbers in emergency or temporary accommodation and to facilitate transfers from other forms of social or supported housing in order to prevent, limit, minimise or slow the spread of COVID-19;
  • the project is funded by the Department of Housing under the range of social housing funding provisions; and
  • the project will be completed by 28 February 2021.

AHBs should contact the relevant local authority only if they have projects that meet the criteria above if they wish those projects to be considered for designation as essential projects.

Sheltered/Supported Housing

Who should be considered vulnerable / at risk tenants?

Those aged 70 years and over and the medically vulnerable should continue to exercise judgement regarding the extent to which they engage with others and in activities outside home. It is recommended that they stay at home as much as possible, limit engagement to a very small network for short periods of time, while remaining physically distanced. When taking exercise outdoors, it is important to maintain 2 metres distance from others and wash hands on returning home. It is recommended to shop during designated hours only, while wearing a face covering, and to avoid public transport.

What guidance is available for vulnerable group settings in the Covid-19 crisis?

The Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) has issued various guidance documents for vulnerable groups such as people experiencing homelessness, Travellers, refugees and asylum seekers: https://www.hpsc.ie/a-z/respiratory/coronavirus/novelcoronavirus/guidance/vulnerablegroupsguidance/

Responding to domestic violence

The Garda National Protective Services Bureau (GNPSB) is overseeing the implementation of ‘Operation Faoisimh’, a proactive initiative, commenced as part of An Garda Síochána community engagement response to COVID-19, to ensure victims of domestic abuse are supported and protected in this extraordinary time. The initiative utilises the Garda Victim Services Offices nationwide to facilitate phone contact with previous victims of domestic abuse to ascertain any existing issues of concern and to ensure the protection of families. Any concerns will be immediately responded to by An Garda Síochána. An Garda Síochána is available to help and support anyone who is a victim of the crime of Domestic Abuse, they should contact their local Garda station or in an emergency call 999/112. More information on Operation Faoisimh is available here.

Safe Ireland is the national social change agency working with 38 domestic violence services across the country. Details of these services, inlcuding the freephone national helpline, are available here. https://www.safeireland.ie/get-help/where-to-find-help/

Should we be providing any additional services to our tenants?

Many AHBs are still providing additional services to ensure their vulnerable tenants remain well and safe, for example grocery / prescription delivery, delivering meals, regular telephone contact, provision of hand sanitizer in communal areas etc. This is dependent on the availability of staff and resources in the AHB and guidelines for social distancing and hygiene should be strictly followed. There have been many reports of mental health issues arising due to isolation and restricted movement and these tenants should be supported as much as possible.

What is best practice if one or more of our older tenants (in one complex) are diagnosed as positive for Covid-19?

If you are notified of a tenant being diagnosed as positive for Covid-19 and they require your assistance, HSE and HPSC guidance should be adhered to. The HPSC guidance for dealing with Covid-19 in settings for vulnerable people sets out the following.

If the person feels unwell with symptoms of COVID-19 (e.g. cough, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, high temperature) then they should:

  • Isolate themselves (i.e. stay indoors and completely avoiding contact with other people or at least 1- 2 metres distance away from them)
  • Testing should be arranged for them by contacting their GP. If they do not have a GP the ambulance service should be contacted on 112 or 999 to arrange testing. (The HSE is currently working on a streamlined care pathway to prioritise testing of patients in vulnerable groups)
  • They should remain in isolation until the test results are back.
  • They should not be visited by outside persons while they are in self-isolation.

AHBs that have confirmed cases of Covid-19 are generally carrying out additional services where needed by the tenant (groceries, prescriptions) and increasing the check-in contact with the tenant while they are in isolation to ensure their safety and well-being. You may also want to consider additional cleaning of communal areas where the affected tenant may have been.

Should we notify other tenants that there has been a Covid-19 case in the housing scheme?

In cases where positive Covid-19 cases have arisen in AHBs, the AHB has generally notified other tenants in the scheme of the occurrence of a case, with advice to be extra vigilant in accordance with HSE guidelines to avoid the spread of the virus. The diagnosed tenant’s name and details should not be disclosed in accordance with GDPR.

Should we be carrying out additional cleaning services?

AHBs are continuing to be extra vigilant around cleaning in communal areas, particularly of frequently touched areas such as door handles, light switches and lifts, where applicable. Where possible, this should continue for the foreseeable future.

Are we responsible for the cleaning of a tenant’s apartment who had Covid-19?

The current legislation does not specify if the landlord is responsible for this. ICSH is aware, however, of some AHBs who have arranged and paid for a deep clean of an affected tenant’s dwelling, as it is highly unlikely that a vulnerable tenant would be able to arrange/afford this. The approximate cost for this ranges from €200 to €300 per room. Deep cleaning of communal areas would be an additional cost.

The HPSC guidance on vulnerable groups has further guidance on cleaning of self-isolation units and communal areas. https://www.hpsc.ie/a-z/respiratory/coronavirus/novelcoronavirus/guidance/vulnerablegroupsguidance/

Can our Day Care Centres operate under the current restrictions?

Under Level 5 restrictions, it is stipulated that no indoor gatherings should take place and you should contact the HSE in your area to determine what support services can still be provided under the current restrictions.

Should we impose visitor restrictions in our schemes?

Under Level 5, visits to households (both indoors and outdoors in gardens) are not permitted except for essential family reasons such as providing care to children, elderly or vulnerable people, or as part of a support bubble. The concept of an extended household (or support bubble) is to support those who risk isolation, such as single adult households and those who have shared parenting or shared custody arrangements; those living alone who have mental health challenges, or those living with partner with dementia for example. Tenants should exercise their own responsibility in relation to the latest Government guidance. Housing Associations can provide updates to their tenants on the latest Government advice.

Homeless Services

Can homeless services continue?

Yes, Homeless services (including homeless outreach services) are designated as essential services under level 5 restrictions.

Insurance

The following guidance has been provided by Allianz, underwriters to the ICSH Group Insurance Scheme. As such, this guidance only applies to units covered under this scheme.  Should you have an alternative insurer you should check directly with your provider about your cover during this time and any policy amendments that may be required.

Some of our units are void pending refurbishment – do we still need to do weekly inspections?

Under the group insurance scheme Allianz have agreed to provide full cover without the weekly checks being carried out. Where possible, the unoccupied premises should be secured.

Is separate insurance required for employees working from home?

Allianz have extended insurance policies to cover employees working from home.

Can the annual servicing of gas boilers be postponed if they are due during this emergency period?

Under the Rental Housing Regulations 2019 gas, oil and electricity installations should be maintained in good repair and safe working order. If your annual service was due to take place during the lockdown, under the group insurance scheme, it is acceptable to postpone them. However, any concerns or potential leaks should still be reported to the authorities and servicing should be prioritised as soon as possible after the lockdown ends. We will monitor this area should the lockdown continue for a longer than expected period.

Are there insurance implications if properties are allocated for health service staff or as self-isolation units as requested by the authorities?

If a property is being allocated as a self-isolation unit during Covid 19 at the request of the HSE, then the HSE should be providing the insurances for these units and providing an indemnity to the AHB.

Human Resources


What Protocols and policies do we need to have in place before returning to work?

The Government’s Return to Work Safely Protocol provides information and support to employers and workers to put measures in place to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 in the workplace: https://dbei.gov.ie/en/Publications/Publication-files/Return-to-Work-Safely-Protocol.pdf

In conjunction with this, the Health and Safety Authority has provided templates and checklists for employees and workers for a safe return to work: https://www.hsa.ie/eng/topics/covid-19/covid-19_coronavirus.html

All employers must prepare and put systems and controls in place before they reopen their business and workplaces.

Employers must:

  • Appoint at least one lead worker representative to make sure safety measures are in place and being followed.
  • Update business and safety plans, including the business COVID-19 Response Plan, the occupational health and safety risk assessment and the safety statement. Include how to deal with a suspected case of COVID-19 in the safety plans and appoint a dedicated manager in charge of dealing with suspected cases.
  • Develop, consult on, communicate and implement workplace changes or policies.
  • Send out a pre-return to work form to employees at least 3 days before their return to work. The form will ask employees to confirm they have not had symptoms of COVID-19 in the past 14 days, have not been diagnosed or suspected of COVID-19 in the past 14 days, have not been in close contact with someone confirmed or suspected of COVID-19 in the past 14 days and are not self-isolating or cocooning. You can get a return to work form template from the HSA website. Note: Employers should not directly receive any test results from the HSE. Rather, the results should be provided to the person tested, who should then pass on the outcome to his or her employer.
  • Provide COVID-19 induction training for all staff.
  • Put in place temperature testing in line with public health advice.

The Citizens Information website has more information here: https://www.citizensinformation.ie/en/employment/return_to_work/returning_to_work_and_covid19.html#l17a59

Examples of protocols and policies that AHBs have put in place include:

  • A return to Work form (to establish that the employee is healthy and well
  • A close contact log
  • Remote working / working from home policy
  • Using public transport for work related business policy
  • A workplace guide e.g. using the canteen, hygiene and cleaning measures
  • Updating of GDPR policies to reflect new types of data processing

Does there need to be a designated staff member responsible for the implementation of these protocols and measures?

Yes, an employer should appoint at least one lead worker representative whose role is to work collaboratively with the employer to assist in the implementation of measures and monitor adherence to the measures to prevent the spread of COVID -19. The number of representatives appointed will, ideally, be proportionate to the number of workers in the workplace and these key personnel will be clearly identifiable in the workplace.

Is there training required for returning to the workplace?

The person(s) undertaking the above role above must receive the necessary training and have a structured framework to follow within the organisation to be effective in preventing the spread of the virus. Employers will provide a COVID-19 induction training for all workers to help prevent and minimise the spread of Covid-19 in the workplace.

Is there guidance around travelling to and from work?

People should work from home unless absolutely necessary to attend in person or if they are providing an essential service for which their physical presence is required (click here for list of essential services). If you do need to travel to work, you should travel alone if using your personal car for work or at a maximum travel with one other passenger who should adhere to physical distancing guidelines as much as possible. Your employer should provide you with hand sanitisers and cleaning equipment for your work vehicle.

Under Level 5 restrictions the following applies in relation to public transport:

  • Face coverings are mandatory and must be worn.
  • Walk or cycle where possible.
  • Public transport capacity will be restricted to 25%.
  • Avoid public transport – essential workers and essential purposes only.