From top: Daft ad: Dr Michael Byrne
Tenants have more rights when buying a chicken sandwich from a deli than when renting a home.
Dr Michael Byrne writes:
Budget 2017 was another slap in the face for tenants in the private rented sector.
The main housing initiative was the so-called ‘help to buy’ scheme which will make it possible for people spending €600,000 on a three bedroom semi-detached home get €20,000 for the state (although this will ultimately be absorbed by the developer via increased house prices).
Landlords got some nice additional tax breaks. But tenants, who have seen average rent increases of 40% in the last three years, got nothing.
Many of us were already left speechless when the government’s Rebuilding Ireland housing plan failed to include a single measure for the private rented sector. This leaves all hope resting on Minister for Housing Simon Coveney’s forthcoming National Strategy for the private rental sector.
For this strategy to have any impact, however, it must get beyond the narrow lens of ‘supply’ which has dominated the debate so far.
This approach is based on a straightforward idea: if we have more supply of rental accommodation, rent increases will stabilize and everyone will be able to find a place to live.
Let’s set aside for a moment the obvious problem that in the real world of the Irish housing system there is no direct correlation between supply and rent levels.
Perhaps more importantly, what is forgotten here is that private rental housing in this country is inherently dysfunctional and a contravention of the right of tenants to a home. Once we appreciate this the absurdity of focusing solely on supply becomes clear.
Let’s take a brief look at what passes for normal in the private rental sector. To take one example, during the first six months of a tenancy any landlord can evict any tenant for no reason whatsoever.
Imagine you’ve moved house. You’ve just got your routine together, the kids settled in their new bedrooms, the school run and morning commute figured out. Then you get a letter from your landlord saying you have 28 days (that’s right 28 days) to get out.
Why? Maybe he just doesn’t feel like it anymore. Maybe he thinks he can get more money from someone else.
In the end it doesn’t matter, because your landlord is perfectly entitled to do this.
If banks had a similar ‘grace period’ during which they could pull out of mortgage contracts or local authorities had similar eviction powers for social housing tenants it would be a national scandal. But tenants in the private rented sector don’t seem to matter so much.
Even after this ‘grace period’ of six months there are ample opportunities for landlords to evict. They may have a child, cousin, niece, nephew, aunty (etc.) who want to use the property.They may wish to sell. Maybe they want to refurbish.
All of these are, under current regulations, valid reasons to terminate a tenancy. It’s not hard to imagine abuse of these regulations by, for example, simply pretending the house is required for family use. At the Dublin Tenants Association, in which I participate, we see this every week.
In short, there is no security of tenure in the private rented sector.
Meanwhile, it is impossible to know how much you will be paying for rent this time next year. Rent increases of as much as €600 per month are not uncommon.
With average rents for a one bedroom apartment in Dublin currently around €1,200, if you are working full time on the minimum wage your rent will take up 80% of your take home pay.
The only ‘regulation’ is that landlords cannot increase the rent above the level of ‘market rent’. This is simply absurd since landlords define what the market rent is.
The key point is that in today’s world it is simply not possible to live like this. Apart from the very real risk of homelessness, how are we supposed to save, take out pensions or plan for our future on any level if the only thing we know about our housing costs is that they will go up?
The condition of accommodation in the rental sector is similarly dismaying. The reality is that today you have more rights when buying a chicken sandwich from a deli than when renting a home.
If you buy a chicken sandwich with mold on it you’ll get all of your money returned in full. If the deli keeps selling moldy produce it will be shut down. Try getting a landlord to deal with mold and the weakness of the regulations will become all too clear.
It is perfectly obvious that no one can feel secure and safe in their home in these conditions. Is this the kind of housing we want to increase the supply of? Do we want even more households to have no idea where they’ll be living next year or even next month and even less of an idea how much they’ll be paying for it?
Currently one third of all households in Dublin are in the private rental sector. Do we want 40% of even 50% of households in the capital to be subjected to the chaos, instability and woeful standards of this sector?
The answer is an emphatic no. The debate needs to change and it needs to change immediately.
Let me be very clear, housing supply needs to increase, there can be no debate about that. But we need to move away from a narrow focus on supply and recognize the necessity for radically transforming the private rental sector. This means placing security of tenure at the centre of policy reform and it means regulating the affordability of rents.
If you happen to be part of the very small minority that are developers, bankers and landlords by all means continue to focus solely on supply. After all that makes it more likely you’ll get tax incentives and other handouts from the government.
For tenants and for anyone who cares about the right to housing, however, we need to recognize that it’s time we saw a systematic change of the private rental sector for once and for all.