From top: The Dublin Tenants Association; Dr Rory Hearne
Private renters have been amongst Ireland’s forgotten and ignored households. But politicians can no longer downplay their importance and the difficult situation many live in the sector.
Over 800,000 people in this country now live in the private rented sector – that’s almost 20%, or a fifth of all households. This is double the number of households in the sector over a decade ago. And in the cities and towns it is even higher.
In Dublin, it is estimated a quarter, one in four households, are in the private rental sector. However, up to this point the voice of the private tenant has been largely absent within debates on the housing crisis, with the voices of landlords and other interests much more dominant.
We also know that the new global investor landlords like Kennedy Wilson and Real Estate Investment Trusts have the ear of the government.
So how can private renters make their voice heard in the public and political debate?
Tonight there is an important public meeting taking place in Dublin City Centre (details here) to try and do just that. If you are a tenant in the private rental sector you should try and get there.
It is being organised by the Dublin Tenants Association (DTA). DTA is a “private rented sector tenant-led support group, who believe that decent affordable and secure housing is a right for everyone” and that tenants are “primary stakeholders in the private rented sector” and, therefore, should be an important concern for housing policy.
The meeting tonight is discussing the issue of tenant security – how poor it is in Ireland, where tenants cannot get long-term leases and can be evicted relatively easily by landlords.
There will also be advice for tenants on their existing entitlements and discussion on improvements to security of tenure that could ensure tenants are not forced to go from short-lease to another short-lease and so they can actually get long term security, create a home in a community, and do not live in fear of eviction.
Charities and NGOs like Threshold, Focus, Simon and Inner City Helping Homeless, have been doing a really important job raising issues of rising homelessness resulting from unaffordable rents and evictions and poor conditions in the private rental sector.
However, they are not explicitly set up to represent and mobilise tenants in the private rental sector as a group.
There is a need, therefore, along with these important services and charities, for the growth of strong private sector tenant’s organisations, such as Dublin Tenants Association, that can organise and represent private tenants, just like trade unions do for workers or the IFA does for farmers.
Given that households renting in the private rental sector are now such a large and growing proportion of the population, and many of these households are families with children they require greater political attention and a voice of their own.
Particularly as they often face living in substandard conditions, unaffordable rents, and the lack of security of home and, therefore, an inability to set down roots and be part of a community –which is a major problem for families with children who need a secure base. They are constantly facing possibility of being moved.
Part of the reason why private tenants have been treated like second class citizens in housing and politics is that it has been reviewed as a temporary or transitory form of housing, with home ownership seen as the ideal or where people are going to. But that is no longer the case.
A majority of households aged 35 and under are now renting their home. Back in 1991, a majority of households over the age of 26 were renting their home. So now we have added a decade of renting to people’s lives.
This is ‘generation rent’. But given the lack of affordable housing many in ‘generation rent’ could be in rental accommodation for their life. Policy has to recognise this and change to reflect this new reality. It has to improve tenant’s rights to ensure they have a secure and affordable home.
The other reason why private tenants have been ignored is because they are viewed as a profit-making investment for people with money and wealth. Government and banks have promoted the private rental sector as a key investment – for people’s pensions, for the wealthy, and for global property investors like Kennedy Wilson. The buy-to-let sector has been a key area for investment.
But we have seen the failure of this approach with a high level of buy-to-lets in mortgage arrears. These are a significant proportion of the mortgages in arrears being sold off by PTSB and other banks which means the tenants in these properties are facing losing their homes also.
The government has done little because they have viewed rising rents as a key way to attract in investors and vulture funds to buy up these ‘non-performing loans’ off the banks and get them back to profitability, irrespective of the impact on those living in these properties as their home.
Government took the view that introducing greater tenants’ protections and rights would lessen their investment attractiveness and therefore refused to intervene and allowed rents rise – and homelessness rise- and left tenants be evicted.
Of course it is no coincidence either that one in five TDs and Ministers are landlords. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have the highest number of landlords amongst their TDs, with key government Ministers such as former Minister for Environment and Housing and now Tanaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney, Junior Ministers Paul Kehoe and John Paul Phelan and Dublin Bay South Fine Gael TD Kate O Connell all landlords and owners of investment properties.
This has to be a major issue of conflict of interest. It is landlords making decisions to benefit landlords. The elite in Ireland protecting the investments of the elite.
The Fine-Gael Labour Government introduced the tax break for big global investors in rental property –through the Real Estate Investment Trust tax incentive in 2013. This, added to many other tax loop-holes available for investors in Ireland, has seen investors now buying more homes than first-time buyers.
For example, just recently global property investors just bought Ireland’s tallest residential tower – the Elysian in Cork City Centre according to the Examiner. The Elysian has 211 apartments and a rent roll close to €5 million per annum. Kennedy Wilson now owns 2100 residential units in Ireland, and aims to expand to 5,000 units over the coming years.
In 2010 First-Time buyers bought 12,000, or 42% of homes for sale, while investors (named in the graph below as Household Buyer-non-occupier and Non-Household Buyer) bought half that number, just 6,254, or 21% of homes for sale.
But by 2017, the proportion of First time buyers had fallen substantially as they bought just 21% of all homes for sale, while investors now bought almost twice the amount of first time buyers and increased their proportion – now buying a third of all homes (33%, 20,000 properties) for sale.
Currently private tenants are not seen as a political force in Ireland and politicians pay little attention to their concerns. But this is likely to change as private rental tenants are stuck and are increasingly frustrated and angered by an inability to buy affordable housing and unable to make a home in private rental housing.
It will also change if private tenants raise their voice – get organised and take public action – like these public meetings, the actions against landlord evictions being taken by Dublin Central Housing Action, and get involved in wider housing crisis protests such as that being held on April 7th by the National Homeless and Housing Coalition.
They need to increase their media profile and mobilise tenants to define and highlight their key policy ‘asks’ or ‘demands’. There are real political opportunities coming up in the next 18 months between local elections next year and a likely general election. These are key points where private tenants could intervene – by engaging in a voter registration drive among tenants, producing a set of policy demands and highlighting which parties support (or not) these.
The political reality is that we are in a volatile time – no political party can take for granted voter support or allegiance as was the case in the past. And none of the big parties are likely to get an overall majority in the coming election so they are reliant on others for support, and this makes governments politically weaker and more open to public opinion at times. Voters are also much more influenced by a variety of factors and are increasingly making their decisions during elections.
This means groups such as Dublin Tenants Association and other civil society and campaigning groups can have an influence, in influencing policy of government but also in the run up to and during elections if they are organised to highlight their issues at this time.
Particularly in places like Dublin, Galway, Waterford, Cork and Limerick, if private renters got organised and took action they could be a substantial political force.
Dr Rory Hearne is a policy analyst, academic, social justice campaigner. He writes here in a personal capacity. Follow Rory on Twitter: @roryhearne