There’s a strong smell of mould. My daughter wrinkles her nose and whispers, “God, mum, it stinks in here.” Downstairs, a living room with cheap laminate flooring, curling at the edges, has a tumble dryer sitting in the middle of it. I turn to the landlord. “So where does this go? Does it fit in the kitchen?” The landlord looks at me, sighs, and digs deep into the pool of available estate agent jargon: “Well you see, it’s a unique situation,” he says. “What does that mean?” “Well, the dryer stays in here; the last tenants pushed it over to the window and put the hose out when they wanted to use it.” Unique is right; it’s a unique rip-off. €1,170 per month. No yard or outdoor space, on-street parking, rooms in a shameful condition with the most miserly effort imaginable to make them, loosely speaking, fit to let. Welcome to house-hunting in Cork’s rental market in 2017.
It’s hard to write about this without anger. I have lived and worked in Cork City all my life. It’s my home; my community. More importantly, it’s my children’s home, and their community. I work hard and I should be in a position to rent a modest property for a fair price. Yet a combination of inaction, apathy and strategic ineptitude on the issue of housing, through successive governments, has led to a situation where rental inflation in Cork was 16% in 2016.
Against this background, I’m house-hunting, moving from the rented property on the outskirts of the city where I raised my children for ten years; as a single mother, the bottom rung on the property ladder was always just out of reach, so we got by with renting.
We’d like to stay close to school, work, friends and family, but with prices as they currently stand, we may be forced out. Standard 3-bed semi-detached properties in areas of the city accessible to school are being advertised at a breath-taking €1,400-€1,600 per month.
In areas with good transport links to the city, like Midleton and Cobh, prices aren’t much below this.
In fact, by the time you factor in travel costs and time lost to commuting, you’re probably making a loss more than a saving in the current market.
Since the staggered introduction of Rental Pressure Zones (RPZs) in Cork, with a 4% cap applied first in the city centre last December and then further afield in Carrigaline and Ballincollig, followed by Cobh, prices seem to have risen still further, especially in the satellite belt.
Housing charity Threshold’s regional manager, Niall Horgan, says that they’re witnessing a “domino effect” out into the county, as landlords fearful of a cap being applied jump the gun and hike up their asking price. It seems my situation isn’t uncommon.
“It’s not fair for rents in towns like Youghal to be comparable to city rents,” Niall says, “but that’s what is happening. It would have made far more sense to have announced a blanket cap nationwide. Families are being pushed out to the satellite towns.” Threshold also advocated for a 1% cap, linked to the Consumer Price Index; as it stands, over three years, even renters within the RPZs could have suffered a 12% increase. That may be an improvement on the inflation of last year but it’s still too little, too late, and a worrying burden for tenants to face. As Niall puts it, “who is going to see wage increases of 12% in the next three years?” So my little family is stuck between the rock of cramming ourselves into a property far too small for our needs, where communal living space will be sacrificed for beds, or the hard place of facing into a couple of hours of commuting every day.
I try to keep remembering that we’re the lucky ones. I’ve interviewed young women in the homeless shelter in Edel House who are raising babies, minding energetic toddlers, and navigating Daniel Blake levels of bureaucracy in tiny cramped quarters with no ability to plan for any future or any stability for their children. Every time I’ve helped share those stories, I’m reminded: that could be us. With a little less family support, or less education, or with the addition of illness or other unforeseen strain, that would be us.
Social housing is urgently needed. But I don’t want to be told that social housing is being “destigmatised”; I’m lucky enough to be able to work two jobs, why isn’t this enough to be able to afford to live in my hometown without government subsidising the profits of developers and landlords? This is a shameful failing of government to protect basic living standards for Irish people by providing effective regulation. Politicians scared of losing votes amongst the powerful class of property owners, developers and bankers simply won’t take effective steps.
There’s one simple step that would bring about an institutional change to the rental market, and if I were a law-maker who cared about the conditions in my country more than currying favour for future electoral success, here’s what I’d do: I’d regulate those elephants in the corner, the letting agents, so that they could no longer work on a percentage commission, but on a flat rate per property.
Although in the press, the narrative is depicted as one of landlord vs tenant, the position of a large swathe of middle-men; the letting and estate agents, is completely overlooked. They work on commission, so it’s in their interests to command the highest possible price, and they seem to have carte blanche.
I view one property that’s in a laughable condition; it’s an open viewing, and we queue outside as eight Italian call-centre workers argue with each other and poke around. When we get in for a look I naively approach the estate agent with the idea of seeing if I can negotiate the price downwards, in light of the horrible state of the place. He smiles smugly and hands me a form; I must apply for the privilege of renting here.
The form demands photo ID for each prospective occupant, and other sensitive details confirming income, PPS number etcetera. Later, I tell this story to Niall Horgan. “I’d like to hear more about who that agent was,” he says. “There could be a pretty big data protection issue right there.” I hadn’t thought of that; photos of my children sitting in a filing cabinet in an estate agent’s office? Accessible to whom?
Logging on to daft.ie to search the listings is depressingly apt, because the situation is indeed daft.
Getting a handle on the lingo used by the agents takes some time, but eventually, like the tumble-dryer landlord, I learn. “Stunning” means it’s been painted; “cosy” means you can’t open the fridge and the washing machine at the same time, while “unique” usually means that it is actually not designed for human habitation at all; on the Model Farm Road, it’s €1,000 per month for a one-bed that is essentially a renovated home office in someone’s back garden. It is, Sherry Fitzgerald say, “unique.” I didn’t take up on the tumble-dryer landlord’s “unique” offer. We’re still hunting, but I hope that by the time this goes to print we won’t be. I still feel angry, powerless and stressed, but I’m optimistic that we’ll find somewhere with no mould. We should manage that. Just about.