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STRUCTURE EE_062016_general_layout.tpl - url: /opinion/End-Wild-West-situation-for-our-tenants-14d1656e-92fb-4184-9613-fc9e78610ef6-ds

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KEY FINDINGS: A study by UCC found tenants were suffering a range of problems owing to a lack of rights and regulations
KEY FINDINGS: A study by UCC found tenants were suffering a range of problems owing to a lack of rights and regulations

End ‘Wild West’ situation for our tenants

FOR many of the 700,000 people in Ireland currently dependent on the private rental sector to put a roof over their heads, the one-two punch of diminished supply and spiralling inaffordability in recent years has both exposed and aggravated the precarious nature of rental tenure in this country.

The mounting challenges facing renters, not just in accessing but retaining rental accommodation, have seen rising numbers face eviction — and sometimes forced into homelessness — by a sheer inability to pay, or the use by landlords of legal provisions (including those around refurbishments or property sales) to unilaterally end tenancies.

Just ask the residents of Leeside Apartments here in Cork city, whose recent attempted eviction by a ‘vulture fund’ landlord into a local rental market with vanishingly few options — affordable or otherwise — starkly illustrated the fact that despite rounds of legislative and regulatory reform since the turn of the century, security of rental tenure in Ireland remains elusive.

But not all those renting privately benefit from the relatively modest legal and regulatory protections in place. In fact, whole categories of renter, including those living with the person with whom they made a rental agreement — be it sharing with an existing tenant or as a lodger in the home of a resident landlord — are legally considered to be residing under license rather than on the basis of a regular tenancy.

This status confers rights and responsibilities akin to those residing as guests in accommodation such as hotels, nursing homes or emergency shelters, not only disqualifying licensee renters from the security of tenure provisions for tenants laid out in law, but also protections around housing standards, regulation of rent increases, and access to landlord-tenant dispute resolution processes, and more. And because such occupancies don’t require landlord registration with the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB), there is little hard data on just how many are renting in this way — let alone their experiences.

Recent media exposés into the dark underbelly of the private rented sector have given glimpses into overcrowded, unsafe and insecure slum-like dormitories in our cities, housing dozens of people at a time.

These cases illustrate the predictable consequences of maintaining a vacuum of rights for those at the bottom of the rental ladder, who are disproportionately comprised of young people and migrants — demographics so often already exposed to other forms of economic precarity, particularly in employment.

I recently contributed to a study with colleagues Joe Finnerty and Cathal O’Connell in the School of Applied Social Studies, UCC, with the support of the Irish Research Council and in collaboration with the Threshold housing organisation in Cork. We sought to learn more about the housing experiences of precarious renters and interviewed a sample of men and women of various nationalities who were renting as licensees in Cork and Dublin.

Participants reported varied pathways into insecure shared accommodation, from family break-ups to seeking work and educational opportunities in the cities, but in almost all cases their moves into what were sometimes dangerously sub-standard shared accommodation were driven by a sheer lack of affordable alternatives.

Most of the participants spoke of a high level of informality that characterised their new rental arrangements, which were usually cash-only and on the basis of vague oral agreements. A lack of clarity around the terms of their occupancies led in practice to major problems, which included unpredictable and arbitrary house rules, restricted access within the dwelling, and sudden rent increases that contravened the original agreements.

For some, the challenges were more serious still, and included eviction from their accommodation, in one case simply on account of becoming pregnant, and in another, to facilitate moving a family member into the property.

Another participant reported returning from a trip away to find themselves locked out of their accommodation and subsequently had their deposit withheld. Two others who had come from abroad to study in Dublin fell victim to a rental scam. Having been pressured to pay a deposit and month’s rent up front at a viewing to a man identifying himself as an existing tenant acting on behalf of the landlord in order to secure the rooms, they later discovered he had fled the country with their (and other prospective renters’) money.

Most respondents emphasised the significant mental health impacts arising from their experiences, from the everyday accumulation of stresses associated with their rental status to the acute effects on mental wellbeing brought on by specific threats to their occupancies, only made worse by the absence of recourse options when problems arose.

So, what’s to be done?

Obvious measures to improve the lot of licensees already proposed by housing NGOs like Threshold include extending the RTB’s authority to include licensees and to introduce standardised license agreements with a mandatory set of minimum rights.

Such changes would be welcome, but in a sector where even renters in registered tenancies often struggle to exercise and vindicate their existing rights around housing conditions, costs and security, it is clear that a much more holistic and interventionist approach is required than that reflected in government policy to date, which has focused on efforts to stimulate private supply and placing faith in market forces to eventually ‘normalise’ access to the sector for renters.

Giving real substance to the government’s stated policy of ‘tenure neutrality’ requires nothing less than ending the two-tier system of private rental, guaranteeing enforceable standards around appropriate housing conditions and offering durable security of tenure and long-term rent stability and affordability to all those dependent on the sector for their housing needs. And because private renting shouldn’t be the sole housing option open to large parts of the population, these changes should take place in tandem with a much-needed expansion of social housing provision.

It is difficult to see political leadership for such an agenda coming from the traditional parties of government, not least arising from their reluctance to antagonise the property-owning classes that constitute an influential part of their voter bases and parliamentary memberships. Rather, the emergence of strong rental housing rights is likely to depend on renters constituting themselves as a political force that can no longer be ignored. A welcome recent uptick in housing activism points the way in this regard.

In the meantime, the private rental sector remains a Wild West of precarity for licensees and tenants alike, with socially destructive consequences.