IT’S TUESDAY EVENING in Stoneybatter (Dublin 7) and Paul’s landlord has stolen his electric radiator. The landlord controls the central heating throughout the house in which Paul has a room – turning it on for only one hour a day even on the coldest nights – and doesn’t allow tenants to have their own heating devices.
Meanwhile Isabella from Bulgaria is not quite sure who her landlord is. The building her small apartment is in was repossessed by the bank and a statutory receiver appointed. The landlord disappeared but the receiver failed to make themselves known to the tenants. In the mean time someone appeared and, without clarifying who they were, told Isabella and the other tenants they were being evicted.
A change is needed
Paul and Isabella are explaining their stories at the weekly meeting of the Dublin Tenants Association, a local community group set up in Dublin 7 to respond to issues such as these and in which I participate. The DTA is a volunteer group set up by tenants fed up being treated like second-class citizens. Having had our own share of troubles in the private rented sector, we eventually decided something had to be done. We realised that nothing will change unless tenants stand up for themselves.
Everyone concerned with housing recognises that change is needed. The legislation regulating the sector is simply not fit for purpose. In the first six months of any tenancy the landlord can terminate the tenancy (ie, evict) without any reason whatsoever. Consider the implications for a family with children attending a local school – a landlord can tear their lives a part on nothing more than a whim.
Even beyond the first six months, it is far too easy for a landlord to end a tenancy. They can do so if they want to sell the house or if they or a family member wants to take up residence there. But these justifications for eviction are hard to enforce; there is no agency tasked with ensuring the bona fides of landlords’ motives. Rent increases are, however, the biggest driver of evictions, as indicated by the numbers of families presenting to homeless services as a result of rising rents.
Meanwhile, the caps on rent supplement are wildly out of synch with the reality of rent levels causing huge difficulty, and that’s if tenants on rent supplement can even find a place to live in the face of widespread discrimination by landlords.
We are lacking the political will needed
The DTA’s message is simple: it doesn’t have to be this way. And solutions certainly exist. Everyone from housing experts such as DIT’s Lorcan Sirr to civil society groups like youth collective We’re Not Leaving have proposed measures to rein in rents and provide meaningful security of tenure. Even the government’s own advisory council, the National Economic and Social Council, have set out clear, feasible solutions in a recently published report on the sector. What’s lacking is political will.
Behind the policy problems lies the need for what the DTA call a ‘cultural shift’. Renting continues to be seen as a deviation from the home-owning norm or a sector for students. The reality is that one in three households in Dublin is rented housing. Policy needs to catch up with this new reality. The cultural de-valuing of renters is also disempowering. “The reality is that many tenants are afraid to even ring their landlords on the phone”, as DTA member Fionn Tolland puts it, “that is the extent to which tenants lack a voice”.
That’s why the DTA is all about collective support and empowerment. The model is simple; we provide support for tenants in relation to any issue they may face by giving advice on tenants’ rights, negotiating with landlords and bringing cases to the PRTB. With the support of other agencies, we have trained ourselves to know what the rights and regulations are for the rented sector. We’re not necessarily experts, but through participating in the DTA we’ve learned that anyone can learn to understand their rights and that the person whose in the best position to defend your right to housing is you.
Helping tenants to know their rights
But this is more than just an advice clinic, this is about tenants helping tenants to know their rights, stand up to their landlords and ultimately have a collective voice. All of those in the DTA are tenants themselves and participate on a volunteer basis. As DTA member Sive Bresnihan says, “we want tenants to get involved, to help themselves and help others. There are no individual solutions to the housing crisis”.
The fledgling group is still at an early phase, but perhaps provides a window of hope in an otherwise bleak sector. The most important thing missing from debates on the future of the private rented sector thus far has been tenants themselves; let’s hope that’s changing.
You can contact the DTA at email@example.com or go to dublintenants.wordpress.com
Mick Byrne is researcher at the National Institute of Regional and Spatial Analysis, Maynooth University and participates in the DTA.