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Dublin: 12 °C Wednesday 24 April, 2019
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Column: Landlords who don’t accept rent allowance are lazy – and classist

There’s an unpleasant undercurrent in Ireland that distrusts people on state assistance, writes Lisa McInerney. But it’s short-sighted, unfair and snobbish.

Lisa McInerney

I recently relocated from Cork back to my home county of Galway, a move that was as inspired by my missing the tang of limestone in my drinking water as it was by the substantial disparity between the relevant rent averages. Hey, there aren’t many of us unwilling to displace ourselves for a bargain in this day and age, right? The nomadic lifestyle is an economic practicality. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.

Moving house is a massive undertaking, just on the Crikey-is-that-alopecia? side of manageable. If, like me, you’ve got all your own gear and have arranged to move to an unfurnished property, the enormity of the task ahead is akin to that of launching a rocket into orbit. Hyperbolic? Maybe. Outside of the physical hauling, disassembling, and assembling again with fourteen extra screws and a mystery sprocket, the amount of admin work applicable is almost always underestimated and concluded only after hired goons from your building society track you to your new abode. At least NASA have their own vans.

And before you can even get started on such gut-churning delights, you’ve got to find and secure an appropriate property.With property websites and message boards only a couple of clicks away, it’s easier than ever to sift through what’s available until you find a right fit. This is a boon to landlords as well as to tenants; landlords can list their stipulations before entering into negotiations with prospective residents, which theoretically saves both parties time and potential embarrassment.

One of the things which kept coming up, on my recent search for a new home, was the term ‘Rent Allowance Not Accepted’.

It looked pretty dodgy to me, but it was on so many ads, by so many reputable letting and property agencies, that it was obviously a legitimate specification. I admit that the first thing I thought was that the landlords involved were saying no to paperwork that could end up in the hands of the taxman. Why else would they refuse to consider tenants who would need to give the Community Welfare Officer more particulars than they could shake their copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four at?

As a prospective tenant, it set alarm bells chiming. How could I trust a landlord who wanted to avoid paperwork? It might mean that they had similar aversions to accountability. Would they refuse to allow a tenant to apply for tax relief? Would they be registered with the PRTB? Perhaps ‘Rent Allowance Not Accepted’ would be the first symptom of an indifferent, unresponsive relationship with someone who had no interest in their responsibilities as a landlord, or in engaging with their tenant to ensure a professional and stress-free arrangement for both.

But it turns out that this is rarely the case. Contemporary Ireland, a society with sporadic but vengeful long-term memory, has little patience for tax dodging cowboys. It’s far more trouble than it’s worth to try a cash-in-hand lifestyle with assets as solid as a house; the potential penalties just aren’t worth the savings. No, it appears that the reasons for a landlord stating ‘Rent Allowance Not Accepted’ on their ads has less to do with Scrooge-like cunning than it has to do with plain and simple classism.

With Ireland’s unemployment rate currently hovering around the 14.3 per cent mark, more of our citizens than ever are applying for whatever state assistance is available to them. Outside of Jobseeker’s Benefit or Allowance, RA (officially, Rent Supplement) is the big one. It can ease the strain on the recipient’s pocket down to €24 a week. To those of us struggling – to the staggering, scary number of those of us now struggling – it can be a huge help. Impossible to underestimate it, really. There are plenty of families in Ireland for whom RA is the roof over their children’s heads.

There is a stigma attached, though, and not just tied into Ireland’s cumbersome sense of pride. There is a strong feeling that RA tenants, because the rent isn’t coming out of their own pockets, will mistreat the homes let to them. Because the supplement is paid directly to the tenant and not to the landlord, many landlords worry that there’s nothing stopping the tenant spending the money on something else, safe in the knowledge that eviction is a long-drawn-out and difficult process. That RA recipients will instantly fall into arrears, because taking their claim from initial application to awarded payment takes so long. That their insurance companies will refuse to cover the property, if its tenants are not currently in full-time employment.

There are plenty of landlords out there who have had problems with RA tenants, matching the issues listed above. There are plenty of landlords who’ve had problems with student tenants. There are plenty of landlords who’ve had problems with young professionals, with pet owners, with the recently retired, with young families. There are plenty of tenants out there who have had problems with nightmare landlords.

This is the problem I have with the ‘Rent Allowance Not Accepted’ mantra. It may have come from a natural desire to protect the property. It is still discrimination.

Of course landlords have the right to choose their tenants. It’s a business relationship, and the importance of having that opportunity to choose the right business “partner” cannot be underestimated. But a blanket ban on tenants who need – and, let’s not forget, are entitled to – rent supplement is a short-sighted and desperately unfair reaction. At best, it’s pretty lazy; one would hope that references, preliminary meetings with prospective tenants, and clear lease terms specific to the tenancy (as opposed to the generic contract I’ve seen floating about) would suffice. At worst, it’s outright snobbery. And it’s not an outlook exclusive to landed gentry types, either; there’s a nasty current running through Ireland at the moment, sweeping up the otherwise sane, which holds that state assistance claimants operate on the same moral plane as your typical 419 scammer. The presumption that people claiming state assistance are untrustworthy, untidy and unethical in every facet of their day-to-day existences, from paying their bills to choosing their party guests, is just not acceptable.

It’s certainly not acceptable in today’s Ireland, when hard work and general prudence don’t guarantee safe passage through this recession. How many of us can state that we have a recession-proof job? To take RA eligibility as a moral yardstick means that your ideal tenant today … could be your worst nightmare tomorrow.

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Lisa McInerney

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