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01/04/2023 Dublin Ireland. Pictured Onyx Burns from Cork at a Anti Eviction protest outside The Dail (Leinster House) as the eviction ban ceases today. Leah Farrell
VOICES

Dr Rory Hearne Lifting the ban on evictions was an unforgivable act by a misguided government

The housing expert looks at the legacy of the government’s lifting of the evictions ban and outlines how systems work elsewhere in Europe.

THE GOVERNMENT HAS cruelly taken away the life jacket of the eviction ban from renters and is allowing them to drown in a tsunami of misery. The latest data from the Residential Tenancies Board shows 11,868 Notices to Quit (NTQs) issued to renters last year. That’s about 30,000 people, including families, children, and individuals, being forced to leave their homes.

Many will go into homelessness, couch surfing, and even emigrating. There is an unquantifiable amount of housing trauma on its way unless the Government takes a Covid-style emergency response, including reinstating the eviction ban.

This week, we had a public furore over the sharing of a famine-era eviction painting, Gardaí superimposed onto the scene. The main message of the picture was drawing a parallel between today’s housing crisis and our history of forced evictions in troubled times. It was right because if you stand back for a moment and look at the latest eviction numbers, they should cause a collective revulsion and evoke memories of a painful Irish history where hundreds of thousands were also evicted.

Looking abroad

Yet it’s not like this everywhere. In many European countries, it is not possible to terminate a tenancy on the sale of a property. Here are just some of the countries where the tenant cannot be evicted if the landlord is selling, the tenant stays in place – ‘in situ’ and the purchaser takes over the duties as landlord: Finland, France, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Greece, Portugal, Netherlands, Belgium. Luxemburg, Italy, Lithuania, Malta.

But in Ireland, a staggering 86% of all terminations of tenancy (NTQs) in 2022 were ‘no fault’ evictions – the tenant has done nothing wrong.

The majority of the NTQs (60%, or 7,067), were because the landlord intended to sell the property. Just 17% were the landlord, or their family member, moving in. Only 14% were issues related to the tenant – rent arrears, anti-social behaviour etc.

In Finland, Belgium, France and Germany, if a tenant is issued a termination notice but faces difficult circumstances or cannot find anywhere else, the tenant can stay in the property, no matter what the reason the landlord has given for the eviction. In Finland, eviction is not allowed if the tenant has “difficulty in finding a comparable dwelling in the region”. In Germany, the tenant may object to the termination if it means hardship for them or their family, including if alternative accommodation “cannot be procured on reasonable terms”. In Switzerland, renters can request an extension of up to four years if their eviction would result in unjustifiable hardship while in Sweden, the only reason that a landlord can terminate a tenancy before the end of the rental contract is if the tenant has done something wrong. In France, the tenant also has a right of first refusal to buy the property and takes priority over other buyers to buy the house.

Just think if laws like this were in place in Ireland. We would not have this eviction crisis.

In Belgium, there is a ‘social clause’ which means that if a tenant is in difficult circumstances, including serious illness, old age, the death of a next of kin, and pregnancy, there is a right to extend the tenancy contract. If we had this here we would not be facing the terrible situations of pensioners in their 70s and 80s being evicted, mothers due to give birth around the time of eviction, and babies being born into homeless emergency accommodation. Also in Belgium, if a landlord terminates a lease early, the landlord must compensate the tenant: nine months’ rent in some cases.

Michel Debruyne is a human rights campaigner with the Involve Project in Belgium. He explains that this is because the fundamental right to housing is established in Belgian law, which is a right to live somewhere in safety, peace and dignity. He says, “anyone at risk of losing their home is, in principle, given the opportunity to have the proportionality of the eviction examined by an independent court. Social support services are notified and there is a specific ‘Fund to combat evictions’, which can cover rent arrears and keep the tenant in their home.”

Over-reliance on market forces

These countries are functioning stable social market economies. But, unlike Ireland, they understand that you cannot have a functioning economy and society if people do not have a stable, secure, affordable, home, which includes tenants.

Some of these countries do have problems with evictions, and landlords can issue notices to quit for rent arrears and in some cases, where they or a family are moving in, but it is nothing like the scale here in Ireland.

In this country, it is not just the actual evictions, but the lack of real security of tenure that means every private renter is living in a state of constant anxiety and fear. No one can make a home in the Irish private rental sector – as in what a home truly means, a place providing stability security and affordability. Renters live with, as I describe in my book; “chronic housing stress, which has serious physical and mental health impacts on renters”. There are over 300,000 households renting privately; that is close to a million people. They include hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable in Ireland, those in poverty, with disabilities, victims of domestic abuse, long term illness, one parent families, and many tens of thousands of children – living in a state of housing anxiety.

There is also insufficient enforcement of existing rules here. The Irish private rental sector is a wild west of unregulated landlords. Some landlords do not even register with the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB). The government has presided over a culture of turning a blind eye to this for whatever reasons. Perhaps the feeling until now was that there were no votes to be found in the rental sector. They may find that has changed after recent events. What does all of this say about concern for renters in the political arena?

Many tenants are terrified to claim the tax credit they are due for fear of rocking the boat. Some landlords have evicted tenants on the basis of ‘selling’ or ‘moving a family member in’ but then just get in new tenants at a (higher) market rent, or turned it into an Airbnb-type short-stay tourist accommodation.

The evictions happening this year are unfortunately just one part of an overall housing crisis which results from a manic belief that the private market is the most favourable means for the delivery of housing, the dogged refusal to regulate the private rental sector and the failure to build social and affordable housing.

Governments also pursued a policy since 2009 of pushing everyone into the private rental market. Millennials just want to rent, they said. They love the ‘flexibility’.

So they brought in the vulture funds and corporate landlord REITs to ‘provide’ for millennials and Gen Z. But the vultures need high rents, so they put no control on new market rents. And the Irish banks (who own lots of rental properties where the landlord went into mortgage arrears after the crash) wanted to be able to sell their property without tenants in it, to maximise the sale price and cover losses. So governments allowed property investment to trump the basic need and rights of renters to a home. 

The fundamental problem at its core is that housing in Ireland was turned into a wealth accumulation asset, a financial commodity, to the benefit of a small privileged group and institutions, and its real fundamental and essential role as a home was abandoned.

We have seen this market ideology rear its ugly head again in the arguments made by Government this week for their lifting of the eviction ban. They claimed the ban had to be lifted because it was causing more landlords to leave the market and deterring supply from investor funds and future landlords. But was lifting the ban really going to stop landlords from selling up? Not at all. Because landlords are mainly selling because house prices are so high, or they don’t want ‘the hassle’ of renting anymore (because providing a home to tenants requires ‘work’), or they are not making a sufficient return on their investment.

It’s an investment decision, not a humanitarian one. But it is the tenant’s home. So, if landlords want to leave, and are going to leave anyway, surely the right thing to do is keep the ban in place, allow them to sell, but leave the tenant in their home.

So the Government decided to allow tens of thousands of tenants to be evicted, in order that this might convince some landlords, and investor funds, to provide a new supply of rental housing. Yet this new supply, we know, is unaffordable with market rents at intolerable prices, and also insecure. So where is the logic in this policy decision?

Misguided policy

What is really going on here? The landlords’ view, as expressed by landlord representative bodies – and investor funds, is that they want to be able to sell with vacant possession and have no rent caps – to get the maximum price on sale and charge market rents for all tenants. They are using the ‘flight of the landlord’ narrative to get higher profits for landlords: tax reductions, stop further protection of tenants and push for higher rents. 

The landlord lobby has been effective in dominating the discourse with the plight of the ‘long suffering’ landlords. This needs correcting. A landlord by definition owns more than one property – that immediately puts them in a privileged grouping in Ireland.

There is a generation where most do not own a home of their own. Just 3% of the Irish population (165,000 people) are landlords. And just 1% (52,000) own more than 2 properties. Yet one million people are private renters and there are a further 500,000 young (and increasingly middle-aged) adults stuck living at home with their parents, who don’t have a home of their own. 

The Government’s ‘mitigation measures’ are not set up properly. Even if they were, they do not stop the tsunami of evictions because they do not address the fundamental lack of security for all renters.

With emergency accommodation full, many thousands of people will be evicted into hidden homelessness, couch surfing, overcrowding, back with families and even forced to emigrate. Families will be forced onto the streets, left with no emergency accommodation, and will be sleeping in tents and cars. In fact, some are already. They won’t appear in monthly homelessness figures.

Staying put

Overholding by tenants (where they stay in their home after the eviction date) will inevitably and understandably increase, there will be growing protests at evictions, as the devastating human implications of this become more stark, and public outrage grows.

Families, individuals, and children cannot absorb the current scale of suffering and trauma being experienced from the housing crisis any longer before socially and politically, society reaches boiling point.

The way forward is for the Government to make a state of the nation emergency address, similar to what we saw during Covid, to explain that the housing crisis is eating away at the fabric of our society and jeopardising the economy and that the Government’s primary duty of care is the welfare of its people. Announcing this and a package of unprecedented emergency measures to solve this crisis is about the only credible response left to this government. 

The first priority must be to keep people in their homes, so the government must immediately reinstate the eviction ban (of no-fault evictions) for two years to get in place a set of comprehensive measures ensuring no one is evicted into homelessness. This would give all renters a sense of immediate security in their homes. For example, during Covid, as an emergency response, contract tracing was set up with thousands of public staff and the army allocated on an emergency basis to respond to the pandemic. A specific ‘keep renters in their homes’ emergency response should be set up with the staff and resources that are needed to operate on a seven day a week basis focused on making sure no one is evicted into homelessness and that the tenant in situ scheme actually works. Scotland also introduced an eviction ban similar to Ireland but had the compassion and understanding to extend it until September 2023. Scotland even has a ‘Tenants Rights’ Minister with specific responsibility for renters concerns, we could do with such a Minister here.

The Government must introduce legislation to put in place permanent and real security of tenure for renters just like in most European countries with removal of no-fault evictions and in particular a removal of the ability of landlords to use sale as a reason for eviction. It should introduce a referendum to insert the right to housing in Constitution to provide a tenant’s right to a home and underpin wider changes in housing, implement emergency legislation to control new market rents, implement rent reduction measures and tackle Airbnb and remove the tax breaks for vulture funds and REITs.

The solution is more tenant protections and lower rents not more landlords, higher rents and fewer tenants’ rights. The solution is Generation Rent becoming homeowners not more boomers becoming landlords. We need more homeowners and social housing tenants, not more private landlords.

And at the core of the emergency response is the state providing a massive supply of social, affordable rental and affordable homes to buy – through setting up a national public home building company to build rapidly on public land, and getting vacant and derelict homes into use.

US President Joe Biden visits here this week. His relatives left at the time of the famine when mass evictions took place. It is shameful how once again, mass evictions have been allowed to return to this country, along with forced emigration. Unlike what happened in the 1800s under a colonial power, the Irish political class has created our current predicament by dragging society into its neoliberal fever dream. These are dark days in Ireland. But this social catastrophe is still avoidable. It is and remains a political choice. There is always another way. 

Dr Rory Hearne is an Assistant Professor at Maynooth University and the author of Gaffs. He is also the host of the Reboot Republic Podcast. 

VOICES

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