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Opinion: Renters should not be left with a debt burden after Covid-19, writes Eoin Ó Broin

The Sinn Féin TD says where renters can’t pay, landlords must be guaranteed a mortgage moratorium.

Image: Sam Boal

LATE ON TUESDAY evening, the Government published the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Bill 2020. Included in the Bill’s 31 sections are a series of measures affecting renters. 

The emergency legislation comes as tens of thousands of low-income workers living in the private rented sector lose their jobs.

With rent payments due at the start of April tens of thousands of renters simply have no way of paying their rent. Like many people, they are extremely frightened of what the immediate future will bring.

If passed by the Oireachtas this week the Bill will prevent landlords from issuing Notices to Quit or evicting tenants for a minimum of three months. Landlords will also be prevented from increasing rents during this emergency period.  All existing Notices to Quit and Residential Tenancies Board proceedings on such notices will be suspended.

The one exception will be where a landlord issued a Notice to Quit before the passing of the legislation, related to breach of contract. In such cases, the Residential Tenancies Board must have regard to the circumstances of the tenant before making a decision on whether an eviction can proceed.

The Department of Social Protection is also expected to announce a streamlined Rent Supplement payment. This is an emergency payment for people who, due to the loss of income, or their job are unable to pay their rent.

The Minister will have the power to extend these measures if the Covid-19 crisis continues.  

The measures proposed will at least prevent mass evictions in the weeks ahead. The ban on rent increases and additional rent supplement payment will allow tenants to pay something towards their rent.

We needed more

While all of this is welcome it does not go far enough and there are two real concerns.

Firstly, there are many renters who do not have a tenancy agreement. They have licences or verbal agreements to rent-a-room. These, often very vulnerable tenants, must also be protected by the Bill and we will be putting forward amendments to make this happen.

Secondly, for those renters with tenancy agreements, there are growing concerns that tens of thousands of renters will accumulate substantial rent arrears debt during the emergency. 

With average rents at €1200 per month statewide and €1762 in Dublin, this debt burden could be between €3000 and €6000 per renter depending on their rent levels and the length of the Covid-19 emergency.

This debt burden will not only cripple all those concerned but will also cause a real problem for the economy and the stability of the rental sector when the ban on evictions and Notices to Quit is lifted.

There is a solution. We must ensure that landlords whose tenants are unable to pay their rent get a real moratorium on their mortgages. In turn, tenants must get real rent reductions and rent waivers.

This means landlords will get some level of rent payment during the emergency period via rent supplement and the tenant will not be left with an unsustainable debt when the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.

A huge number of these renters worked in low or modest paid jobs. There is no guarantee that they will get those jobs back or if they do that their wages will be at the level they were previously. Even if they do return to previous wage levels their income would not be able to sustain the level of debt that could accumulate. 

The government must plug this gap

Renters can not be left to carry this debt burden by themselves. We need Government, banks and landlords to work with renters to ensure that the cost of this crisis is fairly shared. Rent reductions and waivers are the only way to ensure this.

Last night the Dáil debated a number of opposition amendments including a Sinn Féin proposal to deal with this rent arrears debt burden. Now, the Government must work with opposition TDs and organisations representing tenants, landlords and lenders to come up with a solution to this issue.

Our amendment explicitly calls for rent reductions and rent waivers to be considered as part of any such package. The amendment will be voted on in the Seanad later this morning. Let’s hope the Oireachtas does the right thing by hard-pressed renters.

Sinn Féin TD for Dublin Mid-West and spokesperson on Housing, Planning & Local Government.

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