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'The system is weak': Just 29 sanctions for landlords in past year despite hundreds of investigations

In the majority of cases the landlord received either a written or monetary fine, or both, for breaches of rent pressure zone requirements.

THERE HAVE BEEN just 29 sanctions against landlords over breaches of rent pressure zone (RPZ) rules in the last 12 months, despite hundreds of investigations by the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB).

The new Investigations and Sanctions Unit at the RTB, which was set up in 2019 to  investigate potential breaches of rental law by landlords, has commenced 400 investigations to date and it approved a total of 245 investigations in 2020.

Of the 245 cases, some 70 were submitted to decision makers to decide on a  sanction. Independent decision makers determine whether or not an improper conduct has occurred and whether or not a sanction should be applied and the type or amount of any sanction.

In 28 cases over the last 12 months, the landlord received either a written or monetary fine, or both, for a breach of RPZ requirements by raising rent above permitted levels.

Since 16 July this year, rent in a RPZ can only increase by up to the percentage difference between the Harmonised Index of Consumer Pricing (HICP) (used to measure consumer price inflation) on the date that the rent was previously set and the date the new rent is set. Before that a landlord could only raise rent in one of these zones by 4% per year. 

A fine of up to a maximum of €15,000 as well as costs of up to €15,000 can be applied to landlords who are found to be in breach of rules and all fines are paid to the Exchequer. The RTB said none of the landlords who received a monetary fine have failed to make payments due. 

Sanction figures were revealed in response to questions from Social Democrats TD Cian O’Callaghan.

The majority of investigations last year (91.84%) related to allegations that a landlord raised the rent over the Rent Pressure Zone rules.

The remaining investigations related to a alleged failures to offer a tenancy back to a renter, non-registration and false or misleading reasons listed in a Notice of Termination. 

Speaking to The Journal, O’Callaghan said he believes the sanction figures for the largest area of investigation by the RTB indicate that the system of enforcement is “weak”.

“You would expect that most of these complaints, because they were considered substantial enough to investigate, would involve genuine, reasonable tenants,” he said. 

What we hear from people is that they generally won’t make complaints unless there’s an issue of substance because there’s the potential for conflict with their landlord, so most tenants won’t do that on spurious grounds.

He said it may be that some cases are hard to prove, as landlords who breach the rules sometimes make their demands verbally or request the additional payment amount in cash. 

“But the fact that just over 10% of the investigations are ending up in a sanction for landlords is worrying,” O’Callaghan added.  “It’s not that you’d expect 100% of these to result in a sanction but for almost nine out of ten not to result in a sanction is very concerning and does suggest something is awry here. “ 

O’Callaghan said a “complete ban on rent increases” is required to address the issue. 

“The Minister for Housing has been very vocal in saying that the RTB has enough powers and resource to enforce the rent limits but this reply from the RTB would indicate they haven’t been able to enforce them.”

CATU Ireland, the community action tenants’ union, said the situation is “unsurprising” at it often hears from members “of the failings of the RTB”. 

“Until there are consistent consequences for landlords breaking the law and an authority willing to actually regulate their actions, we will continue to see these unchecked abuses,” the union said.

“The lack of action or sanctions being brought in so many of these cases is exactly why our focus as a union is on direct action, empowering our members to confront landlords head-on rather than through a slow, ineffective middle-man.”

In response to a query from The Journal, a spokesperson for the RTB said investigations are at “varying stages” in the process and its Investigations and Sanctions Unit must  follow “specific legal procedures” when carrying out an investigation, including allowing appeal and response periods.

The spokesperson said RTB investigators have “wide-ranging and significant investigative powers” provided for in the legislation, including the power to inspect premises, compel persons to assist with the investigation by producing certain documents or attending an interview or oral hearing.

“The RTB investigations and sanctions regime allows proportionality to be applied to the sanctioning of potential breaches,” they added. “For instance, if a landlord acknowledges the improper conduct or not, this is taken into consideration, amongst other factors.”

The spokesperson said Covid-19 “greatly impacted the number of court confirmations” of sanctions as the courts were closed for large parts of 2020 and 2021.

“The 29 investigations referred to are those cases where the Circuit Court has confirmed the decision maker’s sanction,” they added.

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