Ireland’s slum landlords have little to fear, today as a century ago

Diarmaid Ferriter: Politicians’ threats have never meant much in practice

Dublin, 1968: the 10-child Murphy family, whom the corporation moved into a slum on Benburb Street after Mrs Murphy fell behind on her rent.  Photograph: Mirrorpix via Getty

Dublin, 1968: the 10-child Murphy family, whom the corporation moved into a slum on Benburb Street after Mrs Murphy fell behind on her rent. Photograph: Mirrorpix via Getty

 

The history of slum landlordism in Ireland over the past century suggests current offenders have little to fear from politicians making threats. Exactly 100 years ago James Brady of the Dublin Tenants Association declared that compensation that Dublin Corporation paid owners of slum property, after ejectments were served on tenants in the Mercer Street area of the city, “was a premium to landlords to keep it in bad condition” and suggested that “instead of giving compensation for the premises, the Corporation should confiscate them”.

That was during an era of considerable outrage about the slums. In September 1913 two Dublin tenement buildings had collapsed, killing seven people. The following year the report of the Dublin Housing Inquiry was published. As well as highlighting appalling conditions it revealed that 14 Dublin Corporation members owned tenement houses; several owned more than a dozen, including Alderman Corrigan, who owned 19 tenements, a number of which were classed as unfit for human habitation and incapable of being rendered fit for such habitation. A corporation sanitary subofficer declined to certify Corrigan’s defective properties as habitable, but this was overruled by Charles Cameron, head of its public-health department, despite no attempt to improve them.

There were to be numerous false dawns in subsequent decades. There was much debate in the 1920s and 1930s about clearing the slums and who was profiting from them. A thunderous editorial appeared in this newspaper in April 1936 in the context of the Town Tenants Tribunal: “The real scandal of the Dublin Slums is not that filthy tenement rooms are leased at cruelly excessive rents, but that such rooms exist at all.”

Some landlords, learning of plans for slum clearance, ‘let the tenements out to speculators whose object is to screw as much money as possible from the unhappy tenants’

It seems quaint now that the writer believed it should not matter that the tribunal was not a court, because “the real court will be the public opinion of Dublin”. There was, however, much reason to believe that public emotion would be heightened. Based on the evidence given by the president of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, it appeared “the slum landlord is as grasping, as oppressive and as pitiless as ever”. Some of these landlords, learning of plans for slum clearance, “permitted the tenements to fall into even more dangerous disrepair or let them out to speculators whose object is to screw as much money as possible from the unhappy tenants . . . The ordinary criminal is a saint by comparison.”

“Slum landlords are very unwilling to quit”

The issue was still a cause of much commentary in the 1960s. An article in Irish Architect and Contractor in 1963 cited a Dublin Corporation official pointing out that the corporation was ready to take over tenement buildings that landlords could not or would not maintain for economic reasons: “It is strange that slum landlords are very unwilling to quit – they still collect rents and they are markedly unready to demolish, support or rebuild.”

Another new era was promised in 1971, when “strong measures against landlords offering substandard accommodation” were detailed in new draft bylaws by the minister for local government, Bobby Molloy, including “a minimum standard for air space in sleeping compartments”. But almost a quarter of a century later a Dáil debate was fuelled by anger on the same subject, it being insisted that the £60 million being paid in rent subsidies that year should not be used to “prop up slum landlords”, with Noel Ahern of Fianna Fáil adding the reminder that “voluntary regulation of the private rented sector was useless”.

I’m sure the slum landlords are quaking in their boots at the promises of regulation, implementation and determination to protect tenants

Ten years later, at the height of the Celtic Tiger, a fire broke out in an apartment block on Ormond Quay; the occupants were rescued because, mercifully, it broke out during the day – but the windows of the ground-floor rooms were barred. The building contained nine units for tenants, but it did not even appear on the register of the Private Residential Tenancies Board. At the time Aideen Hayden, the chairwoman of Threshold, referred to a new “slummification” in Dublin and the “tragic and scandalous” irony that after a period of unprecedented prosperity this was happening in the same city whose historic slums had been notorious.

The history of this question is unfortunately replete with numerous tragedies and scandals, and common threads bind them all together, as they do in too many other areas: lack of regulation and implementation. The various revelations, expressions of outrage and unveiling of “tough” new measures have clearly meant little in practice. This week Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy spoke once more of elevated standards, a commitment to funding increased inspections, a new system of “compliance” and a suggestion that landlords will have to “self-certify” that their rental properties meet appropriate standards or face legal action if they provide “untrue” assurances.

I’m sure the slum landlords are quaking in their boots at the promises of regulation, implementation and determination to protect tenants, versions of the same worthless promises of so many yesteryears.

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