Rent crisis: ‘I’m stuck in a limbo between adulthood and childhood’

A new series on Ireland’s undersupplied rental market and the toll it’s taking on society

"I feel as though I have regressed back into my teenage self. I'm waiting for my mother to reprimand me for not making my bed." At 28, this is not where Niamh Codyre expected to be. She is working in a secure job in the health sector "and sharing my childhood bedroom with my five-year-old son five nights a week".

Codyre and her partner had been paying the market rate to live in a property owned by a family member, until it dawned on the relative there was more money to be made on Airbnb. Thirteen apartment viewings later – “almost all of which had queues out the door” – and several encounters with landlords who didn’t want children, the three of them moved back to her family home.

Her relationship subsequently ended – the strain of their living situation “undoubtedly contributed”, she thinks. She is also contributing towards her ex-partner’s rent while “watching my mortgage deposit dwindle”.

Before I know it, I will be well into my 30s still living with my parents. My living situation is holding me back from experiencing life

She feels “stuck in this limbo between adulthood and childhood. But time isn’t standing still. Before I know it, I will be well into my 30s still living with my parents.”

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Codyre describes the difficulty of finding a new relationship when you’re living at home in your 20s or 30s – and the prospect that “your guest’s ‘walk of shame’ could bring them toe-to-toe with your father” on a Sunday morning. “My living situation is holding me back from experiencing life.”

However, she is acutely aware that, “but for the childhood bedroom, my son and I could very well be adding to the homeless statistics”.

How, she asks, did we end up here. “When you examine the number of ghost estates, derelict houses, ordinary residential properties on Airbnb, you can see that the issue isn’t necessarily supply.”

This kind of housing insecurity is a new phenomenon. A generation ago, single-earner families could reasonably expect to be able to afford a mortgage. Now, even a couple earning two good salaries may struggle to save for a deposit, especially if they’re renting. A recent study found Dublin was the sixth most expensive of 38 capital cities for renters, with a one-bed costing €1,643 per month.

According to Daft.ie, costs are rising 6.8 per cent every year. Last week, the website listed just 1,847 properties to rent in the country, with 1,057 of them in Dublin, although this isn’t necessarily the full picture. So people like Codyre are forced to return as adults to the family home – and that’s if they managed to leave it in the first place. In 2011, 311,000 adults over 21 were living with their parents, according to CSO data. By 2016, it had risen to 325,000. More recent estimates put it at 350,000.

Meanwhile, State spending on social housing jumped by nearly 500 per cent since 2015, with a third of all private rentals now subsidised by the Government.

Dr Joe Finnerty, of the school of applied social studies in UCC, says that, up until the 1990s, there were two dominant forms of housing: owner-occupied and social housing. "Both those tenures were, in general terms, good quality, affordable and secure destinations." If people rented from the private sector, it tended to be for short periods before buying.

“That relatively smooth tenure trajectory for newly formed households no longer occurs,” he says. Although legislative changes have been brought in to offer more security to tenants, “there’s all kinds of loopholes and get-out clauses” for landlords. Even so, small-scale landlords are leaving the market in their droves. Many are “accidental landlords” and “risk-averse”, Finnerty says. “Some of the hostile rhetoric which is understandably aimed at the more mercenary type of institutional investor can rub off on them.”

Rent caps and additional bureaucracy are other deterrents, says Dr Frank Crowley, lecturer in economics at UCC. At a time of rising house prices, for many, selling up is a better option.

The UK-based Irish economist Sam Bowman, who is director of competition policy at the International Center for Law & Economics in Portland, United States, points out that house prices in Ireland have risen by 800 per cent in 40 years, during a period when every other household product has become less expensive. This isn't a uniquely Irish phenomenon. In cities across the developed world, housing has become much more expensive than the cost of building it, and rents have risen in tandem with prices.

There is no single cause, but in a general sense, what has happened in global terms is the financialisation of housing, bolstered by cheap credit and the perception of housing as an investment, along with migration towards cities. Prior to the banking crash, “irrational exuberance took over the whole globe. It wasn’t just an Irish situation”, says Crowley. However, here “everybody bet on houses being a very stable investment”.

Ordinary householders became investors and “we were building too many houses and in the wrong places”, too far from cities where the jobs were.

Bowman says when we have an economy built around “knowledge-intensive sectors like tech, finance, advertising, culture; all of those things [that] reward people being in the same place”, it makes sense that people need to live in cities.

This is also why, suggests Crowley, the Covid-19 pandemic and the rise of remote working have not proven a panacea in terms of rebalancing Ireland. “The reality of how we work is just too reliant on face-to-face interaction.”

The net effect is that there are too many people chasing too few places to live. Analysis about how we got here, or how Ireland compares to other countries, are of little comfort to those dealing with the deeply personal misery of trying to find a home. In recent weeks, dozens of Irish Times readers shared their stories of renting. Their circumstances vary, but what they have in common is the extent to which the rental crisis is interfering with their ability to navigate their lives.

They include young couples who are putting off starting a family because they don’t have a stable living situation. Returned emigrants who are moving abroad again because of housing costs. Twenty-somethings desperate to find a home with friends who are watching prices go up in the space of half an hour. Older people shocked to find themselves facing homelessness after a tenancy comes to an end.

One of the devastating results of the rental crisis has been the rise in a new phenomenon of family homelessness

"There are particular groups that are really badly affected" by the squeeze in the rental sector, says Prof Padraic Kenna of the school of law at NUI Galway. "There are people who are separated competing with students for accommodation." He also cites people with disabilities unable to find accommodation and immigrants who face discrimination.

Finnerty believes that the Government’s Housing for All strategy, which aims to build 312,750 new homes by the end of 2030, of which 90,000 will be social housing, is “implicitly saying that the previous reliance on the private rented sector to fulfil a social housing role has been has been misguided”.

There has been criticism of the scale and ambition of the plan. One area in which Finnerty would like to see it go further is in the area of cost rental, the scheme whereby the State provides 2,000 good-quality homes at cost per year, which will be “open to all comers, not simply low-income households”. The first cost-rental homes were tenanted last year, but only €70 million has been allocated for the scheme next year. In other jurisdictions, cost rentals have been shown to “raise standards [by] forcing private landlords to compete with a superior offering”, says Finnerty.

All of these measures will take time – and time is not on everyone’s side. One of the devastating results of the rental crisis has been the rise in a new phenomenon of family homelessness.

The number of homeless people fell during the early part of the pandemic to 8,830, of which 2,513 are children. However, homeless charities have warned that the number of those living in precarious accommodation who are at risk is much higher than official figures suggest.

When Kathleen's* marriage ended a few years ago, she moved into rented accommodation. She was working as a nurse and paying €1,750 for a four-bedroom house in a town in the greater Leinster area, which she shared with her two youngest children, now 17 and 22. But then two events collided that would ultimately prove catastrophic: the first was an injury which developed into a chronic pain condition and forced her out of work. And then last summer, she got four months' notice that she would have to move. "I thought I would have plenty of time to find a house, but I was wrong."

“I’ve lost track, I’ve sent so many emails” in response to ads but in nearly six months, she has had only two viewings. She is now paying €350 per week for temporary accommodation in an Airbnb – which she manages with the help of her older children – and spending more on storage costs. In July, she was approved for a housing assistance payment (HAP) for up to €1,500 a month. However, “the rents keep going up, but the HAP doesn’t” and the gap is becoming more difficult to cover.

The homeless section of her local authority says all that is available is a family room in a B&B, which wouldn’t be suitable for her and her adult children. Having worked and raised a family, Kathleen never expected to find herself in this situation. “I feel awful, absolutely awful. I never would have dreamt that this was where I would be. I worry about the future.”

Beyond the stress on individuals, the rental crisis is taking a toll on society in other ways. Bowman makes the case that “expensive housing is bad even for people who own houses” in terms of a range of negative impacts on society generally. These include including reduced productivity; fewer opportunities for innovation and creativity; demographic changes (Bowman says that “housing costs may be causing dramatically fewer children to be born than people would like to have”); climate change; people’s sense of community, their psychological wellbeing and physical health since, crudely put, people who live in dense cities walk more.

“If you think of it like rolling a die with a billion sides every time somebody moves to a city, there are loads of die that we’re just not rolling,” Bowman says. “The whole of society loses out when we don’t get to unlock each person’s talents in the way that that can happen when they move to cities.”

I have a healthy salary, but as a single person my head is done in and my heart broken doing the maths. Being 38, I don't have the time to mess around for too long

Ireland loses out, too, when it becomes a less attractive place for returning emigrants like Gene Murphy. He came back 18 months ago after eight years abroad. He has excellent career prospects in the tech sector here and is "prepared to work my socks off". Instead, he is seriously considering emigrating again. "All I want is the ability to rent and eventually buy, preferably back home in Cork. I have a healthy salary, but as a single person my head is done in and my heart broken doing the maths. Being 38, I don't have the time to mess around for too long."

If it’s not working for him with all the privilege and opportunity on his side, he wonders, “who is it working for?”

It's certainly not working for Ricardo Almeida. His landlady has just given notice of termination for his rented three-bedroom house in Raheny, where he has been living with his family for seven years. His two teenage children go to school locally. Their rent currently is €1,550 per month; he estimates it will increase to €2,500 when they move – that's if he can find something. He has looked at buying, but is put off by "insane" prices and poor build quality. "I have no idea what's going to happen in the next few months."

More creative solutions are clearly needed for people like Codyre, Kathleen, Murphy and Almeida, but what might they look like?

Bowman believes the “planner mindset” which is “set on the idea that you must have a two up-two down house with a front garden, back garden and driveway” is preventing us from thinking about more innovative solutions. More people would raise families in apartments if they were built to higher standards and were more affordable, he argues.

The debate has become too focused on supply and demand and the need to build more houses, rather than making better use of the housing we have, says Prof Kenna. "We have enormous amounts of housing in this country – two million houses for five million people. City suburbs could accommodate a lot more people" if we made it easier for people to downsize. He believes we need innovative policies to allow suburban houses to become two- and three-bedroom apartments.

Bowman has an even more novel suggestion for how to stop the sprawl, in the form of “street votes”. This proposal would give residents of individual streets the opportunity to vote on raising density in their own area in a way that would allow both landlords and tenants to benefit.

Political focus returned this week to the country’s more than 180,000 vacant homes, though experts point out that renovating and returning those properties to the marketplace is not straightforward. The Housing for All strategy includes plans for a vacant property tax once the data has been collected. But, says Crowley, “we’ve actually had a derelict site levy since 1991. We should be collecting taxes on it every single year”. However, “local authorities were under-resourced and didn’t have the skills and knowledge to take it on”. Added to this is the complexity of establishing ownership. “When properties become vacant, normally, it is the outcome of a very complex story.”

Many of these suggestions require an ideological shift, and to date, discussions about housing needs have been dominated by developers, estate agents and homeowners. “The thing that really cries out in Ireland is we have no associations of tenants,” says Prof Kenna.

For all that most people agree something needs to change, there is little agreement on how it can be done equitably – or fast. “Who’s going to suggest prices should come down? The people who managed to bring prices down in Ireland were the banks in 2008 who single-handedly reduced prices by 50 per cent. That was a very burning experience for people who were in negative equity or who couldn’t pay their mortgages,” says Prof Kenna. What we need to talk about, he believes, “is some sort of moderating influences on prices”.

Taxing house price increases or making the sale of private homes subject to capital gains tax might work but would be politically unpalatable. “Better utilisation of our existing stock has got to be the big way forward.”

When you have grown-up children outside of the housing system and trying to get into it, that kind of punctures the smugness of homeowners

Crowley points to a land value tax as a fairer potential solution. This would involve taxing the value of the land rather than the property, which would “enable an awful lot of freeing up of land that has been unused by owners . . . We would see land being more efficiently used, we’d see densifying happening and much more infill happening. We need to stop the sprawl.

“Do I have much sympathy for people who are sitting on nice assets, living in nice locations, and seeing a rise in the value of their homes, largely because of migration patterns?” he asks.

“Who I have sympathy for are people who can’t get housing. We have a huge imbalance around assets and wealth at the moment. We have to overcome this as a society if we want to be productive, innovative, increase our standards of living and improve quality of life for everybody.”

Even among the 70 per cent of the population who own their own homes, Finnerty believes there is a growing acceptance that things can’t continue as they are. “Objectively, in terms of their net wealth, rising house prices are good for them. But when you have grown-up children outside of the housing system and trying to get into it, that kind of punctures the smugness of homeowners.”

Ultimately, suggests Crowley, “we have to look at ourselves and think what do we value? At the moment, we’re saying we value our own self-interest and individual comforts. And to hell with who’s coming behind us.”

*Some names have been changed at the request of interviewees