It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The Covid-19 pandemic and the much-vaunted flood of Airbnb-style accommodation on to the rental market in cities emptied of tourists was supposed to mean more choice and better prospects for long-term renters. An official eviction ban and a rent freeze promised greater security.
A year into the pandemic, however, the sense among Ireland’s new Generation Rent – professionals in the kind of jobs that once would have allowed them to buy a home in their 20s or 30, but who find themselves reluctant long-term renters – is that little has changed.
For this Irish Times article, six people took part in a virtual “roundtable” discussion on Zoom, on the highs and lows of renting in Ireland.
The participants are:
– Housemates Laura Costello and Sharon Teeling, both 27, who recently moved to Waterford from Galway, after coming under pressure from their landlord to move out when they requested repairs to their apartment.
Teeling, a character designer with an animation company, moved to Ireland from South Africa four years ago and is still reeling at the cost of renting here. “It’s crazy that you need to spend 80 per cent of your salary just renting,” she says.
– Dónal Crotty (40) bought a home when he was 28, but after his marriage ended he returned to renting and has been doing so for eight years. He lives with his partner and their three-year-old son and runs littlewhitebull.ie, an online retail venture. “I had been working in finance and real estate for 15 years. I was unfortunately made redundant as a result of the impact that Covid had on the business that I was working for,” he says.
– Siobhán Nic Fhlannchadha (31) is a research manager in education who has been renting in Dublin for 12 years. Her rental history includes two addresses in on-campus accommodation, five experiences of renting with strangers, one with a former partner and a month spent homeless in a friend’s spare room.
– Alice Jago (32) is a recently qualified solicitor who is currently unemployed and has been renting for 14 years in Dublin, Cork and Galway. She is in a house share with her partner and four others in Dublin, but they plan to move into a rental on their own in May.
– Gearóid Kelly (30) has been renting for 12 years, seven of them in Galway and five in Dublin. He is currently sharing a house in Islandbridge, Dublin. His experience of renting has been broadly positive, but “when I look back, what I’ve spent in rent over the years would equate to a deposit on a house anywhere in the country”.
What has your experience of renting been?
Alice: It’s challenging when you live with strangers. I’m a trainee solicitor, just qualified, so I don’t make great wages. And then obviously Covid happened. My boyfriend is a musician, so there was no work. Overall, I’ve made two of my very best friends from renting. But I probably stopped liking it about six years ago. It’s the lack of privacy [and] autonomy, and I find it’s not very calming after a day’s work. As a couple, sharing is not ideal. It’s quite demoralising when the decision-making process is taken out of your hands. We definitely can’t afford to buy a house any time soon, whether it’s outside Dublin or in Dublin, but at least now in May we’ll have our own place. It’s €1,400 between the two of us. That’s cheap for Dublin, but it’s going to be tight for us.
Sharon: I definitely agree with what Alice is saying about making friends. I met Laura through renting, and we’re now best mates, which is really cool. I’m glad I’ve got someone who has my back. But most of my friends in South Africa now have beautiful apartments that are affordable. Everyone’s got a car as well. Here, you almost have to choose between a car and rent. [Moving here], it was very difficult to try and find a place to live in. House shares could be quite cliquey. You’d see a house, get your hopes up, and then they would be like, “No sorry, my friend actually has a friend who wants it”.
I was so shocked by how bad rental agencies were. You have to sell yourself to the agency, versus the agent trying to sell you a place. In South Africa, you’d ring up the agency, and they’d be like, ‘We’ve got this many properties for you, and this one has a pool, and this one has a view’. I did eventually have to tap into a connection to finally get something. It was a struggle, and it was so stressful. My first rental in Galway was because my uncle in Wicklow knew someone.
Siobhán: I knew as soon as Alice started talking that what she was saying would resonate with me. The bit that struck me the most was having the decision-making taken out of your hands. I’m moving in with my boyfriend this month, which will make it my 10th address in Dublin in 12 years. I’ve had a lot of that experience of looking on Daft and going, “No, that’s a sh*thole; that place is going to get me murdered; that’s worse again”. It’s been a very mixed bag. The very first place I lived in [when I left my family home] is on campus in UCD, and I’m still friends with the girl I lived with. But then I’ve also had the experience of screaming matches in the middle of the night and having to pack up my stuff and leave with no notice. At the moment, I’m living by myself in Drumcondra [in Dublin], and the only reason I’m living by myself is because my landlord is a friend of the family. He could literally charge twice the rent that he charges me and somebody would pay it. So I’m just here because my godmother’s brother is really sound. It is magic having that freedom, your own space, and that privacy and that quiet.
Gearóid: I’ve always been really, really lucky. I came from having lived in Galway where you were prepared to take whatever you can get as a student because it’s cheap as chips. Coming up to Dublin, I was quite lucky with the first few places I moved in to, but you don’t really know who you’re moving in with. Emotionally, it does have an impact when you see all your friends or colleagues and they’re able to afford [to buy] their own places because they’ve been able to live at home and save for a deposit. I think if any of us look at how much we spent on rent in the last, for me it’s 12 years, that would be enough for a serious deposit on a place. That’s one of the most sickening things. I’ve paid all this rent, and I’ll still have to pay a mortgage for 30-odd years.
'You lose your sense of safety and privacy and right to living in a nice place...'
Dónal: Despite being the elder statesman of the group, an awful lot of the concerns raised by others resonate with me. I don’t have the experiences of shared living or co-living, but I’m in a position of having been on the property ladder, and now I’m off it again. I’m seeing my peers and my friends who have had houses for 10 years now looking to upgrade into bigger, more plush houses and I feel like I’ve taken a step back nearly in that respect. I also share some experiences in terms of being able to rely on friends. Having worked in the real estate industry, I had contacts with individuals who, at a time of need for me [when I was first looking for somewhere to rent], were able to at least point me in the right direction. I had a young son at the time, George, who’s my eldest, and I now have a second son, Alfie, who’s turning three this weekend. I’ve been living in Co Meath for the last five years, and I’ve loved every second of it.
Is there a stigma attached to long-term renting?
Dónal: A lot of my friends and peers are upgrading their house. I guess it depends on how you define success, but if you think about it in terms of being on the property ladder and upgrading your house, then I’d see myself as somewhat of a failure. But that isn’t necessarily the case, and. . . I don’t want to think about it too much. I think it probably has changed since the demise of the Celtic Tiger, the impact of Covid and the fact that Ireland has become such a melting pot of people as well. I don’t think [owning your house] is as much of a thing for 30- or 40-year-olds as it was.
What have been the most challenging aspects of renting?
Siobhán: A lot of the bad experiences that I’ve had have come from overcrowding. That seems to be the theme that runs through them all. So it’s where I’ve been living with – like in Alice’s situation – six other people, plus one of them has her boyfriend around all the time, then there’s somebody else’s friend who’s sleeping on the couch kind of thing. And then somebody decides that they want to have a pet. You lose your sense of safety and privacy and right to living in a nice place where a housemate doesn’t think it’s inappropriate to wipe up dog wee with a tea towel and then leave the tea towel.
'You had to flush the toilet to get the shower to turn on'
Alice: When myself and my boyfriend were looking for our own place in February we agreed to take [over] two places that people we knew were renting. One was an apartment under the landlord’s house on Dublin’s North Circular Road, and the other was a small cottage in East Wall. After we agreed, both landlords then put the rent up from €1,400 to €1,500 and wanted double the deposit. We didn’t take these places and neither landlords gave the people we knew their deposits back.
Laura: We have just come out of a really bad situation. Where we are now in Waterford is a dream – we can’t believe our luck. We lived in an apartment in Salthill in Galway for the past two years. It started off there were minor problems with the house, like that it wasn’t registered with the Residential Tenancies Board [RTB, the State body that regulates the rental sector]. And then there were some more prominent damage issues that needed to be fixed. We thought we were showering in toilet water for the last two years.
Sharon: You had to flush the toilet to get the shower to turn on. And the taps were all leaking. She [the landlady] would say, ‘That’s how it is. If you don’t like it, leave’.
Laura: The windows in each of our bedrooms were letting in so much cold air. We were working from home in four layers of clothing at all times. We had a snuggie, a blanket that you wear, on top of ski socks, gloves, everything.
Sharon: We told her the windows were broken and she would say, ‘That’s not a landlord problem’. She broke down our electricity bill and was telling us how much it was costing to run our laptops.
Dónal: Those kinds of issues are really distressing. Where the landlord is going through your electricity bill and giving you advice to put on the heater period for 14 hours a day, that’s totally unacceptable. Or that you have to flush the toilet to get water into the shower. It’s a horrific indictment of Irish society.
Have you gone through the RTB dispute-resolution process?
Alice: I have only had to do it once in Galway. We woke up one day and they had drilled a For Sale sign on to the front of the house. They told us they were going to sell. I was like – solicitor in training – we know what our rights are; we don’t have any now. That’s the way it goes. They said ‘No, you can stay until we find someone, but let us know when you want to leave’. We were very kind and accommodated viewings. I gave them a month’s notice in writing, we meticulously scrubbed the house, gave back the keys, and I said you ‘Can send the cheque to this address?’ – the deposit of €1,000, which is so much money for students. They said you’re not getting the deposit back because you broke the lease. I was actually moving to Spain. I started the RTB process, got all of the emails together, all of the evidence, but I wasn’t in the country. The other two girls just wanted to move on, because it’s such a hassle to make a complaint. So we never, ever got it back.
Dónal: It’s so difficult to deal with the RTB; it’s a really inefficient and an ineffective process. But if you look at the legislative process, leases are actually heavily weighted in the favour of tenants.
What one thing would improve life for long-term renters in Ireland?
Dónal: From my perspective, it’s the uncertainty of what’s around the corner; the not knowing whether or not the notice of termination is going to land on your doorstep for whatever reason, because the landlord can do that if they want to sell up or anything like that. The European model of longer-term leasing arrangements is something that should be considered or encouraged within Irish society. There’s been a huge amount of institutional investors bulk buying units at the moment; if they’re incentivised in some way to enter into these longer-term lease agreements, that could be one way of doing it.
'Around us, they’re still putting up the rent, even though lots of the units in the block are vacant'
Sharon: I’ve seen way too many horrible-looking places for extortionate amounts of money. Charging someone €1,200 for a bed in the kitchen? Unbelievable. The ideal long-term solution is more houses, but that’s not going to happen quickly. But there should be some kind of valuation system in place where these properties actually get what they’re worth.
Gearóid: One thing for long-term renters would be a cap on the amount of rent a landlord can charge if you’re there for a certain period of time. There is a cap [in rent pressure zones, rents can only be increased by 4 per cent per annum] but 4 per cent can get to a sizeable amount very quickly. The amenities won’t have changed in the apartment. Around us, they’re still putting up the rent, even though lots of the units in the block are vacant [since the start of the pandemic]. What’s happening is people are moving from one apartment to another because the rent two floors down is cheaper than the apartment they’re currently in.
Alice: If they bring the rent down now, and rent [out the place], when Covid is over, they won’t reach the rent they were at pre-Covid because of the rent cap. So it’s cheaper for these massive conglomerates to keep all of these apartments vacant. That’s been happening on a massive scale. We all got very positive that because Covid was happening, people were going back to the country and we could finally be able afford to rent in our own city. And that just hasn’t happened, even though there are vacant buildings. There needs to be more regulations. Change has to come from Government. There have to be people in power who are not landlords, who are renters, who have experienced this and who actually care. Long-term leases are all well and good. But the autonomy, the peace, the safety that you get from the 30-year leases that you get on the Continent comes with a strength of regulations behind them.
Siobhán: A one-size-fits-all approach isn’t helpful. My hopes and aspirations are going to be different from those of say, an elderly person who wants to live independently but with some support, and [their needs] are going to be different from someone who is a Traveller, or someone who wants to work in Dublin a few days a week and needs somewhere safe and clean and affordable to lay their head down. My Dad and my uncles all lived in bedsits when they came to Dublin in the 1970s and 1980s. That’s fine if it’s affordable, clean and safe. The idea that we have to have lots of three-bed semi-detached homes for families – I just don’t think that is representative. There are homeless people and people in direct provision in this country that have to have an option for housing that’s not appalling, and there has to be dignity in that. There needs to be flexibility and that we’re not expecting everybody to conform to one fit, one norm, and indeed one price.
Where do you see yourselvesin two years?
Siobhán: Myself and my boyfriend have applied for a mortgage, and I’d like to be in a place by the end of the year, although friends have laughed in my face about that. But maybe in two years. I did read David McWilliams’s advice [in his Irish Times column] to young people and first-time buyers: that we should cease and desist and not engage with the property market. I’d be happy to step out of the market and I can have my babies in a flat, but I don’t see falling rents, and to try to get back into the market in two years? In two years, I’d like my own front door, a garden and a polytunnel.
Dónal: I’d hope to be in a position to make an offer to my landlord to buy this house, which is home to my two boys.
Alice: We could only get a one-year lease on the place we’re moving to, and again, that is through my landlady’s sister-in-law. So in two years’ time, I hope to have my own front door, to be safe, and have a clean toilet. That’s it.
'Renting has definitely left me feeling forgotten about as a generation and frustrated with the parties who have put us in this position'
Laura: I hope to have my PhD finished and then move abroad somewhere sunny. A big reason I see myself leaving Ireland is because renting has left me with little prospect of having savings when you’re spending most of your monthly salary on rent. I can’t see when I will be able to stop renting if I stay, especially as an individual. As a single person, I don’t see much of a future here for me to grow.
Sharon: I think I’ll also end up moving from Ireland within the next two years. The rental market is a big factor.
Gearóid: I’d like to have part of a deposit saved, and be able to start thinking about where my future is going to be. Now with remote working, [there is] the prospect of people being able to afford a much cheaper area. Then again, I’m from Co Clare and I know you couldn’t buy a house in Clare in the last few months.
Has your experience of renting changed your views politically?
Laura: I would say yes. Over the last 10 years there have been so many empty promises by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to clean up the mess they’ve collectively made and fix the housing crisis. I find it worrying that the people in charge of my future seem to have no real idea of what is truly going on, or how it feels to know you may continue to live with strangers in a house share, without ever having your own space. On the Facebook house-hunting page for Galway, I’ve seen single mothers looking to team up with other single mothers in order to get a house. The only political parties who seem to be invested in fixing the housing crisis for the working class is Sinn Féin and People Before Profit. My granddad might kill me for saying this, but I would consider voting for Sinn Féin in the next election.
Alice: I would always have voted leftist – not the Greens as I am old enough to remember the last time they went into Government. However, I will say that although I have never voted for them, Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin’s solutions on social housing [are] something I strongly agree with. Renting has definitely left me feeling forgotten about as a generation and frustrated with the parties who have put us in this position. It makes me sad to live in a country that does not protect the vulnerable and at the very least allow them the dignity of a roof over their heads. It makes me think of Ireland as a country that looks after the lucky and punishes those who are unlucky.
Siobhán: My confidence in the current Government is low, and I’m pessimistic about their will to make real change happen, especially given that so many have a conflict of interest in changing the status quo, as many are landlords. To refer back to my comments about affording people of all socio-economic backgrounds flexibility and choice in their renting and homemaking, I don’t see that that resonates with the Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil agendas.
Sharon: I wish the Government was more in touch. I don’t know if they actually even realise what young people are going through. They’re suggesting all these things like co-living spaces – would you live in a co-living space?
Alice: I got Covid in October living in the situation that I live in. My boyfriend had no other choice but to stay in the room with me. [It highlighted how the idea of] co-living – expecting people to be grateful to live in those situations – is really dangerous. And I think that’s something that really has to come out of this.
Parts of this conversation have been edited for length or clarity. Some answers were subsequently expanded on by participants