Poor council housing: ‘It’s like Angela’s Ashes in here sometimes’

Tenants in Dublin, Cork and Limerick still face ‘dire conditions’ despite European ruling

Mary Cooney at her home in Balgaddy, Clondalkin, where damp and mould are a serious problem. Photograph: Alan Betson

Mary Cooney at her home in Balgaddy, Clondalkin, where damp and mould are a serious problem. Photograph: Alan Betson

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The human rights of local authority tenants living with mould and damp, sewage problems, inadequate insulation and rat infestations continue to be violated four years after a European ruling against Ireland, a housing law expert has warned.

Dr Padraic Kenna, director of the Centre for Housing Law at NUI Galway, says there has been “no real change” in the “dire conditions” many council tenants must endure following a 2017 ruling from the Committee of Social Rights that Ireland was in breach of the revised European Social Charter.

The Strasbourg-based committee will, on March 24th, publish its observations on Ireland’s progress towards compliance.

It previously ruled that Ireland breached article 16 of the charter, which says “the family as a fundamental unit of society has the right to appropriate social, legal and economic protection to ensure its full development”, including the “provision of family housing”.

The State had failed to “ensure the right to housing of an adequate standard for a not insignificant number of families”, the committee said.

The ruling followed a class action or collective complaint from tenants of 20 local authority estates in Dublin, Cork and Limerick, which alleged poor-quality housing breached their human rights.

Community Action Network (CAN), which helped the tenants gather evidence and lodge the complaint, says Ireland remains in breach and conditions have in many cases since deteriorated.

Balgaddy, an estate of almost 400 houses in west Dublin, was built between 2003 and 2007. By 2011, when The Irish Times first visited, mould and damp were rife. A second visit, in 2016, found little change.

Mary Cooney at home in Balgaddy, Clondalkin. Photograph: Alan Betson
Mary Cooney at home in Balgaddy, Clondalkin. Photograph: Alan Betson

Black mould

Mary Cooney, a healthcare worker, says conditions have got worse, and she continues to live with black mould extending across her living-room ceiling and down the walls.

“It’s like Angela’s Ashes in here sometimes,” she says.

Black and furry mould can be seen extending up from the floor about 10 inches above skirting boards in her home, and a central ceiling light cannot be used as water steams in around it.

Damp and mould in Mary Cooney’s home. Photograph: Alan Betson
Damp and mould in Mary Cooney’s home. Photograph: Alan Betson
Mary Cooney’s home in Clondalkin. Photograph: Alan Betson
Mary Cooney’s home in Clondalkin. Photograph: Alan Betson

“The ceiling collapsed there and you can see it’s going to give again. I’ve had to pull the furniture out from the walls to keep it dry.”

She points to a back door covered in dark green mildew and says that “you clean it and it comes back straight away”.

Ms Cooney cannot put shelves on the walls as they are too damp to hold them, while her adult son, Marcus, cannot leave clothes or papers in his room due to the damp.

“I’ve woken wheezing and coughing because my room is so cold. I am exhausted,” he says.

Ms Cooney says she stopped paying rent, of “about €500 a month”, to her landlord, South Dublin County Council, “about a year ago”.

She would be “delighted to pay if my home was habitable”.

Local TD and Sinn Féin housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin says there are 31 cases regarding poor conditions in Balgaddy, some of them ongoing for more than a decade. Other tenants, he fears, “have given up complaining about it”.

Colm Ward, director of housing with South Dublin County Council, says investigations are continuing into “persistent maintenance requests” from Balgaddy.

“This process is identifying some roofing and structural works required that are being incorporated into our maintenance programme, for which we have a dedicated budget, as well as identifying additional maintenance requirements for immediate action.”

He says tenants will be transferred out to allow for repairs, that 11 properties have been refurbished with 14 more scheduled to be.

Balgaddy has been “prioritised” for window and door replacements where required; external and internal repainting; and balcony and stairway repairs.

Pearse House

In the Dublin City Council area, the Pearse House complex of 345 flats is scheduled for regeneration. Tenants describe a “constant battle” against mould and damp, as well as a recent rat infestation. The complex was built in 1936 and is a protected structure.

Geraldine Holland, who pays €105 a week rent, highlights thick, soft mould growing across three walls, and damp marks across the ceiling.

Geraldine Holland at home in Pearse House flats. Photograph: Alan Betson
Geraldine Holland at home in Pearse House flats. Photograph: Alan Betson
Mildew on external walls of Geraldine Holland’s flat. Photograph: Alan Betson
Mildew on external walls of Geraldine Holland’s flat. Photograph: Alan Betson

Her neighbour, Jacqueline Hanevy, paid €700 to have her front room redecorated in November. Mould is already reappearing and is also spreading in bedrooms . She pays €119 a week rent.

“My husband is asthmatic so his breathing gets really bad here, especially with the cold weather,” she says.

Paul Hanevy points out mildew on external walls of his Pearse House flat. Photograph: Alan Betson
Paul Hanevy points out mildew on external walls of his Pearse House flat. Photograph: Alan Betson

Dublin City Council says regeneration is a “priority” and staff are working “effectively with elected members, residents and conservation architects to develop forward-thinking strategies to improve accommodation”. It says staff are “working with the residents to mitigate” the impact of mould.

Fundamental to the ongoing breaches of council tenants’ rights, says CAN, is that these renters have no mechanism for “meaningful participation” in resolving problems in their estates.

While private renters can go to the Residential Tenancies Board to enforce rights, council tenants have nowhere and no “legally enforceable rights”.

Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien said his department had given “careful consideration” to the committee’s 2017 findings.

“My department is committed to ensuring tenants in social housing are provided with adequate housing,” he says.

“The regular management and maintenance of local authority housing stock is a matter for each relevant local authority. It is open to each authority to address maintenance or improvements to their housing stock from within their own resources.”

‘State housing’

O’Brien says his department “supports local authorities to improve their social housing stock” through a range of programmes.

Dr Kenna describes as “duplicitous” the argument that conditions in council housing are solely a responsibility for local authorities.

“Local authorities are not independent of the State, they are an arm of it. All their housing is funded by the State.”

A “structured, State response” is needed to ensure council housing complies with European charter rights, he says.

“It’s the State that is responsible. It’s the Minister that’s responsible. It’s hard to believe in a wealthy country we are leaving people in these conditions, in State housing”.