A group of south Dublin tenants, including sick, older people and a child with special needs, face eviction next month after a four-year battle with two sets of corporate landlords.
Some have lived at St Helen's Court, a complex of 26 apartments in Dún Laoghaire, for almost 20 years. Their case underlines the inadequacy of protections for private tenants, according to housing charity Threshold, which says they have "unfortunately reached the end of the line".
Six of the apartments, which were originally owned and let by businessman William Donnelly, were bought by individuals, and the remaining 20 sold to Apollo Global Management and Deutsche Bank in 2016.
In December 2016, PwC, acting on behalf of the owners, attempted to increase rents by up to 50 per cent just days before legislation capping rent increases at 4 per cent in designated zones was enacted. The increases were disallowed by the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB).
In August 2017 termination notices were served on the remaining 17 tenants, on the grounds of substantial refurbishments. The RTB ruled in September 2017 that these notices were invalid.
PwC sold the 20 apartments in February 2019 for a reported €4 million, to Donegal-based Mill Street Projects Ltd, which still owns them. The complex is currently listed in the portfolio of the Derry-based Martin Property Group.
In May 2019 termination notices were served to the 10 remaining tenants, on the grounds of substantial refurbishment prior to either reletting or sale. This however, contravened section 35 (a) of the 2004 Residential Tenancies Act, known as the Tyrrelstown Amendment, according to which a landlord cannot terminate 10 or more tenancies in a property if they intend to sell them within six months.
The notices were withdrawn, but in August 2019 notices were served on eight of the tenants. Though the eight appealed the notices, arguing the move was a “strategic attempt to circumvent S 35 (a)”, the RTB last month ruled the notices were valid. One of the eight households has left but, says the RTB, the seven remaining must “give up possession” of their homes “within 10 days” of the end of Level 5 Covid restrictions or “within 56 days” of the order – “whichever is the later”.
Among them is Onani Ngwenya (67), who has lived at St Helen’s Court since 2004. He works in a nearby newsagent and cares for his wife, Edith (64), who has a serious heart condition.
“The situation, it’s very, very bad,” he said. “My wife is in and out of hospital. I just feel squeezed. I am afraid we will be homeless.”
Melanie Zeng and her husband, Kin, have two children, aged 9 and 7, one of whom has a disability and attends a local school. Kin is a waiter in the city centre. They have lived at St Helen's Court for 18 years.
“We are happy because the schools and the health centre are near,” said Ms Zeng. “The new owners say, ‘You have to move, move, move.’ My older boy, he said, ‘Mummy, I don’t want to move. My friends are so nice.’ But if we can’t find a good price, we will have to move somewhere cheaper.” They currently pay €900 a month for their two-bedroom apartment.
Tony Geraghty, a carer, pays €800 monthly for his one-bed apartment. He has lived here for 10 years. "I think in the end we will be forced to go, but we need time. There is nowhere low earners like us could afford this side of Arklow. "
Local People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett claimed the residents were facing homelessness because the Government had failed to protect tenants.
“We warned the Government repeatedly these loopholes – allowing evictions for sale or refurbishment, particularly by corporate landlords – would lead to more homelessness. This is a textbook case of how ... vulture funds will treat tenants when government fails to protect them.”
Call for legislation
John-Mark McCafferty, chief executive of Threshold, said: “It’s a case that emphasises the difficulties faced by tenants in these no-fault evictions when the eviction is on the grounds of sale.”
Both he and Mr Boyd Barrett are calling for legislation stipulating that such properties be sold with tenants remaining in situ.
Asked if calls for the Tyrellstown Amendment to be extended to all tenants was under consideration, a Department of Housing spokesman said it applied only in instances of 10 or more “to strike a balance between a landlord’s right to sell their property and achieve fair return on their investment, with a tenant’s right to security of tenure.
“There is nothing in the Residential Tenancies Acts that prohibits a landlord from selling his or her property with the tenant in situ,” he added.
Mill Street Projects could not be contacted. Neither PwC nor Martin Property Group responded to phone or email contact.