Housing: protecting tenants

Official policy has alternated between a do-nothing approach and fits of social housing

The housing sector has changed dramatically during the past decade but measures to protect the rights of tenants have been extremely slow in coming. Traditionally, landlords in the black economy behaved with impunity. Efforts to compile a formal register only began with the establishment of the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB) in 2004.

It has taken a housing shortage, the establishment of rent pressure zones – where landlords can impose a maximum rent increase on existing tenants of four per cent a year – and unacceptable landlord behaviour for the Government to provide the agency with some teeth. It may not be enough. Some landlords are still behaving badly.

Information, they say, is power. Recent legislation granted tenants statutory rights. The tenancies board has highlighted the fact that landlords must give 90 days’ notice for a rent review; that painting and the replacement of white goods does not amount to “renovation” or justify the eviction of a tenant; and that, in disputed cases, compensation of up to €20,000 may be awarded. In the current rental market, however, many tenants are unaware of their rights or are unwilling to exercise them for fear of losing their homes.

The obvious answer is to build more houses. But this should also involve rental competition between the private and social sectors. Within the past decade, the percentage of households in private rented accommodation has doubled from 10 to 20 per cent. One-third of these households – more than 100,000 – are in receipt of State rental support. At the same time, Irish social housing has shrunk to nine per cent of the total stock, compared to 20 per cent in the UK and 22 per cent in Germany. Propping up the private rental sector in this way is not the answer.

In the past, government policy alternated between a do-nothing approach, influenced by an empty Exchequer, and fits of social housing. We may be halfway through that repeating cycle. Certainly, there is a great need for local authority housing and, if this need is met, rent pressures in the private sector should reduce.