Landlords don’t be shy – put what you charge in a public database

A register for individual properties would do a lot for ‘rent transparency’

Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy  has proposed a  new rental register listing the average rent paid in certain areas. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times

Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy has proposed a new rental register listing the average rent paid in certain areas. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times

 

For an example of how the Government is still at that slightly out-of-focus stage when it comes to “rent transparency” consider the proposals for a new rental register.

Last August Threshold got a firm “no” from officialdom to its suggestion that there should be a rental register, a public database listing rents paid for individual properties. The information already exists – on the private database of the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB) – and the housing advocacy group’s point was that it should be made public, so as to make sense of the Government’s last big idea to stabilise the rental market, the 4 per cent cap on rent hikes in pressure zones.

The logic is transparent – how can a tenant know that a rent rise is in line with the rules unless they know what the rent was?

No, we can’t do that, said a spokesman for the housing Minister because it “would place significant personal information, of both landlords and tenants, in the public domain, and would undoubtedly raise data protection concerns”. And, missing the point of Threshold’s idea of identifying individual properties, the department pointed out there is publicly available rental information: the RTB publishes average rents for electoral areas (not the first thing flat hunters consider I’ll bet) based on rents paid. So that’s that.

Then two weeks ago when the Cabinet came back from its Easter holidays, the Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy had a bumper collection of ideas to improve rent transparency, including a proposal for a new rental register. This would list average rent paid in certain areas based on figures from the RTB.

Now obviously it was August and no one pays too much attention in the silly season but didn’t Murphy’s department say then that average rental information is already available so there’s no need to create another database?

Average rents

In any case, as any renter knows, rent averages are also freely available in a user-friendly way (the RTB data is a nightmare to access) from the largest two property websites, myhome.ie and daft.ie. In all, we are rather well-informed when it comes to average rent rates and the general picture.

The Irish Times report on the Minister’s new proposals to encourage rent transparency noted, “It is understood the level of detail that will be published online will be finalised following consultation with the Attorney General and the Data Protection Commissioner.” As the rent situation is at crisis proportions – on many levels – surely that could have been hammered out in the long months since August when the department acknowledged there might be a data protection issue in a register that identified individual properties.

But would there be an issue though? We’ve been if not here, then in this general location before.

In 2010 the government announced there was to be a property price register, listing the sale prices of residential and commercial property, and putting the Property Services Regulatory Authority responsible for the list on a statutory footing; there would be “any necessary amendments” to the Data Protection Acts to facilitate the publication of sale price data.

Until then, estate agents weren’t allowed – under data protection – to reveal the price achieved for a property unless they had the permission of both buyer and seller. A register, they long argued, would give some transparency to the property market.

Data privacy issues

The Property Price Register is far from perfect. It only deals with residential sales – much to the frustration of the commercial sector – and it is seriously lacking in obvious and necessary information. It doesn’t include the basics such as the property’s age, size or energy rating, data that could be easily given at the time of conveyancing and which would greatly inform analysis of the price paid and the general housing market. The register is in dire need of a rethink. But it’s there and the sky didn’t fall in because the amount of money someone paid – or someone got – for a house or apartment is publicly available.

Certainly not everyone loves the idea of the public database and there are any number of cynics suspicious of the spelling mistakes and the listing of an address in Irish that can make a property hard to find. But the register is there. And you could argue that revealing the money that changed hands for the biggest purchase or sale a person is likely to ever make – usually for that most emotive of things, the family home – is a bigger deal than a rental register showing what is, for the landlord, a business transaction. Why should renters be treated differently from buyers? Renting is a professional service like any other – even dentists publish their prices.

As it stands, and until any data privacy issues are ironed out – and the department figures out what other details should be included on the rental register, it shouldn’t be just price paid – it’s best to leave the idea off the table. To create one based on average rents in general areas is a waste of time and money and has the look of window dressing with net curtains when transparency is promised.

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