Rental sector needs proper protection and control
As greed forces rents ever-upwards, the Government works off fictional sets of data
It’s time to talk about how rent increases are decisions made by individuals, and to address the role of the landlord in exacerbating the rental crisis. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Renting a property at a fair price in Dublin and other Irish cities is now something mythical. Seeking it out or stumbling upon it can only be achieved by word of mouth, by finding a friend of a friend who has a spare room, or someone’s kind relative looking to sublet a property.
Where I live, in Stoneybatter in Dublin 7, it is not uncommon to hear of rent doubling in recent years. People’s income has certainly not doubled, yet rent lives by its own rules, rising at a rate that exists in a parallel universe compared to people’s financial realities.
What is the rental market like in Stoneybatter right now? A quick look at daft.ie at the weekend showed one property available for rent. One. A ground-floor, one-bedroom apartment on North Brunswick Street on an eight-month lease at the ridiculous price of €1,300 per month. The apartment’s underground car parking space comes at an additional charge.
The rental crisis is multifaceted, but it’s time to talk about how increases are decisions made by individuals, and to address the role of the landlord in exacerbating the rental crisis. The reason rent is going up is because someone is putting it up.
I’ve lost count of the number of my friends who have had to move out of their homes because the landlord was increasing the rent. This is about greed, as well as a failure to stop greed and incentivise fair rent at policy level. While I appreciate that an acute national housing crisis presents itself in a very specific light to some landlords as an opportunity to increase mortgage payments on their properties so they’ll own them outright sooner, and that they’re only asking for what they know they can get, landlords need to realise that increasing rent causes huge distress for people. They need to realise that while an extra few hundred quid from a property is for them a nice little bump, for their tenant it can be a crippling imposition.
Landlords vs tenants
Landlords complain about the investment and hassle of owning a property, and will share horror stories about careless tenants. But owning a property is an infinitely more privileged position than renting one. And if tenants were extended more rights, they would also take on more responsibility.
The rental sector is talked about in terms of “the market”. But the market is a smokescreen. The market is people. The market does not magically happen. It is not anointed from above. It is the consequence of actions of individuals. For the most part, landlords increasing rent aren’t doing anything illegal. Capitalism declares that individuals pursuing their own interests benefits society. By handing over housing to individuals and abandoning large-scale social housing development, the Government crossed the invisible hand’s fingers and hoped for the best. But what we have ended up with is an inevitable outcome where individual interests begin to punish those on the receiving end of the market. The market has failed, whether it’s driven by a landlord who owns one property, or a few, or massive property investment companies such as Ires Reit, which owns 2,300 apartments across the capital.
The interventions made so far to try and stymie the crisis have been at best inconsequential and at worst disastrous. I simply cannot understand the lack of foresight and basic anticipation of cause and effect when it came to something such as the two-year rent freeze, which a first-year business student could have told a minister would have the consequence it did: landlords would use the opportunity to increase rent, or seek higher rent from new tenants, and forever consider new leases as upward only. Every time a new rental contract is agreed, rent can be pushed up. So if turnover is high in a particular property or building owned by a property company, that rent will go up and up and up. For example, despite the perception that there is a two-year rent freeze, Ires Reit pushed its rent up 12 per cent at The Marker in Grand Canal Dock in the first six months of 2016.
The more rent rises in an area, the faster a new acceptable level is reached. Rent, like wealth, is relative. If one landlord manages to squeeze an extra few hundred quid out of a new tenant, you can bet the landlord next door will aspire to get that rent too. Gradually, but often quickly, the rent in a particular area spirals upward. The opposite of rent control is rent out of control.
The problem overall is a lack of a grand plan for housing. What we get instead are shot-in-the-dark interventions, spin and the delusion that the market will handle a crisis. The Government appears to be more interested in painting a positive picture rather than addressing the reality. Our housing data is completely flawed, as demonstrated by the inaccurate figures the Government is basing its housing policy on. It has said that 14,932 homes were completed in 2016. That is not true. The Building Control Management System shows 2,076 homes were built in 2016. The Department of Housing estimated that 8,729 estate homes and apartments were built in 2016. The actual figure is 848. How can we even begin to tackle the housing crisis if the Government is intentionally working off fictional datasets?
While it would be lovely if landlords acted fairly just because that’s the moral thing to do, a plea isn’t a policy, and an ask isn’t an incentive. For decades, renters in particular have needed very basic things for the housing situation in this country to function; rent control, longer leases, increased protections for tenants, and housing built to last as well as to let. Plenty of our European neighbours manage this. Even though these things are so basic, we have none of them in Ireland.