File photo. Credit: Caroline Brady

A small group of tenants in Stoneybatter quietly came together earlier this year to form the Dublin Tenants Association. Now they’re ready to go public.

Having come to the end of what they referred to as a “pilot phase”, they say they now know the ins and outs of tenants’ rights, and have helped about 15 people who were in difficulty with their rental accommodation.

“We’ve been deliberately keeping a low profile,” says one of the founders, Mick Byrne. But he is happy, now that they have the resources, to deal with more cases.

Dublin city councillor Pat Dunne, of the United Left, said such a group is needed.

“Most tenants aren’t aware of their rights under the Residential Tenancies Act,” says Dunne. He regularly comes across constituents who have given up tenancies when they didn’t have to, he says.

Dunne is one of the many who helped to educate the members of the Dublin Tenants Association. He gave them advice on dealing with the Private Residential Tenancies Board (PRTB) and on identifying invalid termination notices.

Now that they are feeling more prepared, the association is getting ready to grow in size and help more tenants.

Coming Out

Last Friday night, the group officially left its pilot phase, going public with a meeting upstairs in the Teacher’s Club on Parnell Square. Their aims were to encourage interest in their cause, and to discuss whether it is time for a tenants’ union.

Guest speakers from international tenants’ organisations gave their advice on how to start a tenants’ movement in Ireland. First up was Magnus Hammar, secretary-general of the International Union of Tenants, which has been around since 1926.

“Ireland is one of the few blank spots on the map,” he said, adding that he was delighted that Irish tenants were finally coming together.

With a PowerPoint presentation, he thoroughly depressed the small crowd of 25.

Ireland has the shortest notice in Western Europe, he explained, with landlords needing to give just 28 days, while in Denmark it is a year and in France it is six months. Tenants in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland also have the pleasure of unlimited leases and rent controls.

Saying that the situation here is similar to that of Northern Ireland, Colm McDaid of Supporting Communities Northern Ireland explained their model of helping people to help themselves.

The organisation has set up 550 tenant community groups in the North, and supported them until they could stand alone, he said. “Training is a key element,” McDaid said, before offering to provide some help to the Dublin Tenants Association.

Discrimination Against Tenants

Mick Byrne of the Dublin Tenants Association says he feels that tenants here are treated like second-class citizens. It’s like if you don’t own property, you don’t have a right to a home, he says.

Another founding member, Sive Bresnihan, hopes the association can help to bring the culture of renting to the fore, and displace old stereotypes. “We are not just students or people who can’t afford a house,” she says.

Lorcan Sirr, a lecturer in housing studies at DIT, says that Irish housing policy includes “equity across tenures”. That “means that whether you’re a renter or whether you’re a home owner, you should be treated the same. And actually you’re not; you’re never treated the same.”

This is demonstrated in a number of ways, Sirr says. Firstly, when the Central Bank put out its lending limits for mortgage applicants last week, the first thing the government did was try to change the rules to the advantage of home buyers. “That’s totally wrong,” he says.

Secondly, Sirr explains, affordability is regulated in the home-ownership market, but it’s not regulated for renters.

“There’s no measure of what’s unacceptable . . . In other words, landlords can jack up rent without any bearing to someone’s income,” he says. “When you borrow a mortgage, its very strictly regulated.”

Why Isn’t There Already a National Body for Tenants?

Usually, as the number of tenants in the private sector grows, tenant security does too, through unions and regulation, according to Hammar’s research.

But this is yet to happen here in Ireland, even though the number of people renting private accommodation doubled between 2006 and 2011, and came to live in 30 percent of the country’s housing stock.

“That is a very short period of time for something so significant to happen,” says Sirr. “I think the rise in numbers has taken a lot of people by surprise.”

He believes that many people don’t see themselves as long-term renters, but as saving for a house. But the reality is that in the next 20 years or so, roughly one in three people will never buy their own home, and even larger numbers will be renting private-sector accommodation, he says.

“In Ireland it [renting] is still seen as something transient,” Sirr adds. This view means that tenants are unlikely to fight for their rights.

But as people begin to realise that renting is not temporary, “suddenly you get critical mass and this demand for better security of tenure and better rights,” explains Sirr.

Hearing that rents have increased 34.5 percent in Dublin since 2011, Hammar says he is shocked that a movement hasn’t already begun.

“I thought that would be enough to cause an uproar,” he says. “I’ve never heard figures like these before.”

What Sets It Apart?

Many may wonder: what is the difference between the Dublin Tenants Association and existing housing organisations like Threshold?

The difference is that we didn’t want to be a service provider, we wanted to be a peer group who can liaise with landlords or the PRTB, says Paddy Bresnihan. “Tenants are increasingly vulnerable and scared.”

If people don’t feel safe in their homes, members of the Dublin Tenants Association will go down and sit with them, says his sister, Sive Bresnihan. For her, solidarity is key, and this goes beyond the remit of a service provider.

Long-Term Goals

After Friday’s discussion, the group has decided that the way forward is through a combination of working on individual cases, and building a movement through education and public forums.

“We hope to build up something that can last, but we are trying to do it in an emergency situation,” says Sive Bresnihan, who hopes the movement will bring tenants into contact with decision makers.

Byrne believes that the next step is to get more tenants involved, and to help other areas set up associations in their communities.

He would like to see “tenants coming together on a large scale and being politically powerful and politically active enough to influence policy”, but he admits that this is one of his his “Utopian daydreams”.

However, Pat Dunne and Lorcan Sirr say it might just happen. “It’s from groups like this that a proper advocacy group will emerge,” says Dunne.

And Sirr thinks a national body for tenants isn’t too far down the road, either.

“The reality is actually dawning on people that they are going to be renting for a long, long time,” he says. “So there will be a little more activism.”

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