Estera Ancuta Plesca and her husband Marius are expecting their first child, a girl, in three months’ time. It should be an exciting time. But they are anxious.
The young Romanian couple, you see, feel they are on the cusp of homelessness.
They have been renting a bedsit in Phibsborough for just over two years. In July, an Environment Health Officer from Dublin City Council inspected it and found that it wasn’t up to standard.
The problem: the bathroom, while designated for use only by Estera and Marius, was outside “the habital area of the house”.
Under regulations that came into effect on 1 February 2013 and effectively banned traditional bedsits, rentals are required to have decent food-preparation facilities, tenant-controlled heating appliances and access to laundry – and to have a bathroom within the rented unit.
Estera and Marius’s unit doesn’t. An “improvement notice” was handed to their landlord, Gerry Naughton, ordering him to integrate the bathroom into the “habital” area of the home.
That’s the source of their worry that they might end up on the street.
But proponents of the regulations say they’re also a source of progress improving health, safety, and living standards for thousands across the city and that landlords need to spend the money to bring apartments in line with them.
Upon setting one foot inside the bedsit last Friday evening, the impracticality of such an upgrade became clear.
To the right of the door as you enter, is a double bed. On the left-hand wall is a set of tall wardrobes.
On the opposite wall, there is a sink with cabinets underneath, and cupboards for storage above. To the right of it, shelves house a television, lamp, coffee maker, toaster, kettle, and pictures of Estera and Marius on their wedding day.
Underneath these shelves is an electric heater.
To the right is the food-preparation area: a cooker and hob, a fridge. Again, more cupboards for storage. Between this area and the bed is a square wooden table with two chairs in front of a large window that looks out onto the back yard of the property.
“It’s a very clever use of space,” says Estera, a short woman with black hair and dark, tired-looking eyes. “I like it here; I like the neighbours and I like Gerry.”
Estera and Marius’s bathroom is in the rear bay extension of the building, a Victorian three-storey red-brick.
It is just metres away from their apartment, out to the left of the door and down four steps. It is a large, tiled bathroom with toilet, a sink and a shower.
“They want bathrooms within the living unit,” says Naughton. “That’s the only thing this unit has failed on . . . Put a bathroom in here and the integrity of the room would be lost.”
If he put a bathroom in the apartment, it would become uninhabitable. There wouldn’t be room left for a bed.
The new regulations, Naughton says, were well-intentioned, but not very practical.
“The government doesn’t seem to look at consequential factors,” he says. “When you bring in new regulations like this you should look at consequences and ask, ‘Are we disadvantaging a group of people? Is there problems around people meeting those requirements?’”
“While the regulations have got rid of some slum landlords it’s also got rid of the caring landlords, those who were willingly accepting people on rent supplement, willing accepting people who were socially disadvantaged,” he says.
Since the regulations were introduced, the most vulnerable people have been affected, he says. “It doesn’t increase the standards when people don’t have a roof over their head and are sleeping on the street.”
Estera is very worried about the potential of becoming homeless.
“There are so many homeless on O’Connell Street,” she says. “If someone could go early in the morning, they would see how many homeless are there.”
Her rent is €450 a month, and has been at that rate since she first moved in over two years ago. She says there’s nothing in the market at that price. The lowest she’s seen is €600, and she can’t afford that.
Her husband is not working full-time, but does some labouring work when he can get it. Estera works in a hotel, but will be leaving soon as she nears the end of her pregnancy.
Naughton is not totally averse to the new regulations. Another of his rented units, a bedsit on the ground floor of the property, also failed to meet the standard. This resulted in a separate improvement notice, to integrate a bathroom within the unit.
Naughton plans to do this, but given the impracticality of transforming Estera and Marius’s bedsit, he says he won’t be complying. Nor will he evict the couple, he says.
Failure to comply with the regulations could result in a €5,000 fine or imprisonment for up to six months (or both), as well as a fine of €400 for each day the offence continues.
It’s unclear whether Naughton faces such fines. If he doesn’t, he might be able to wait until the couple leave before working out how to upgrade the apartment. But if he does, he might find he has no choice but to evict Estera and Marius.
In letter Naughton wrote to Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government Alan Kelly in October outlining his reasons for not complying with the regulations he stated:
“So, what are my options? I can evict my pregnant tenant and her husband knowing that they have ‘absolutely no chance’ of finding alternative accommodation. I will not be taking that step!”
“I’m resigned to the fact that Dublin City Council will bring me to court and that I will be found guilty of non-compliance . . . And as I have no intention of paying any fine or penalty, I am also resigned to the fact that I will face a prison term.”
In reply to Naughton’s letter, Larry Kelly, personal secretary to the minister, said there were no plans to change the regulations.
“The Government recognises that a minority of landlords and tenants may need to look at alternative housing options, however this is a ‘greater good’ measure and many tenants who find they are living in substandard accommodation are likely to be those most vulnerable in society,” he wrote.
While it seems as if Naughton is facing a choice between prison and sending his pregnant tenant to go live on O’Connell Street as winter approaches, it might not be that simple.
Since 2012, Dublin City Council has been running an intensive inspection programme, looking closely at conditions in some city apartments.
Colm Smyth, the council’s principal environmental-health officer, gave a report to the council’s housing committee last November on the results of that programme.
In it, he said that a prohibition notice, which is served when a landlord fails to comply with an improvement notice, “is not a reason for the landlord to evict a tenant”.
Dublin City Council cannot and does not compel them to do so, he said.
If the place isn’t up to standard, “sitting tenants can remain in residence”, but the landlord can’t rent it out again, Smyth said.
It wasn’t clear from Smyth’s report, though, whether landlords could face fines or imprisonment while the tenants remain in residence and the apartment remains substandard, which would be so onerous that they would feel they had no choice but to evict the tenant.
Dublin City Council Press Office hasn’t yet responded to a press query asking to clarify this.
With regulations that bar landlords from renting out some apartments, “the state is actually reducing the accommodation that’s out there”, says Margaret McCormick, spokesperson for the Irish Property Owner’s Association (IPOA).
“We’ve requested on numerous occasions that this be changed, rented units should be to a good standard, they must be, we wouldn’t argue with that,” she says. But the regulations should require a designated bathroom for the sole use of the tenant, as opposed to an integrated bathroom.
Sometimes integrating a bathroom is impossible; others, it’s very expensive. A regulatory impact assessment conducted by the Centre for Housing Research (CHR) in 2008 estimated that the cost of converting a property of eight bedsits “could be in the region of €120,000”.
“It just makes no sense whatsoever,” McCormick says. “There’s people being made homeless or else they have to pay higher rent. That’s a hugely flawed situation.”
When the legislation was initially floated and drafted it, was at the height of the property boom, and there was a lot of property out there, she says. “It was felt that it wouldn’t be a problem because there was a lot of surplus accommodation.”
In 2008, when it assessed the expected impact of the new regulation, the CHR made reference to “the continued growth in the stock of property in the private rented sector”. Today, that surplus stock no longer exists.
Instead, there’s a shortage. And there are bedsits now lying vacant.
It’s difficult to determine just how many bedsits are sitting idle.
Speaking to RTE on Friday, Fine Gael Minister of Finance Michael Noonan claimed 5,000 bedsits were taken out of the sector.
“There’s no doubt at all that the over-regulation of the system has been part of the problem,” he said. “It was very desirable to say that every bedsit in Dublin should have bathroom and toilet facilities ensuite, but it took 5,000 bedsits out of rental.”
It’s not clear where he got that number from. Before the regulation came into force in 2013, there were 6,259 people living in 4,475 bedsits in Dublin, according to statistics from the 2011 census, released by Focus Ireland.
Fintan McNamara of the Residential Landlords Association estimates that it’s a couple of thousand bedsits in Dublin that are vacant.
These units, he says, if brought back into circulation would go some way towards tackling the homelessness crisis.
“We’re talking about 3,000 homeless,” he says. “It wouldn’t suit every homeless person, obviously, but it would certainly help.”
By their nature, McNamara says, bedsits are cheaper than studios or one-bedroom apartments. They’re budget accommodation, but they can be very comfortable, he says.
“If I had a choice of looking at the stars and having my own unit of accommodation, my own bed, my own cooking facilities and a bathroom unique to that facility I’ve no question what I would choose,” McNamara says.
Lorcan Sirr isn’t convinced.
If there are bedsits lying vacant, that’s the landlords’s fault, says Sirr, who lectures on housing at DIT.
The mortgages on many of the properties hosting bedsits have been paid off long ago, he says, so landlords should be able to raise the capital to make the changes to comply with the regulations.
“If they’re illegal, they should be put into use, turned into family houses or into decent-sized apartments, or just made legal,” he says. “Standards are there for a reason, the idea is to improve people’s quality of life.”
The regulations were passed in 2008, giving landlords several years to upgrade their properties before they went into effect in 2013, says Kieran Rose, a senior planner at Dublin City Council.
“We’re all concerned about the housing crisis,” says Rose, speaking in a personal capacity. “But if one of our first responses is to reduce the quality of housing, we’re going in exactly the opposite and the wrong direction.”
“The solution to the housing crisis cannot be continued supply of substandard accommodation,” Rose says. “Which standards are we going to take away? Fire Safety? Damp and Mould? Hygiene? Which ones are we going to sacrifice?”
Rose raises a good question. Are there some standards we can reasonably take away?
The intensive inspection programme had examined 6,360 rented units by the end of March this year, according to the Department of Environment. Seventy-three percent of those (more than 4,100 units) have so far been brought into compliance.
These figures are certainly welcomed. And a call to reverse these improvements would be not only be regressive but dangerous.
Fire-safety violations were the main problem identified by Dublin City Council’s intensive inspection programme: they were the issue for 72 percent of non-compliant units, according to Smyth’s report.
So we probably don’t want to relax those standards.
But should we review the requirement that all apartments have integrated bathrooms? This was a problem with 9 percent of non-compliant units.
Why is it important to have a bathroom within the habitable area of the rented unit? Why isn’t it good enough to have a designated bathroom for the use of the tenants?
“Having to leave your home to access a shared bathroom in a multi-unit building poses safety concerns,” the Department of Environment said in an email. It “is not appropriate for tenants, especially at the lower end of the rental market as these tenants are some of the most vulnerable in society.”
It’s also a matter of privacy, says Rose, the planner.
“I don’t think the vast majority of people, who are living in suburbia in houses or people who are living in apartments, good quality apartments, would accept that you’d have to leave your front door to go to the bathroom.”
Rose says people who are living in substandard bedsits are people with little or no housing choice; they may not have a lot of money, may have very low incomes.
“One of the critical roles of the state is to protect those people, by introducing minimum standards,” he says.
Anna does not feel like the minimum standards are protecting her.
She moved to Dublin from Barcelona 17 years ago to learn English and has been living in the same one bedroom flat on the North Circular Road ever since.
She asked us not to use her surname in this article because she is appealing an improvement notice and, rightly or wrongly, feels that talking about it might have an impact on the process.
Last Thursday night, her landlord, Willie Connor, reluctantly he says, served her an eviction notice.
She has until the 31 March to find alternative accommodation that will accept rent allowance, she says. Her chances of doing so, she feels, aren’t good.
“I’m going to be left homeless,” she says. “Where do I go? Nobody accepts rent allowance. What do I do with my life? What do I do with all this?”
She indicates her possessions in the large, high-ceilinged bedroom: her paintings, computer, desk, shelves, cabinets, clothes and books.
From her bedroom, her kitchen and bathroom – which she has sole use of – are up a small flight of steps, about five metres away.
“They’re just kicking me out of my home, just because they don’t like that there is no door here and I have to go out there to the bathroom and kitchen,” she says. “Well, I’ve lived with that 17 years, I’m okay with that.”
Anna used to sell property: holiday homes, in Spain. She was making good money in those years, but chose to remain in the flat because she liked it.
When she became unemployed, Connor, her landlord, adjusted the rent to meet her needs, she says. And whenever work needs to be done, he does it.
Anna recently finished a psychiatric and social care degree, but she still has to do a certain number of hours before she is fully accredited.
Connor says each of the four rental units of the property has its own designated bathroom and kitchen facilities. Because of this, he was under the assumption that he complied with the new regulations.
“That’s the word that’s hanging us,” he says pointing to a document of the regulations, “’within the habitable area.’”
The regulations, he says, are over the top. A flat downstairs, on the first floor, failed to comply because the bathroom was just outside and to the left of the door of the rented unit.
Connor says he spent €6,700 and three weeks of his own labour blocking up the bathroom door and bursting through from the inside of the flat to the bathroom, which meant a total rearrangement of the bathroom and its fixtures to accommodate the changes.
He’ll now have to do the same with Anna’s flat, although this will be a bigger job, as he’ll have to burst through the wall of the bedroom to the kitchen, add steps, then burst through the wall of the kitchen to the bathroom, and, again, rearrange the bathroom, to ensure it’s all one self-contained unit.
Connor says it will cost somewhere in the region of €12,000 and, again, several weeks of his own labour.
By that time, Anna will have to have found somewhere else to live.
As well as being clearly worried by the uncertainty of what’s to come, she’s incredibly frustrated.
“I don’t think we live in a place we shouldn’t be living in,” she says. “I’m happy here, otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”
“We are like a family and we see each other and we know each other, what’s the problem? It’s their [the council’s] problem, not mine. But now it’s my problem, and his.”
She makes the point that if she was house-sharing, there would be no issue with having to pass another tenant in her dressing gown to get to the bathroom or the kitchen.
Connor says that’s the rub: “If you rent a house as one unit, those regulations don’t come into it, because the six or seven people renting are all using the one kitchen and one bathroom.”
The regulations do, of course, come into it, but the house, as a whole, is considered one habitable area. Once there’s a bathroom that is up to standard, regardless of how many tenants will be using it, that property is compliant.
Let’s get back to Estera and Marius for a minute.
The Department of Environment, in responding to the letter from their landlord, Gerry Naughton, said that tenants “in these circumstances should be aware that there are a variety of accommodation options out there”.
As well as local authority and voluntary housing, shared housing was one option the department mentioned. But Estera and Marius have lived in shared housing and would prefer not to do it again.
They lived in a house in Drumcondra with three other tenants. They had to share a kitchen, a fridge, a washing machine and a bathroom.
“It’s not nice to share a bathroom with other people,” Marius says.
“It’s not healthy,” Estera says.
Also, they didn’t feel comfortable cooking in the communal kitchen, Estera says.
In their bedsit in Phibsborough, though, they have their own private cooking facilities, their own table where the can sit down and have their meals, and their own bathroom.
Naughton is throwing down the gauntlet to Minister Alan Kelly.
“I’m now challenging Minister Kelly to find [Estera and Marius] accommodation better or of an equal standard to this bedsit for €450 a month, inside the Dublin area. That’s my challenge.”