Marcos Monterrosa got a shock when he arrived in Dublin from Mexico last winter. He didn’t expect it to be so difficult to find somewhere decent to live.
He was desperate, so he moved into a small, damp studio in the basement of a large building, which he shared with another man. The studio was only slightly larger than a normal bedroom. It contained the kitchen, bathroom and two single beds.
“It was a nightmare, it was an unbelievably tight space and the bathroom was right beside the kitchen,” he said.
He soon discovered that he was also being ripped off for the rent.
“The studio was sublet to us by a Brazilian guy and we were paying €300 per month each, while he was gone back to Brazil. But we soon found out from other tenants living in the building that they were paying €300 per studio,” he said.
Sive Bresnihan of the Dublin Tenants Association, a peer-advocacy and tenant-support group, says that advertising rooms to share is increasingly common in Dublin. “If you look on the ‘Rent in Dublin’ Facebook page three out of four ads are for shared rooms,” she says.
“The problem is systemic – it links back to the chaos and the rent gouging that characterises the sector right now,” says Bresnihan. “The escalating rents and the government’s unwillingness to do anything about it creates a whole system which breeds greed and exploitation.”
She sees exploitation in the shared-house sector as part of a problem to which rent control is a solution. “The government is creating the conditions for this. There is no effort to introduce rent controls,” Bresnihan says.
“Rents (…) are now higher than at the height of the boom, but wages and inflation have not gone up. This creates the conditions for exploitation,” she says.
She adds that we need a system of regulation that does not rely on tenants complaining, as they are often too desperate to rock the boat.
Sometimes those in shared homes – like Monterrosa – don’t actually have any contact with the landlord, and instead rent through another tenant.
That can become an issue if there are any problems and a tenant wants to turn to the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB) for help. “If you move into a house share and you’re paying rent but not paying it directly to the landlord, you are outside of the law,” says Bresnihan, of the Dublin Tenants Association.
The Dublin Tenants Association have supported numerous sub-letters whose cases were found to be “outside of the jurisdiction of the RTB,” she said. At the moment, the person who pays the rent to the landlord has the rights. The sub-letter has no recourse.
“You have so many people now who have nowhere to go if someone keeps their deposit, or if someone is abusive to them or someone is bullying them,” she said. The Dublin Tenants Association want the Residential Tenancies Act expanded to cover sub-letters.
Maria Alvarez, who is also from Mexico, lives in three-bedroom flat and shares a room with three other young women. There are two sets of bunks in the average-sized bedroom. Each of the four tenants is paying €300 per month.
“So the landlord is making €1,200 from that room alone, and there is two other rooms in the house, which are also crowded,” she said.
There are ten people in total living in the flat, each paying €300. They have two bathrooms but only one kitchen, making it nearly impossible for everybody to cook dinner in the evenings.
Alvarez says she often has to leave for work before her flatmates have finished cooking. “Sometimes I just have to have a sandwich for dinner because I don’t get time to cook something,” she said.
There are no regulations at the moment for how many kitchens or bathrooms there should be in shared accommodation. A poor facilities-to-tenants ratio is a common complaint from those who have lived in shared homes.
Gabriel Luksaite, a student at Trinity College Dublin, said she paid €675 to share a tiny room last year. “I was desperate, I had one week to find somewhere,” she said.
She found the place through a large, well-known estate agent, and approximately 100 students were accommodated in the building. She had a contract, but didn’t get all of the mod cons she was promised, she said.
There was one small fridge between five people. The kitchen could fit one person at a time. They couldn’t control their hot water, there were no electric showers, and the internet was down a lot.
“I had to go around to my friend’s house to shower sometimes and would stay in the library late because of the internet,” she said.
There are no separate regulations for accommodation in shared houses, according to the RTB.
“In registering a tenancy a landlord is required to provide details of all tenants in the rented dwelling. In addition, details of the number of bedrooms and the number of occupants in the rented dwelling is also required,” said Stephen O’Byrnes, a spokesperson for the RTB.
Shared houses have to meet the same standards as non-shared ones, as set out in the Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations 2008 and amended in 2009.
There are also rules that prohibit overcrowding, under the Housing Act 1966. In the act, overcrowding means when there is a man and a woman, who are not a couple, having to share, or else that “the free air space in any room used as a sleeping apartment, for any person is less than four hundred cubic feet (the height of the room, if it exceeds eight feet, being taken to be eight feet, for the purpose of calculating free air space)”.
For Alvarez, Luksaite and others in similar shared rooms, if the room is smaller than this, then the landlord could be told off for overcrowding.
If landlords are asked to comply and don’t, that is an offence. But the maximum penalty under the act? “A fine not exceeding twenty-five pounds,” it says.
Time for an Update?
Many renters have low expectations.
“The reality is people are desperate because of the housing crisis. It’s a sheer lack of supply, people are sleeping on floors and doubling up,” said Stephen Large, manager of Threshold’s Dublin service.
In some situations, shift workers share a bed, using it at different times of day. Migrant workers in low-paid jobs are particularly vulnerable, Large said. “This situation is not conducive to their health and well-being and they are also putting their lives at risk.”
Often, tenants don’t complain, Large said. They are desperate and may fear losing the accommodation or just don’t want to draw attention to themselves. “We need to have very clear regulation where properties are rented,” he said.
As Large sees it, current legislation could be extended to specifically regulate shared houses, or Ireland could look at the UK model, which he says is well-regulated.
In the UK, there is legislation for houses of multiple occupancy (HMOs) that was brought in in 1985. It is currently being strengthened to give tenants more protections.
A recent article in the Guardian said the proposals to tighten up and strengthen existing rules should “bring an end to ruthless landlords who exploit tenants and charge them extortionate rents to live in poor conditions”.
Although the number of people living in shared houses, and shared bedrooms, is increasing in Dublin, according to Threshold and the Dublin Tenants Association, there seems to be no plans to introduce similar rules here.
Do We Need Them?
The legislation in the UK for HMOs regulates how many people can live in a room depending on the size of the room.
In the UK, the minimum bedroom size is 6.5 square metres to have three people living in a bedroom, that room must be at least 15 square metres.
For houses with more than five residents, there must also be a second bathroom and a second cooker. More than 10 people in a house would again require increased facilities. All of the rooms need fire doors too.
Colin Moran, an estate agent from in Belfast – where these rules are in place – said that although the regulations increase the workload for estate agents and landlords, he fully supports them. He believes they save lives.
“In 2007, there was a house fire in an overcrowded share-house near our offices in the Antrim Road. Two Polish migrant workers died in that fire,” he said.
“Had that house been modified to HMO standards with fire doors installed within the property, lives might have been saved,” he says.
He thinks it is dangerous that there are no such regulations in place in Dublin: “The level of overcrowding you’re talking about there, it’s just a tragedy waiting to happen.”
Fit and Proper
Under the HMO legislation in the UK landlords for shared homes also have to show they are a “fit and proper person” to get a licence.
That means they have to give details of certain unspent convictions, acts of unlawful discrimination, and other judgments against them.
Large, of Threshold in Dublin, says there should be a licensing system for landlords here in Ireland. And a kind of NCT for houses, such as an inspection on private rented properties at least once every two years.
Rates for these shared rooms have rocketed recently. Many are no longer cheap. A quick scroll through the pages of Daft.ie reveals numerous shared rooms advertised at €125 per person per week or €500 per month.
In one flat in Dolphin’s Barn, one of the two mid-sized bedrooms has been converted into a dorm with four beds. There is barely enough room for a small wardrobe in the middle. Each tenant has to pay €140 per week, or €560 per month.
The same flat contains a twin room, with two single beds squeezed in top to toe in a small bedroom. They cost €160 each per week each, or €640 per month.
If fully occupied, this two-bedroom flat in Dolphin’s Barn would bring in €3,520 per month. (The owner said he didn’t want to talk to us about the pricing.)
It’s definitely a problem, said Sinn Fein Councillor Daithí Doolan, chair of Dublin City Council’s housing committee. “With the deepening housing crisis, exploitation in the private rented sector is becoming more apparent.”
He pointed to a recent report in the Independent about a crowded home in Temple Bar. “This massive overcrowding was wrong, it is unacceptable and should not be allowed to continue,” he said.
Doolan wants to see regulations introduced to protect tenants and those landlords who do not overcrowd their properties.
“Legislation needs to be brought in to give security of tenure, rent certainty and proper standards of accommodation – including size and fire safety,” he said. “This will ensure tenants are protected and it will also ensure decent landlords cannot be undercut by unscrupulous elements.”
The Department of Housing’s press office didn’t respond to specific queries about conditions in shared houses, and whether more needs to be done to address potential fire-safety risks in these properties.
Eddie Kiernan, a press officer with the department, pointed to funding for inspection programmes in the private-rental sector, and the ongoing work and public consultation for a new rental strategy.
“The strategy will provide a vision of the role that the rental sector will play in the short, medium and long terms, in the context of the Government’s objectives for the housing sector overall, as set out in Rebuilding Ireland,” said Kiernan, by email.
[CLARIFICATION: This article was updated on 26 October at 16:32 to clarify that Sive Bresnihan sees rent control as one solution to exploitation in shared housing, but not the only one.]