Renting

Would a Public Register Help Prevent Illegal Rent Hikes?

For those moving into a new home, it’s difficult to work out what previous tenants paid in rent on a property, and, therefore, what they should be paying as the new tenant, says Fionn Toland of the Dublin Tenants Association.

“The only way a tenant can find out what the previous tenants were paying is by asking the landlord, relying on their honesty, or by contacting the previous tenants, which is usually impractical,” he says.

Some tenants have complained that landlords are skirting the law capping rent increases at 4 percent per year in Rent Pressure Zones (including Dublin), by evicting one tenant and hiking the rent for the next tenant – even if that is illegal.

But without knowing what the last tenant was paying, there’s no way for a new tenant to know whether the landlord is increasing the rent by more than 4 percent. So the housing charity Threshold has been calling for a public register so that people can double-check the earlier rent on a property.

However, officials at the Department of Housing, and some data-protection experts, say they are worried about the implications.

The RTB Register

At the moment, landlords are legally obliged to register with the RTB the initial rent and any changes during a tenancy.

In turn, the RTB is supposed to send a letter to the new tenant informing them of what they should be paying.

Among the problems with that system are that not all landlords register tenancies with the RTB, although the RTB tries to make sure they do.

“If a landlord is found guilty of failing to register a tenancy, they may face a fine and/or imprisonment,” a spokesperson said. “In 2016, 37 cases were prepared for prosecution of non-compliant landlords for failing to register.”

Even when a landlord does register, and report on rents, “they can tell you anything”, says Gavin Elliott, legal officer with Threshold.

“Currently a tenant is entitled to know the previous rent on a property only after the tenancy has begun, and there is no way for her or him to verify that this rent is correct,” Elliott says. This “allows the minority of dishonest landlords to escape the RPZs completely”.

The kind of rent register Threshold is proposing would make publicly available details of the rent paid on a property, providing future tenants with more information, and a record of the market value in the area.

“It would certainly require a new legislative provision requiring landlords to register more often and to include the required details,” says Elliott. “In the nature of things there will still have to be enforcement for uncooperative landlords.”

Privacy and Price Co-ordination Concerns

A spokesperson from the Department of Housing said by email that Threshold’s proposed register “would undoubtedly raise significant data protection concerns”.

“The suggestion being put forward for a mandatory rent register for all tenancies, would place significant personal information, of both landlords and tenants, in the public domain,” the spokesperson said.

Solicitor Simon McGarr, director at Data Compliance Europe, says the public interest wouldn’t be sufficiently served at the expense of these details being exposed, and that registers of people engaged in commercial activity can result in price coordination.

“Even if such a register was possible, it should be considered whether it was likely to produce perverse public policy outcomes,” he says. “A public posting of rent prices in specific locations could result in rents moving upwards in lockstep.”

(Although there is a 4 percent cap, some landlords say that if they do “substantial refurbishments” their property is exempt from this limit. “There needs to be a legal definition of renovation to stop people getting around the 4 percent cap,” says Elliott, of Threshold.)

Elliott does not buy the price-coordination argument, saying there are few industries in Ireland where organisations don’t know what others in their field are doing, and that rents and addresses are already publicly available on websites like Daft.ie.

Antoin O’Lachtnain, of Digital Rights Ireland, says that a privacy impact assessment would be needed to evaluate the views of those affected. Privacy problems could probably be overcome, and renters would have to accept that the value of their rent would be known, he said.

But should renters be happy to accept that? O’Lachtnain doesn’t think so, and like McGarr, he believes that the register wouldn’t bring enough benefits, and would be difficult to maintain.

Mick Byrne, of the Dublin Tenants Association, says that the type of information that would be on the new rent register wouldn’t “go beyond what most adverts on Daft contain”.

“There’s no real data-protection [concern] here, certainly in the context of what tenants are suffering at the moment,” Byrne said.

Good Data Collection

The rental market moves fast, and there would need to be frequent updates and a very high standard to make a rent register worthwhile, says O’Lachtnain.

“People assume that it’s easy to maintain these registers,” he says, but there are a lot of problems, and it requires a real investment to operate them properly.

According to O’Lachtnain, McGarr, and Threshold, the information is already out there.

The RTB collects it, and most landlords comply with that process, says Elliott. So one approach would be to simply make public the RTB’s register.

In the meantime, Threshold is calling on renters to send correspondence to the new tenants in their previous homes, telling them what they paid in rent. The charity has provided a template on its site.

“This is an informal response”, says Stephen Large, Dublin services manager for Threshold, “but it needs to be formally tackled”.

Zuzia Whelan portrait
Zuzia Whelan

Zuzia Whelan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at zwhelan@dublininquirer.com.

 

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