Photo by Zuzia Whelan

From the courtyard in the Robin Hill apartment complex on a recent Friday, looking up at the windows in the surrounding blocks, many of the apartments appear empty.

Climbing the stairwell, it is dark. In his home, Brendan Kennelly sits at a desk, surrounded by piles of documents about a case he’s filed with the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB).

There are 51 apartments in the complex, which lies south of Dundrum. In January 2017, 34 were occupied, but now only 23 are. Or, to flip the numbers around: 28 are now vacant, while just over a year ago, 17 were.

“Units sit empty while people are waiting for housing,” says People Before Profit Alliance TD Richard Boyd Barrett.

If you take a wider snapshot of the neighbourhood, it looks like Robin Hill is an anomaly in this respect.

Data from the 2016 census shows that the small area where Robin Hill sits has 128 homes, and only 17 were vacant at the time of the census. Of those, six had been vacant long-term, so in both 2011 and 2016.

The Complex

The Robin Hill complex was in the news in May last year, after five residents were issued with notices to quit when the building went into receivership.

The receivers, Grant Thornton, declined to comment on the notices and vacancies.

Naly Rafamantanantsoa, who has lived at Robin Hill since 2013, got a notice to quit from the receivers in March 2017.

It was a “pretty standard eviction notice”, says Rafamantanantsoa, and the reason given was that the landlord intended to sell it.

He checked the RTB website and decided the eviction notice was invalid, because it didn’t say that the tenant had the full 24 hours of the eviction date to vacate the premises.

“The hearing was over after 5 minutes,” he says, “as the receiver acknowledged it.”

Now, he’s just continuing on with life as usual. But, he says, there have been no penalties as far as he knows, for the landlords. (The RTB hadn’t replied yet to a query about this.)

“The intent to sell is not even something valid in my opinion, as they can just put on a very high price in order to say nobody wanted to buy it so we bring it back to renting,” he said.

The eviction notices, issued in March 2017 state that the tenancy was to be terminated in the following June, as “the landlord intends to sell the property to another party”, and “this agreement intends to be entered into within three months of the termination date”.

“Everybody here knows that they are keeping it empty just to be able to sell the development,” says Rafamantanantsoa. “The eviction notice was just out there to scare people and push them to leave.”

28 Vacant Apartments

In 2016, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council said it was interested in buying the units, but was advised by the Housing Agency that at that time only 15 were vacant, and there were tenants in the rest.

The block was for sale only as a whole; the vendor/receiver was not willing to separately sell just the vacant units.

According to a spokesperson for the council, it “has not sought to acquire the Robin Hill Apartment Complex since 2016”.

The council and Department of Housing should again “investigate the possibility of acquiring the properties”, according to Fine Gael Councillor John Bailey, who chairs the Strategic Policy Committee on Housing.

Independent Councillor Anne Colgan said she is concerned that “the legislation is not strong enough to protect the tenants in cases like this”.

It’s true that, in January 2017, the government passed an amendment to the Residential Tenancies Act known as the “Tyrrelstown Amendment”, aimed at protecting them.

As a result, if a landlord wants to sell 10 or more units in one block or development within a six-month period, they have to keep the tenants in situ, rather than evicting them. But there’s a way around that.

The rule doesn’t apply if the owner can prove that the market value of the property with the tenants still living there is 20 percent below the price the owner could get if it was vacant, and that enforcing the rule would be “unduly onerous on the landlord, or would cause undue hardship on the landlord”.

Turning Up the Heat

Boyd Barrett says the Tyrrelstown Amendment is only working “to a limited extent”.

In some cases, “it’s more than 10 tenants, but you see vulture funds bullying and pushing, and some people leave because they just find it too stressful”, he says.

Around the same time as some tenants at Robin Hill received notices to evict, others were sent heating bills by an energy company, Kaizen Energy – for, they said, the first time.

Kennelly, who says he pays about €900 per month in rent currently, says that he had a verbal agreement with the owner and builder that his rent would include the heating.

So he took the issue to the RTB and says he won his first hearing. The receivers appealed that and there was a tribunal hearing last week.

At the hearing, the receivers read from Kennelly’s contract, and said it allows for the landlord to charge him to cover the cost of heating, metered from the communal heating system that operates in the building.

The receivers, Grant Thornton, declined to comment on the issues around heating bills. The management company, Chartered Assets, were not available for comment, either.

In an Empty Block

Rafamantanantsoa says the block he lives in has been empty since he moved in.

“Over the five apartments in my block, three are vacant, they are all two-bedroom ones. I have never had any issue, it is quiet other than the heating, which is broken very often, but that is since the beginning,” he says.

But Kennelly says there have been issues with local kids, who have noticed that the complex is largely vacant. “Two months ago kids broke into the underground car park, and they let off every fire extinguisher in the place,” he says.

In that case, “the fire brigade were called, all the fire alarms went off, and you’d people with babies sitting out in the middle of the green outside”, Kennelly says. “It doesn’t take young kids much time to realise that there’s not much activity there.”

Boyd Barrett says there need to be “more robust measures” to bring vacant properties like these back into use.

“A vacancy tax isn’t enough,” he says, arguing that given the rate of appreciation of properties, it wouldn’t make enough of an impact.

“Any unit left empty for more than six months, the local authority should have the power to take it and use it for people who need housing,” he says.

[CORRECTION on 16 April at 5pm: This article originally said that 22 residents got notes to quit in May last year, when it was five at that time. Apologies for the error.]

Zuzia Whelan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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