A Bill Proposes Cracking Down on People Who Advertise Substandard Housing

The advertisement for the one-bedroom flat came with a bit of a caveat: “Flat is a bit small to be hanging around inside.”

It could suit three adults, though, or two adults with two children, the person who posted it had written. “IDEAL for workers who need a place to sleep and eat.”

The Annesley Road flat in Fairview, which was advertised on Daft.ie and Rent.ie, is – like others that pop up on these sites – in some ways below the standard that rental homes are supposed to meet in the city.

Posting advertisements such as these would be a criminal offence under a Sinn Féin bill currently going through the Seanad, says the party’s spokesperson for housing, Fintan Warfield.

“It’s designed to curb online advertisements of properties that shouldn’t be on the market,” says Warfield. “That don’t meet minimum standards with regard to overcrowding or fire safety.”

The bill also takes into account other breaches of minimum standards set out in the Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations 2017.

But enforcement is a massive stumbling block in making sure all the current rules around rights and housing are applied, says People Before Profit Councillor Andrew Keegan. This, he fears, would be no different.

What’s Available

The Annesley Road flat was first flagged on Twitter by Dublin Rental Investigator, an account that shares postings of some of the cramped, overcrowded, and costly apartments on offer at the lowest end of the city’s rental market.

The property – which was originally up for €1,400 per month, €260 more than the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Fairview on the Residential Tenancies Board’s index in the third quarter of last year – was removed, then relisted on 14 February.

Images showed a bed, described as a “double double Mattress Bunk Bed”, and the one-bedroom flat was originally advertised as a place for up to three adults to live. If there were three adults in there that could count as overcrowded under Section 63 of the Housing Act 1966, which says a place is considered overcrowded if any two people older than 10 years and of the opposite sex, and unmarried, must sleep in the same room.

“I put up an advertisement thinking I had offered an innovative solution to people to sleep in the room,” said Jack Healy, the person offering the apartment.

From the image of the kitchen, there also didn’t seem to be a cooker hood or extractor fan, which is a breach of minimum standards.

A spokesperson for Threshold, the National Housing Charity, said they are concerned about the proliferation of unfit accommodation being advertised online.

“Last October, many people on social-media platforms highlighted the advertising of ‘a cosy studio’ and a ‘unique little room’ in a Dublin suburb, that was no more than a glorified shed,” says the Threshold spokesperson.

Meanwhile, there’s a flat at 8 Monck Place in Phibsboro, which, the posting says, is a one-bedroom with two sofa beds – suitable for four friends paying €350 each. There’s little additional information in the listing.

Again, that would likely mean two people older than 10 years and of the opposite sex, and unmarried, sleeping in the same room: overcrowded.

Sometimes, its unclear from images what facilities apartments have. An image in another recent advertisement of a flat on the North Circular Road didn’t seem to show a sink in the kitchen area of the studio apartment.

Matt Brady, the person offering the studio, said that there are adequate drainage facilities in the studio and plenty of storage there too.

At the Moment

Tenants have a couple of routes to complain about flats that are below minimum standards. They might lodge a case with the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB).

They might complain to Dublin City Council’s Environmental Health team, which might send somebody out to check, then issue a letter telling the landlord what they need to do – and later a prohibition order if they don’t, which means they couldn’t re-let the place legally until they sorted any issues.

There’s evidence that some landlords in the past have ignored those prohibition notices, though.

At the moment, there are 113 homes on the prohibition-to-rent list – including 31 Richmond Avenue, which was once home to Tom Clarke, a major figure in the 1916 Easter Rising.

The Advertisement of Unfit Lettings Bill would aim to tackle the issue from another direction – by giving powers to the Property Services Registration Authority (PRSA) to direct letting agents and online platforms like Daft.ie to remove lettings that breach minimum standards.

Anybody could report an advert to the PSRA, says Warfield of Sinn Féin. “They’d have the power then to instruct letting agents online or online platforms to report the listing that they consider in breach of regulations.”

Anyone found guilty of posting such an advertisement would face a fine or imprisonment. The platforms wouldn’t be fined.

Just over a year ago, Fine Gael Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy said he wasn’t against making it a criminal offence to advertise substandard rental properties.

“I would not see a problem if it is about professional property or letting platforms,” said Murphy. “It would be difficult to achieve that through normal social media channels like Twitter or Facebook, however.”

He said he would look at the idea. A Department of Housing didn’t address queries as to whether there has been any progress on this. Instead, they just pointed to existing rules.

Fines for not complying with the Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations 2017 – which have been in force since 1 July 2017 – were increased from €3,000 to €5,000, and the daily fine for a continuing offence increased from €250 to €400, the department spokesperson said.

At the moment, the Property Services Regulatory Authority, which regulates agents and property letting, does get some complaints that touch in part on adverts.

But there were only 27 complaints in 2017 and 22 in 2018 that involved advertising even slightly, a PSRA spokesperson said.

Without looking at each case in detail, they couldn’t say what kinds of advertising these complaints touched on. “However, it is not the Authority’s impression that online advertising is a major feature in complaints.”

Enforcement

Even if the bill passes, it’s unclear how much impact it would have, said Andrew Keegan, a People Before Profit councillor who sits on Dublin City Council’s housing committee.

“We can have all the legislation we like but the question is, is it going to be enforced? And the answer is no, no it’s not,” Keegan said.

“All these platforms will tell you it’s not their role to regulate. So they’re taking revenue to put these things up so there should be a code of conduct on their part,” he says.

“People take a morning off to go look at this pile of crap and lose a morning’s wages,” says Keegan, while the companies who list them make a profit.

Criminalising the advertising of below-standard accommodation may just push landlords renting out such homes to hide that they are below par, says Fergal Scully of the Dublin Tenants Association. And that would complicate enforcement.

There is a risk that the landlord could strip out all useful information from their advertisements, Scully said. To address that, maybe there should be a requirement that housing adverts list certain details, he suggested.

“There are some standards already, like you have to show what BER rating the house is. I don’t see why there couldn’t be a set of standards for what information should be in the advert as well,” Scully said.

Another problem might be that if the bill came in, it might push landlords to stop advertising, he said. “I think consumers should be able to report if they go, for example, to a viewing [and it’s not up to standard].”

Says Scully: “That might be some way of covering landlords that might be hiding the severity of their standards.”

There should be consequences for putting something unfit on the market – and advertising is part of that, he said.

CORRECTION: This article was updated on Monday 25 February at 7.26pm. Fergal Scully is in the Dublin Tenants Association, not the Dublin Tenants’ Union. Apologies for the error.

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Sean Finnan: is a reporter for Dublin Inquirer. He covers the north side of the city. You can reach him at sfinnan@dublininquirer.com.

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