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At first, Sarah Collins thought she had struck a fair deal.
Like many tenants, Collins – who in normal times works as a psychologist – is out of a job right now because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
She gets the Covid-19 social welfare payment of €350 a week, but has lost more than half her income. Her partner still works.
But covering the €1,575 a month rent on their one-bedroom apartment was a struggle – so she asked her landlord, I-Res REIT for rent relief.
Would they be able to pay 75 percent of the normal rate? That would be €1,182, she said.
The response was positive: “75% seems to be reasonable. Let me know if you need anything else,” says an email from Conal Byrne, operations manager of I-Res REIT on 9 April.
Collins felt good about that, she said, on the phone on Monday. “I was kind of relieved.”
That, though, was until she thought to drill down more into the details.
Encouraged to Engage
On 27 March, the government paused rent increases for three months and said tenants couldn’t be evicted. Tenants had to keep paying rent, though.
If issues arose, landlord and tenants were “encouraged to engage” with each other, says a guidance document from the Department of Housing.
A recent survey of 25 renters who have sought rent relief from their landlords threw up a mixed picture of responses to those efforts at engagement.
Of the 10 cases that were possible to verify with emails or texts, five tenants said their landlords had agreed to some kind of temporary rent review. Three said their requests were turned down – and two were still waiting to work out what might happen.
Some said they were surprised with how sound their landlords had been, agreeing to reductions with no friction and great understanding.
Others, though, described trickier negotiations. Some highlighted the challenges in shared homes, with tenants on the sharper edge of the crisis worried that their inability to pay rent would jeopardise the tenancies of housemates.
Others, meanwhile, drew attention to a reluctance or refusal from landlords to accept rent subsidies – with varying outcomes.
Many spoke too, of uncertainty over how they would, when the time came, pay back rent arrears that, even if by agreement, may have piled up.
The precarity is affecting landlords too, says Margaret McCormack, information officer with the Irish Property Owners’ Association.
“Landlords are also facing job losses and reduced income, but their expenses are still there,” she says. “For some property owners, the rental income is their sole income.”
After Collins’ exchange with her landlord, she spoke to her parents. They insisted she should double-check she wasn’t getting into debt, she says.
She emailed I-Res REIT again. That’s when a representative of I-Res REIT said she would have to pay it back once she was back working, says Collins.
(In the survey responses, most of those renters who said they had agreed rent relief with their landlords, said they would have to pay it back either gradually as an add-on to future rents, or in a lump sum once they’re back working.)
Collins was trying to avoid getting into debt, she says. So that didn’t seem helpful.
Collins says if she had taken up the offer from her landlord she would be running up arrears of €390 every month, which could soon amount to significant debt.
She works with children, she says, so doesn’t know when she will be back at work. Nor is there any guarantee she’ll be on the same salary when she does go back.
With her partner’s income, the couple are just above the threshold for rent supplement, she says.
She has decided to try to pay her half of the rent of €787.50 a month out of the €350 a week, she says. That is more than half of her income. “It is tight,” she says.
A spokesperson for I-Res REIT says the company “understands that some tenants are experiencing financial difficulties related to the Covid-19 crisis and is supporting tenants with payment plans to help them deal with short term financial stress.”
They didn’t respond directly to queries about whether I-Res REIT made it crystal clear to all tenants that discounts on rent being offered now would need to be paid back later, in full.
I-Res REIT has committed to not increasing rent during the crisis and is providing some free accommodation to healthcare workers, they said.
Cathy Flanagan, communications officer with the housing charity Threshold, says that people running into rent arrears could be issued with a notice of termination once the emergency measures expire.
“We envisage a significant increase in demand for our services once the moratorium on evictions is lifted,” she says.
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said that: “Tenants are required to pay rent to their landlord during the Covid-19 emergency period.”
Tenants should engage with their landlords and the Department of Social Protection if they are struggling, he said. They can apply for income support and rent supplement, said the spokesperson.
Getting Rent Top-Ups
Brian O’Sullivan, a landlord with three properties in Cork, who also responded to the survey, said he doesn’t understand the idea of arrears being totted up to be paid up later.
“If they can’t pay it now, they’re not going to be able to pay it in three or four months’ time,” he says.
But he also doesn’t understand why tenants aren’t applying for the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP), or rent supplement, he says. “Have people forgotten that side of what’s available to them?”
The state needs to step in, he says.
“If the person in the house can’t pay the landlord, it surely should be down to the government to help the person in the house to pay the landlord,” says O’Sullivan. “It shouldn’t be down to landlords to lose out.”
No matter what way you look at them, though, the sums don’t add up for Catherine Rutter.
She was working on contracts but finished one shortly before Covid-19 struck. Now, she can’t find new work because of the shutdown, she says.
She’s on the basic social welfare payment of €203 per week. Rent on her two-bed house in Dublin 8 is €1,730 a month.
She asked her landlord, through the estate agent, for forbearance, she says. She has been in the house for nine years and never before had issues with rent, she says.
Still, the answer was no, she says.
Instead, the agent advised her to apply for rent supplement – which she plans to do – but the maximum rent limit for a single person in Dublin is €660.
“They are telling people to apply for rent supplement but it is nothing close to the rent,” she says. “That is crazy, I’d still have to come up with €1,100 a month.”
Colm O’Cleirigh, a general manager of the estate agent Westcourt Management Services which manages her rental, says he can’t comment on individual tenants or landlords.
The estate agents has emailed each of their tenants “at least twice with a list of government supports (one of which was HAP) specifically designed to help tenants pay rent during the crisis”, he says.
Flanagan of Threshold says, “Rent caps do not reflect actual rents.”
But the Department of Social Protection can increase these at its own discretion, she says.
The Department of Social Protection didn’t respond in time for publication to queries about that gap.
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing says that those who temporarily can’t pay rent due to Covid-19 should apply for rent supplement rather than HAP.
Both payments have similar caps, but HAP is for those who need long-term rent supports, he says.
Several tenants in the survey said that their landlords didn’t want to accept rent supplement – for differing reasons, and with varied outcomes for tenants.
“Frankly, I’m very blessed now,” says Niall Carver, who rents near Rush in the north of the county.
He and his housemates are out of work but – not wanting to go the route of state subsidies – the landlord told them just not to worry about the rent for a while.
“For his own reasons, he doesn’t want to deal with anything official,” says Carver.
That’s not the case for everyone, though. It is illegal to refuse rent supplement, says Flanagan of Threshold.
A tenant could take a case to the Workplace Relations Commission, she says.
People in that position should just submit an application for rent supplement anyway, she says.
During the current crisis, a tenant can apply for rent supplement without their landlord’s PPSN and other details, she says – although they will need those later. Tenants should contact Threshold for advice, she says.
McCormack of the Irish Property Owners’ Association says that the caps for rent supplement may need to be reviewed.
“Our members are completing the forms as quickly as possible and dealing with their tenants with understanding and empathy and working out a temporary solution,” she said.
While most who had been granted rent relief, and filled out the survey, said they would have to pay it back in the future, some tenants said they’ve lucked out.
Niamh Hanley said her landlord offered to knock €500 off the rent for a month, when she and her boyfriend texted to say he was out of work at the moment. They can reassess next month, he said.
Usually, their one-bedroom house sets them back €1,200 a month.
The response was more generous than she had expected, she says. “He was super sound, we weren’t expecting anything like that. He is the landlord of the year.”
McCormack of the Irish Property Owners’ Association says the state has an obligation to assist tenants who lose their income: “It is an exceptionally difficult situation for both the property owners and tenants.”
But she’s heard from landlords for whom, in many cases, the Covid-19 payment has helped tenants to keep paying their rent, she says. Especially, for those in shared accommodation.
People who are in receipt of a payment should try to pay as much of the rent as possible, so as not to accrue debt, says McCormack.
If they are getting 70 percent of their salary, perhaps they should try to pay 70 percent of their rent, she says, and then “work out a plan to pay back the residual debt over the coming months,” she says.
Meanwhile, Catherine Rutter says she was already struggling under the burden of past rent increases. She’s not sure what to do next, she says.