As Labour’s Rebecca Moynihan sees it, a recent Daft advert for a garden shed – converted to a studio apartment and listed to rent in Tallaght for €1,200 a month – is a sorry sign of the times.
“It just goes to show the crisis in private-rented accommodation,” she says. And people are so desperate that the shed could well fetch that price, says Moynihan.
In normal times, a tenant in such a property might call up Dublin City Council and ask them to send an environmental health officer to inspect the home, to check that everything meets current rental standards.
But during the pandemic – and even as more people are spending more time at home – the number of inspections of private-rented properties has plummeted.
Staff at the council did almost 9,100 inspections in 2019, but from January to September 2020, they had carried out just shy of 1,700 inspections, show recent figures released in response to a parliamentary question by Labour TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin.
Moynihan is calling for councils to be more proactive in bringing enforcement action against unscrupulous landlords.
A Dublin City Council spokesperson said that it introduced virtual inspections during the pandemic, and will get back up to its 2019 inspection levels when public health advice allows.
A Step Backwards
Before Covid-19 swept through the city, Dublin City Council had been steadily increasing the number of inspections of rented properties that it did.
In 2018, Dublin City Council staff carried out more than 5,800 inspections of private-rented homes, which was roughly 7.8 percent of registered tenancies, figures show.
The council issued warning letters and improvement notices, telling landlords to fix problems, in almost 3,400 of those properties, and started legal proceedings in 28 cases.
In 2019, the council carried out almost 9,100 inspections, covering roughly 12.5 percent of registered tenancies.
It issued improvement notices and letters for just short of 5,700 properties and started legal proceedings in 55 cases.
By contrast at the end of September 2020, the council had carried out around 1,700 inspections of rentals, sinking the percentage of registered tenancies that were covered to 2.25 percent.
The council issued warning letters and improvement notices in respect of 1,580 of those rental homes.
The council also issued 10 prohibition notices, which tell landlords they can’t rent houses again until problems outlined in improvement notices are fixed. It didn’t start any legal proceedings.
Figures for other local authorities show similar trends. Waterford City and County Council’s inspection rate was at 11.6 percent in 2019, but dropped to 3 percent for the period from January to the end of September 2020.
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said that it carries out inspections in response to complaints, proactively and when it approves new tenants for rent subsidy schemes, such as the Rental Accommodation Scheme and the Housing Assistance Payment.
The Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations 2019 set out what landlords have to provide tenants with – and covers all kinds of things from standards for fire safety, structural repairs, sanitary facilities, heating, ventilation, natural light and the safety of gas, oil and electrical supplies.
“These are basic standards but even more important during a pandemic,” says Moynihan, the Labour senator.
People Before Profit Councillor Tina MacVeigh says that landlords shouldn’t be allowed to rent out a home until it is assessed as having met the standards.
She has two constituents whose private-rented homes are seriously breaching the standards, but in both cases the landlords are ignoring letters and notices from the council, while being paid rent subsidies, she says.
One of those homes is now subject to a prohibition order.
MacVeigh has had other cases where tenants complained to the council and then the landlord issued a notice to quit, she says. So tenants are living in fear.
“The whole situation is pro-landlord and anti-tenant,” says MacVeigh. “The problem is not with the council or the tenants, it is still with the system that allows the landlords off the hook.”
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said that, “During the Covid 19 pandemic, Dublin City Council undertook all inspections in accordance with its health & safety procedures and in accordance with government & public health guidelines.”
The council introduced a virtual inspection programme during the pandemic to “ensure that landlords continue to maintain rented properties and that tenant issues and statutory inspection requirements were met”, they said.
“With local authorities frustrated in their ability to conduct on-site inspections as a result of pandemic restrictions, some have looked at alternative options for enforcing rental standards,” says a spokesperson for the Department of Housing.
Dublin City Council was the first to do this in May and the Department supported the move.
“While virtual inspection systems present certain challenges and limitations, they do offer a way of improving the standard of rental accommodation despite pandemic restrictions,” he says.
Some other councils did keep going with real-life inspections, despite Covid-19. South Dublin County Council has carried out close to 2,300 inspections so far this year and is almost on target to match its 2019 figures.
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing says that Dublin City Council is the best local authority in the country when it comes to enforcement of private rental standards.
“The number of inspections undertaken by Dublin City Council (DCC) almost tripled in the period from 2017 to 2019,” says the spokesperson for the Department of Housing.
The figures are a total of all inspections carried out and they include repeat inspections of the same property to ensure compliance, he says. That is really important for enforcement.
“Some authorities such as DCC have a strong record in recent years for proactive inspections and repeat inspections of non-compliant dwellings.” he says. “Others take a different approach.”
In 2019, Dublin City Council issued by far the most improvement notices and prohibition notices nationally and initiated 55 of the 56 legal actions, he says.
Moynihan says that even before the impact of Covid-19 the level of inspection in Dublin and nationally is far too low.
“It has been a really low rate of inspection,” she says. “Councils just don’t have the staff to inspect.”
The Department of Housing spokesperson says that it is increasing funding for inspections.
In 2018, the national budget was €2.5m. Last year, it rose to €6m, and for 2021 it is €10m, they said.
The department has said that they will target a 25 percent rate of inspections, but this is not enough, says Moynihan.
“There needs to be a total overhaul of the private-rented sector in terms of what people are allowing to be rented out,” she says.
MacVeigh says that, in her experience, the current system lacks teeth. “What we actually need is … [a system] where you have to have a cert before you rent a place out.”