Company Landlords are Promoted as More “Professional” – but What Are Tenants Finding?

A contractor called around in March to repair the draughty gap in the window frame in Dean McCarthy and Tomas Slaninka’s bedroom.

They stepped out of the room to leave him to it. McCarthy heard a noise.

At some point, the old pane had broken. Part of it dropped and smashed on the ground three storeys below, prompting a neighbour to text and ask if their back window had just fallen out.

“Luckily, no one was in the back garden at the time,” said McCarthy.

He and Slaninka had been worried it would fall out, he said recently. They’d flagged it with one of the landlord’s contractors back in September.

“We had to follow up on this issue for more than half a year,” says Slaninka.

The draught was chilly. This past winter, they kept an electric radiator on all night and an electric blanket too, he says. “But could still feel cold air coming at us through the window.”

While the contractor was there in March, Slaninka emailed the property manager, asking if the workman could seal gaps in two other windows on the same trip, given he’d been there three hours already.

They can only carry out essential repairs during full lockdown, replied a property manager at Gillespie Lowe in an email. “All other windows will be reviewed after lockdown.” Eventually, the other windows were sealed too.

Slaninka and McCarthy had moved into the apartment in October 2017.

In April 2019, the property had changed hands and, since then, when maintenance issues have arisen or a dispute around rent increases, they’ve dealt mostly with contractors, property managers or maintenance teams.

Because their landlord isn’t a person.

It’s an out-of-town company called Xerico Limited that is registered in Cyprus and is wholly owned by a fund in Luxembourg called LRC RE-1.

Since 2018, LRC Group has bought up at least 689 homes in Dublin through 13 Cypriot subsidiaries. But in the last three years, while it has grown into one of the city’s biggest landlords, there’s been little written about it beyond property-page announcements of its latest acquisitions.

In general interviews with 11 tenants in seven different buildings about their experiences with LRC Group, many – although not all – raised similar issues: even before the pandemic, they had to press hard to get maintenance requests dealt with, they said, and at times found it confusing to work out who to contact.

Some tenants have also battled big rent increases during the pandemic, a time when institutional investors have promised to be understanding.

A spokesperson for LRC Group said that while it disagreed with the characterisations and versions of events, its policy is not to comment on tenant matters. “The company has engaged professional property managers to support and manage the interests of tenants on an ongoing basis,” they said.

Property managers have acted in line with government guidelines during the pandemic, they said, “which has led to certain unavoidable challenges” but if there are issues they are being managed “as best as is possible” within current restrictions.

Most of the city’s rentals are still owned by landlords responsible for one or two tenancies, show RTB figures, but the number of company landlords with bigger property portfolios is growing.

A big selling point for company landlords is the idea that they are more professional than small-time buy-to-letters. Slick corporate set-ups pitted against leave-your-rent-in-the-toaster part-timers.

The arrival of the big company landlords brings welcome diversity to the sector, says a Department of Housing spokesperson: “Large-scale investment in property has an important role to play in helping to deliver the professional high-standard rental sector that tenants deserve.”

But the picture appears more complicated.

While institutional investors and individual landlords are a mixed bunch, not all tenants say that greater professionalism is what they are finding – or, depending on how it’s defined, what they want.

Getting a Fix

LRC Group’s portfolio in Dublin is a mix of newish homes – like the 50 apartments and townhouses at Smithfield Lofts built in 2000, or the 102 apartments in the Herberton complex near Fatima built in the late 2000s– and older Georgian buildings still carved up into flats, like those at Ranelagh Road.

In its 2018 financial statements, LRC RE-1 noted among the principal risks and uncertainties of its Irish property portfolio that “multi-let residential investment properties require active management”.

For Federico Cerrone, the question of what professionalism means comes down to that active management, and how well it works for renters. “How efficient is dealing with problems that arise in the tenancy?” he says.

In August last year, some of the tiles dropped off the bathroom wall in Cerrone’s rented apartment at Whately Place in Stillorgan, owned by Jersia Limited, another LRC Group subsidiary.

Cerrone wrote to the property manager at the time, Chartered Assets, telling them he and his family wouldn’t use the shower for now.

They’d use the second shower, he said, but he was confident it would be treated with “the maximum urgency”.

More than five weeks later, a project manager at Chartered Assets emailed to ask if it had been fixed. It hadn’t, he told them.

Cerrone asked more or less every three weeks about it, he said, and somebody came and took a picture but nothing happened for a while. “It took six months to fix.”

Chartered Assets didn’t respond to queries sent Friday.

On Ranelagh Road, Slaninka and McCarthy kept a chart of complaints and tracked responses.

Some were dealt with faster than others. In February 2020, for example, they reported that common areas weren’t being cleaned, which from June changed, with weekly and bi-weekly cleaning.

That same month, they also complained about the rotten and draughty window frames, the chart says .

Emails from September between different parties looking after the property – the names are blacked out – give a glimpse of internal discussions around the requests.

To McCarthy and Slaninka, the back-and-forth – which took place at the same time as a rent review was in play – looked as if the landlord or its representatives were trying to cherry-pick what to fix based on how much it would cost.

They’d reviewed items sent by the tenant, said one person in one of the emails who suggested they “only commit to reviewing the items that can be seen as min standards”.

“Realistically, we are only obliged to ensure we meet min standards in his unit and the property is compliant – which it is,” they said.

They did an inspection a week later after which an internal email from somebody at the property-maintenance company said they thought there was little to do based on the inspection.

“Most of the items that were reported last night are either legacy issues that don’t require any attention or they are issues that are being raised for those tenants to build a case,” he said.

He’d asked them for three top issues, he said, and listed: windows, the intercom system and front sensor light, and a new mattress, wardrobe and couch.

Issues with the windows were “a genuine complaint the windows in the whole block need to be serviced from , re-balancing the weights , to fixing the glass panels/rotten wood , oiling tracks etc.”

Somebody internally annotated the email in red: “Can we get a quote per window? We can start with their and see how we go?”

“Please install a sensor light, this shouldn’t be too much of an issue. We can price the intercom and revert,” said the annotator in red.

A new mattress, headboard and base was approved but the couch wasn’t. “We will hold the couch as they are refusing the rent increase no matter what we do!” said the annotated in red, in the emails.

An RTB adjudication report from a hearing in February this year said that while the landlords “have been somewhat slow” in dealing with the issues, it seemed they had met their obligations in doing structural repairs within the limits of Covid-19 restrictions.

It gave them three weeks from the lifting of level-five restrictions to do some of the works and have a specialist assess the windows.

In another LRC Group apartment in the same building on 93 Ranelagh Road, tenant Rory Fitzgerald’s main complaint is the mould in the hallway. “Black mould, white mould,” he says.

In April 2020, he emailed the property manager a list of maintenance requests when they took over managing the building, pointing out the mould, among other issues.

Contractors have been in and painted over the hallway mould, says Fitzgerald, but it keeps coming back. “And we keep telling them it needs to be actually treated and there’s very clearly a leak and they do nothing about it.”

The front and back doors are warped and hard to open at times, he says, which he thinks is a fire-safety issue. “You have to nearly shoulder them to open or close them, from the damp.”

It’s an old building and he’s in a basement so there are going to be issues, says Fitzgerald, but “they do the absolute bare minimum”.

During lockdown with Covid-19, there have been restrictions on works on properties. Only emergency or essential maintenance can be done, said a spokesperson for Threshold, defined broadly as “electrical, gas, oil, plumbing, glazing, security and roofing services”.

But Fitzgerald points to Threshold guidance saying build-up of mould is an urgent issue to be dealt with within three to five days.

LRC RE-1’s annual accounts say it spent €666,409 on maintenance and refurbishment in 2019. With more than 1,800 homes in the two countries, that averages out at roughly €370 a property for the year.

For comparison, Dublin City Council spent €2,500 a year on average maintaining each of its properties in the city in 2019, show figures from the National Oversight and Audit Commission, although other councils spent less.

LRC Group’s maintenance spend covers “the costs of fixing/repairing items/breakages”, said a spokesperson for LRC Group. It also spent €4.5m on capital expenditure to improve properties in Ireland in 2019, they said.

“Through investment we have facilitated numerous uninhabitable units being brought to the market in Ireland, increasing housing supply and improving the quality of rental accommodation for tenants,” said the spokesperson.

A spokesperson said: “LRC is committed to ensuring to the extent possible that property managers and agents respond quickly and thoroughly to legitimate tenant complaints and issues.”

Tenants can seek redress through the Residential Tenancies Board if matters aren’t resolved, they said.

On Rent Reviews

It’s hard to say whether institutional landlords are more professional than individuals, says Mick Byrne, a lecturer in the school of social policy at University College Dublin.

“It’s a plausible argument but it seems to just be an assumption of government,” he says. “It’s not that clear what it means.”

“Professionalism might mean being good as property management and responding to tenant queries, but professionalism might also mean being good at getting the most money out of a tenancy,” he says.

In March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, Irish Institutional Property (IIP), a lobby group for big real estate investors of which LRC Group is a member, said its members would support their tenants through the “acute phase” of the pandemic.

Members would suspend notices to quit for those affected financially by the pandemic, and offer tailored payment plans and deferred rent payments – as well as suspend rent increases.

In July 2020, James Appleton wrote to Chartered Assets to see if his landlord, Yelveco Limited – another LRC Group subsidiary – would drop the rent a bit for two months.

He’d lost his income and was on the Covid unemployment payment, he said, so asked if he could pay €1,400 rather than €1,890.

Chartered Assets said the landlord couldn’t offer rent relief. But sent on a form to apply for a rent deferral.

Appleton, who was living in an apartment in Sycamore Court in Rathgar, wonders if the response would have been different had his landlord been a person not a company.

He’s not sure – maybe it wouldn’t have been, he says. “It depends on the landlord, whether they would have been more sympathetic.”

“But what would have been possible would be to, to speak directly to them and explain the situation,” says Appleton, who has since moved to Milan with his wife.

It’s disingenuous to say LRC Group couldn’t, he says. “They’ve got a huge portfolio, they’ve got a lot of tenants, like the idea of us paying few 100 quid less a month, it wouldn’t, you know, bankrupt them.”

In 2019, LRC RE-1 had close to €20 million in income from rents from properties in Ireland and the UK, show its financial statements. Its 2020 accounts aren’t yet available.

An LRC Group property, newly refurbished, at 29 North Great Frederick Street. Photo by Sean Finnan.

Other LRC tenants have also grappled with notices of rent increases during the pandemic.

On 2 March 2020 – nine days before the World Health Organisation declared that Covid-19 was a pandemic – Chartered Assets sent Cerrone a rent review for his apartment at Whately Place.

It would have upped his rent from €1,650 a month to €1,776.50, an almost 8 percent rise because it hadn’t been reviewed for a while.

Then Covid arrived, the country was locked down, and the rent freeze kicked in until August when it lifted again.

Cerrone hadn’t heard anything in the meantime though, he said, so he kept paying his €1,650, unsure of the state of play.

On 9 September, he got a notice that he was in rent arrears of €126.50. He took that to be for the month of September and paid it two days later.

In October, he asked for a rent review back down to €1,650 a month, arguing that the pandemic meant a new lower market rate. But in the meantime, he paid €1,776.50 for the month.

His request was refused.

On 22 October, Ireland went again into a hard lockdown. Two days later, Cerrone got a letter dated 20 October, telling him they were terminating the tenancy and he had to leave by 19 November.

He hadn’t paid arrears of €126.50 for August, it said. Cerrone said he didn’t ever know he owed the money for August and he was stressed out and surprised.

“Basically our rent increase arrears of €127 was sufficient condition to ask us to vacate the property under level-five lockdown,” he says.

He paid those arrears too, he said, and quickly got a letter saying to disregard the first letter they had sent. “I felt humiliated by the treatment,” he says

When in December 2019, McCarthy and Slaninka got a letter telling them their rent had been reviewed and would rise from €1,700 to €1,870 a month, they opted to challenge it.

The properties that were listed to justify the rent review by showing it was in line with market rents weren’t comparable to theirs, they said.

One was a semi-detached townhouse with double-glazed windows, and two others had balconies, landscaped gardens and a “weekly housekeeper”.

They went through a process of negotiating with the landlord representative directly, and agreed a smaller increase up to €1,800, but asked for comparable properties in the new notice of review, they said – which they never got.

As they waited for a date for an RTB hearing, McCarthy and Slaninka spotted an apartment in the same building listed for rent – at €1,600, not the €1,800 they were paying.

And the estate agent had used photos of their apartment in the listing, they said – so they should pay the same, they argued at the RTB.

The landlord said the market rent had fallen by then, but that the rent should be set based on earlier listings.

An RTB adjudicator found after a hearing in February this year that the rent review was invalid as the properties weren’t comparable and opted to set the rent back at €1,700 as an “appropriate level”.

The flat below them, and others, are still vacant and the for-rent listing has been taken down, say McCarthy and Slaninka.

In February 2020, a tenant in Westmeath also won an RTB case against LRC Group subsidiary Xerico Limited, which was represented by property manager Chartered Assets, on the grounds that the properties it had used to justify a rent hike weren’t comparable.

That time the property was outside of a rent pressure zone and the suggested hike had been from €575 a month to €1,100 a month.

At the tribunal, the tenant said the landlord wouldn’t fix anything as the rent was low, listing broken kitchen doors and extractor fans, mould, no smoke or carbon monoxide alarms, a clogged sink, and that only the hob part of the oven worked.

No One-Stop Shop

Some tenants say that part of their maintenance complaints or other requests stem from finding it a challenge to deal with different subcontractors – even when, say, there’s an app to log an issue.

Keeping track of what’s going on with requests can be tricky when for example property managers sometimes change or different workers aren’t in the loop, says Cerrone. “You never have a specific contact.”

It took almost a month for Adnan Zaheer to get a key fob to get through the main door to the apartment building when he rented an apartment from Xerico Limited, the LRC Group company, in Clane in Co. Kildare in 2019.

When he got the apartment, he was only given a key to his apartment door, and not one to the block, he says.

He kept chasing it down with the property manager, and the management company that handled security too, show emails. “That was a nightmare,” says Zaheer, who moved on from the flat after two months.

He was working while his wife and daughter stayed home. “And whenever they go to SuperValu or somewhere they have to wait outside, for other people to get into it,” he says.

Sometimes it was raining or people would ask if they actually lived there, he says. “It’s just like a very strange, weird feeling when you ask someone to open the door for them, you know, like, it is a tailgating.”

What Does It Mean?

Pat Farrell, the CEO of IIP, the lobby group for big real-estate investors, said he doesn’t know of any evidence-based research “as opposed to anecdote”, which would support the idea that tenants may prefer individual landlords over corporate landlords.

IIP members publish surveys with the tenants, he says, pointing to one done by Ires REIT in which residents last year gave the landlord a 9/10 score for how it deals with maintenance requests.

Institutional investors are also relatively new arrivals to Ireland’s rental market, said Farrell.

“By definition this also means that the vast majority of their stock of accommodation is quite new,” he said, and has enhanced shared amenities, is close to good transport links, and is built to high standards.

The remaining properties “held largely by non-institutional landlords is by definition are [sic] comprised of older stock”, he said.

Illustration by Moritz Wienert for Cities for Rent.

While many institutional investors do own newer blocks, some big institutional landlords in the city have invested in much older stock – Bain Capital Credit, Orange Capital Partners, Heitman and LRC Group.

Farrell of IIP also said that institutional investors have 24/7 facilities management and maintenance – and “renters are looking for this level of service as indicated by their consistently high occupancy rates and levels of customer satisfaction”.

“Non institutional landlords in comparison are unlikely to be full time landlords or have the scale to replicate the levels of amenity and service of institutional landlords,” he said.

The differences that some tenants see between renting from company landlords rather than individual landlords are more complicated, though, than what Farrell describes.

“Professionalism, big sentences, written in a compliance type of language, then yes,” says Slaninka, of his emails with property managers for LRC Group.

Or, says McCarthy, maybe it’s professionalism meaning you need to file a report to the property manager, who will assign as subcontractor who will return a report who will submit it to the landlord for approval, who will send it back to the property manager who will, if approved, go back to the contractor.

“My own view is that it is a lot easier to deal with a private landlord,” says McCarthy, as you can face them and say it’s their responsibility, they need to fix it.

On the other hand, some individual landlords may be more precious about a property, checking in more often and making tenants feel closely watched, said some other tenants during interviews. Or be tight on cash and skimp in fixes, they said.

Zaheer says that he has had some bad experiences with individual landlords, in the first couple of shared houses he lived in in Ireland after he graduated. “A horrible experience,” he said, of one of the homes.

But they can also be the best, he says, remembering fondly the landlord of an apartment on Cork Street, who they dealt with directly, and who helped him with immigration paperwork and let them pay rent late one month when they needed to.

For another home, they moved out because the landlady really needed to move back in, he says, and she was so upset about it.

Maybe that wouldn’t have happened with an institutional landlord and they could have insisted on staying longer, he said.

But “as a human way, for some emotional thing sometimes because you have a good connection that people were helping you,” says Zaheer, “and then you should get them because if they are asking you to help you back.”

This article was written as part of the project “Cities For Rent: Investigating Corporate Landlords Across Europe”, which was coordinated by Arena for Journalism in Europe.

Its production was supported by a grant from the Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU) fund.

The map service MapTiler also supported the joint project as a mapping partner.

You can read more stories from across Europe here.

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Lois Kapila: Lois Kapila is Dublin Inquirer's editor and general assignment reporter. She covers housing and land, too. Want to share a comment or a tip? You can reach her at [email protected]

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