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Last Thursday, the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB) published the names of the landlords it has fined or issued written cautions for breaking the laws around rental homes.
The list includes 18 landlords, and 28 homes, mostly in Dublin.
One company, Propmaster Ventures Ltd, owns 11 of those homes and was fined €13,965 in all by the RTB, according to the RTB’s website.
As of September, the directors of Propmaster Ventures Ltd were Alan and Norman Prendergast, who are also the directors of the home furniture shop Bargaintown Ltd.
They didn’t respond to queries about the reason for the breaches sent by email on Monday, before publication.
It’s the first time that the RTB has published details of the sanctions it has issued, who it has sanctioned, and how much it has fined them, since it set up its investigations unit after new legislation in summer 2019.
“I think it’s a move in the right direction,” says Gavin Elliott, a legal officer with the housing advice charity Threshold.
“The investigations and sanctions unit is limited in the powers that it has,” he says. But “the approach of the state taking a role in enforcement is a good one”.
On the List
Eight of the fines issued by the RTB were for “failure to comply with RPZ requirements” at apartments in Ellis House, a complex on John Street North.
At the time, the rules said that save for specific exemptions, landlords couldn’t raise rents by more than 4 percent a year if the home was in a rent pressure zone.
The Ellis House complex of 46 apartments and some businesses is owned by Propmaster Ventures, whichhas a mortgage on it, show company records.
Around the corner above the Spar shop on Ellis Quay is the Chancery Hall apartments. Propmaster Ventures was fined €1,765.50 for a breach of the rent-increase limit at one home in that complex.
Is the Enforcement Effective?
All of the sanctions imposed by the investigations and sanctions unit are confirmed by the Circuit Court.
As a result of those investigations more than €250,000 in overcharged rent has been returned to tenants, says a spokesperson for the RTB.
Those rents are now set at the correct rate going forward, they said.
Landlords have paid out more than €20,000 in fines so far too, said the spokesperson. That is since the investigations unit was established after the law changed to allow it in mid-2019.
Most of the individual landlords were fined less than €1,000 and were not ordered to pay any costs.
Are those fines substantial enough, and numerous enough, to deter landlords from breaching the rules again in the future?
There were 297,837 registered tenancies nationwide, at the end of 2020, according to the RTB’s annual report.
Rents have consistently risen higher than the rent-increase caps, and analyses have suggested that non-compliance with the law is likely be a factor in why that is that happening.
“It is not going to change the world but it is the right approach,” says Elliott, the legal officer with Threshold.
Putting all the responsibility on tenants to enforce the law wasn’t realistic, he says. Before 2019, only a sitting tenant could bring a case against a landlord to the RTB.
A state agency doing independent investigations, which can respond to tip-offs and other information that comes to its attention, is a move in the right direction, he says.
“The powers of the investigative officers that were given to the RTB are exactly the same as the Central Bank have,” he says. “It’s quite extensive. They can seize records and apply for search warrants.”
Having a state agency with those powers investigating is probably enough to scare most of those breaching the rules into stopping, he says.
On the downside, the process takes a long time and a number of warnings are issued before a case gets to court and the investigations and sanctions unit can investigate certain breaches of the rules, not all of them, he says.
It is good that the RTB is looking at breaches of the rent-increase limit, says Elliott. But one major outstanding issue is that new tenants can’t find out for themselves whether their rents have been set in breach of the cap.
Tenants should be able to view the rental histories of their homes, he says. “What we asked for ages ago was a rent register. So the tenant knows what the rent was on the dwelling.”
Threshold was told there were GDPR issues with that, but Elliott says the information could be anonymised so it wouldn’t include the previous tenant’s personal data.
It would show a landlord’s income, he says, but that would be in line with other businesses, all of which publish accounts.
The Department of Housing didn’t respond to queries sent Monday about whether there were any plans to create a rent register.