Rachael Gitau has moved house six times in four years, she says. “I’m an experienced mover, you know.”
She lets out a tired laugh.
One time, the landlord said her daughter needed the place, she says. Another asked her to leave when Gitau complained about late-night parties, she says.
By January 2021, Gitau had had it, she says. She applied to Bank of Ireland for a mortgage.
But, as for many migrants, her push for stable housing was short. The bank turned her down because of her immigration status.
“Unfortunately as your visa is Stamp 1 we cannot proceed with the application,” says an email from Bank of Ireland in February 2021.
Gitau has a critical skill employment permit, she says, which is granted to people with skills in short supply among Irish workers and those from the European Economic Area.
At that stage, she was only a few months away from moving on to Stamp 4, she says, one of the stamps the email says would qualify her for a mortgage.
Immigrants are way more likely to be renters than those born in Ireland. Fifty-six percent lived in private rentals in 2016, compared to 13 percent of Ireland-born people, according to a report by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).
One reason, the report says, is the unequal access to mortgages, which then slows and stalls the process of integration.
A spokesperson for Bank of Ireland said it couldn’t comment on individual customers’ cases but that the bank looks case-by-case at applications from people on both critical and general employment permits.
It needs to make sure customers can repay the debt both at the time and into the future, they said.
“We do understand that in some cases this can result in a mortgage application being declined and when that happens we are very sorry to disappoint that applicant,” the spokesperson said.
Asmae Ourkiya and their partner have tried to make their rented flat in a giant complex at George’s Dock feel homely.
A sign in one corner of the room says “our happy place” in blue neon lights. Two paintings hang over the living room sofa, one on the theme of Alice in Wonderland, showing the white rabbit holding and pointing to a clock with the question “who are you?” hovering over its head.** **
There were already nails in the wall there, says Ourkiya. But they took a risk to hang other bits, hammering in new nails.
“Landlords always find a way to keep the deposit anyway,” Ourkiya said with a laugh, legs crossed on a swivel chair.
You might as well enjoy the stay and not worry about the impact of changes on the deposit, they say.
“I had to always fight over deposits, and I never like … I either get half of it or nothing,” said Ourkiya, hugging a mug of tea.
Ourkiya – who works for Meta with a Stamp 1 based on a general employment permit – has also tried to escape the private rental sector.
But when they applied for a mortgage in September last year, AIB rejected the application.
Ourkiya doesn’t have the rejection in an email, they say, as it was over the phone.
“The moment I said I was on Stamp 1, it was like an immediate … the call ended 10 seconds later,” says Ourkiya, who spends nearly €2,000 monthly on rent.
A spokesperson for AIB said it considers various factors when assessing a borrower’s ability to repay the mortgage “based on the borrower’s individual circumstances and the longer-term sustainability of their income stream”.
They didn’t elaborate on their approach to assessing the immigration statuses of applicants or which immigration stamps disqualify people for mortgages.
A spokesperson for the Central Bank of Ireland, the regulatory body for financial services, said that mortgage lending is a commercial decision.
But “the Central Bank of Ireland expects that all regulated entities take a consumer-focused approach in respect of any decision that affects their customers (existing and new) and communicate clearly, effectively, and in a timely manner with all customers”.
The Stamp Problem
Stamp 1 and Stamp 4 holders both have the right to live and work in Ireland.
But a person on a Stamp 4 doesn’t need an employment permit to work, and periods of unemployment won’t threaten their right to stay in the country.
A person on a critical skills permit only has to stay on a Stamp 1 for two years before they can graduate to a Stamp 4.
But people with a general work permit, such as Ourkiya, must wait five years before qualifying for a Stamp 4.
Ourkiya says that the two groups of workers are separated by a massive gulf. “I think it should be more equal.”
Ourkiya believes they had a shot at landing a critical skills permit, but the lawyers advising Meta suggested going for a general one because they can be easier to get.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice hasn’t yet responded to a query asking if it would consider shortening the time on Stamp 1 to three years instead of five for those on general work permits.
In any case, losing a job on Stamp 1 doesn’t mean that a worker would have to immediately pack up and leave the country – and their mortgage. They would have six months to find another.
Also, those unfairly dismissed can apply for a reactivation employment permit granted with easier conditions to exploited non-EEA workers who’ve unfairly lost their right to work.
Banks’ unfamiliarity with the Irish immigration’s stamp regime can also lead to rejections, says Gitau, the woman rejected by Bank of Ireland.
The immigration system does involve a muddle of stamps, with some sharing the same name while holders have different rights.
For example, Stamp 1 is also the name of a permission sometimes granted on humanitarian grounds, allowing people to live and work in Ireland without an employment permit.
Then there’s Stamp 1G, which the Bank of Ireland worker, in their email to Gitau, mentioned as acceptable for mortgage applications.
A Stamp 1G can be a third-level graduate immigration permission, allowing non-EEA graduates to either search for a job or, if they find one, work on it without a work permit for a maximum of two years.
It is also the name of a stamp granted to partners of non-EEA skilled workers, giving them unconditional access to the labour market.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice had previously said that it has no plans to change stamp names at the moment.
Gitau says she is angry that the bank made her go through rounds of paperwork for the application only to tell her they could not progress it because of her stamp.
“I don’t know if you ever applied for a mortgage, but it’s like applying for your whole life,” she says.
If there had been Gitau and Ourkiya wouldn’t have applied at all, they say.
In its mortgage brochure, Finance Ireland, a non-bank lender, says it considers applications from Stamp 4 holders who’ve lived in the country for at least three years. It doesn’t mention other stamps.
“There is some evidence that non-Irish nationals currently renting have strong preferences for homeownership,” says the ESRI report on integration, housing and migrants.
The government should support migrants with high-skilled jobs and higher incomes in their efforts to buy a home, it says.
It suggests as a strategy “liaising with the banking sector on finding a way to reduce some of the barriers to accessing mortgage credit for migrants who would like to buy a house”.
The spokesperson for the Central Bank of Ireland said mortgage applicants who are unhappy with a regulated firm’s dealings with them should first complain to the body itself.
“If they are still not satisfied with the response from the regulated firm, they can refer the complaint to the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman,” the spokesperson said.
A Troubled Housing Market
Calls for banks to take a more liberal approach in accepting mortgage applications from non-EEA immigrants may run up against criticisms that the housing market is already overstretched.
Mary Gilmartin, a professor of geography at Maynooth University, says one reason the housing market is overstretched is that migrants have been stuck in its private-rented sector.
“Not giving people the opportunity to purchase homes will make that worse,” she says.
Fewer buyers mean pressure keeps building up on the rental market, Gilmartin says. “Migrants have been responsible for building rental properties and for making them profitable by paying rent.”
Gilmartin says it’s hard to predict what would happen if the ability to buy homes becomes a reality for more migrants.
But for now, Gilmartin says she’s just concerned about the unequal access to mortgages. “I would just be concerned about restrictive bank practices and the extent to which they are unevenly applied.”
Unequal access to security of tenure, she says, is a big obstacle towards integration. “If people who can afford to buy are being blocked because of a combination of immigration and lending policies, this is really problematic.”
It’s been more than a year now since Gitau switched from her Stamp 1 to the coveted Stamp 4. But she doesn’t want to apply for a mortgage anymore, she says.
Rejection, mounds of difficulties navigating the Irish immigration system – it all makes the country feel cold and unwelcoming, says Gitau.
“I think I better go somewhere else, finding a little cottage for myself for very cheap,” says Gitau, smiling.
Ourkiya says similar. They won’t try again in four years when they qualify for a Stamp 4, they said. If their company offers the option to work from Portugal, instead, they plan to move, buy a home and settle there.
Being constantly on the move makes Ireland feel like a temporary place filling in for a more permanent one, one where immigrants can more easily own their own homes.
“It makes you feel like Ireland’s never home. it makes you feel like you should leave,” says Ourkiya.
Gitau says she’s just tired of trying and throws up her hands: “I give up. Honestly, I gave up; I’m like, whatever.”