Anthony Valentine flicks the switch on the wall. “See,” he says.
Diagonally through the doorway and across a small landing, in another small room, a light goes off. Previous tenants subdivided this upstairs bedroom into two, he says. The other room got the light fitting.
For ages, he has asked Dublin City Council to put in a light in the light-less room, he says. “I’m talking 10 years.”
Recently, after he raised it again, a contractor came, scoped it out, asked him some questions, made a call, and mumbled something about overtime and that he would be back in a few days, says Valentine.
That was in mid-January, he says. Valentine hasn’t heard from anyone about it since, he says.
The current handbook for tenants living in social housing commits the council to respond to emergency repairs immediately, urgent repairs within five working days, and routine maintenance within 8 weeks.
It’s unclear where the light request would fit. But maybe it doesn’t make any difference, anyway – because no one is really keeping track, it seems.
For years, each year, Dublin City Council has promised to track how well it meets the target maintenance timelines laid out in its annual service delivery plan, a document which councillors look over and approve.
And there’s no independent body that its tenants can turn to to complain.
Private-rental tenants, and social tenants renting from housing charities, can turn to an independent body, the Residential Tenancies Board, if they have complaints about the speed of maintenance or landlords breaching obligations.
Social housing tenants renting directly from the council can’t.
At February’s monthly meeting of Dublin City Council, councillors quickly adopted the annual service delivery plan for the coming year.
It sets out promises around how the council will serve Dubliners. Including when it comes to maintaining social housing.
“The Council is committed to the provision of a high-quality management, maintenance and repair service for its rented housing stock of over 25,000 units,” it says.
To check how it is doing on that, it will track, the document says, the “% repair requests resolved within timeframe (Emergency; Urgent; Routine) targets”.
“Can we get the data for last year?” asked Green Party Councillor Janet Horner, at the meeting, when it came time to discuss the overall plan.
“Did we get it about which of these KPIs that are identified here were met, and to what extent they were met and has that been circulated?” she said.
That’ll be in next month’s council meeting’s manager’s report, said assistant chief executive Eileen Quinlivan, in response. But it wasn’t.
Data for some of the promises in annual service delivery plans gets published in the council’s annual reports. But, for the last three years at least, the outcomes of some targets for social housing maintenance are missing.
In response to an FOI request in February last year, for the percentage of repair requests sorted within the set timeframes for 2020 and 2021, the council said: “Currently data not available”.
“The council has been working on a new initiative aimed at improving the repair requests process and accelerating digital innovation to the way we deliver our repair service,” the response says.
It would reap better results for residents, better data and improved updates on the status of repair requests, it said. “This project is due to commence its first rollout over the coming months.”
In response to an FOI request this year, for the same figures for 2022, the council said: “Currently accurate data not available.”
It included a similar blurb about a new initiative in the works. This time, though, it said: “This project has begun it’s [sic] first roll out in one of our depots, and we are hoping to continue this across all depots in the coming months.”
Dublin City Council hasn’t responded to queries sent on 14 April as to why it includes maintenance timeframes as a performance standard if it can’t accurately measure whether it is meeting those.
It also didn’t respond to queries about Valentine’s maintenance requests, or how the new housing maintenance system is to work and how it differs from the current system.
A few years ago – he’s unsure of the exact dates but based on emails thinks it was towards the end of 2019– Valentine was dealing with a whole cluster of maintenance issues, he says.
He had needed a new gas boiler and heating system, to replace a dangerously old one – which the council provided.
But around then too, he noticed patches of damp that a builder friend identified as being down to a crack in the chimney flue lining, he says.
There was also a soft spot in the bathroom floor from a long-term water drip from the bath that was turning into a hole, he said. Big nails, that looked like the kind you use to shoe a horse, were sticking through, he says.
He called the maintenance line about the chimney flue, but wasn’t getting anywhere, he said.
So he went from his apartment in Davitt House in Drimnagh down to the council headquarters on Fishamble Street in the city centre to report it – and that got people sent out, he says.
At least, he thinks so. He saw guys working on the roof not long after, he says. But nobody dropped by to explain what exactly they were doing, he says. “I don’t know what they done up there.”
And he isn’t convinced now that it was fixed, he says.
Upstairs, he takes a colourful abstract artwork down from a wall in one of the small split rooms. “See all the wet up here,” he says, pointing to the top of the wall and the ceiling.
When he started to redecorate at the beginning of this year, he noticed that there were chunks of plaster coming away from the patch behind the painting too and damp stains – and thinks it may be the chimney issue again.
He pulled the loose, bulging plaster off, he says. “I’m expecting them to say what did you do that for? But I done it because it was going to fall down on top of me.”
Why would he call the council to deal with it though? he asked. “When they had fixed the chimney – allegedly fixed the chimney – they were supposed to come in and replaster that wall, and drywall the whole thing,” he said. “And they never did.”
They did come out at one point and scan the wall with a kind of damp monitor, he says, but the guy kept saying it didn’t show anything.
Valentine kept just trying to get him to look at the wall, he says, which was obviously wet. “You don’t need that to tell you that.”
He ended up contacting Fishamble Street to report the hole in the bathroom floor too, he says. “This guy comes out one day with a bag of concrete to come up and fill in a hole in a wooden floor.”
He didn’t do it, he says, when he saw it was wooden. Eventually it was fixed last year – after years of giving out about it, he says.
Like other tenants in the council complex – who have started to organise with the help of a local branch of the Community Action Tenants Union (CATU), joining the union and forming a residents’ committee to demand the council roll out a more substantial maintenance programme – Valentine has struggled with damp.
In his bedroom, he shows fuzzes of mould on the purple-papered wall barely a metre from his bed. “Like, I have to sleep in this room, you know.”
He redecorated his own bedroom a year and a half or so ago, he says. “Brand new wallpaper, everything perfect, cost me a fortune.”
“And you can see all the mould and the damp coming through the wallpaper already,” he said.
Who to Complain To?
“I think most tenants will say the council does not work within the time frames that are indicated,” says Independents 4 Change Councillor Pat Dunne.
That’s anecdotal, he says, because he doesn’t have figures. He gets the impression that emergency cases – a major leak or electrical fault, say – do get dealt with swiftly, he says. But the more general requests, not so much.
Slowing down responses, in his view, is a growing reliance on contractors. “It’s more and more becoming an issue.”
Dunne said that councillors in the council’s South East Area did get a presentation from staff recently, outlining a few ways in which it is trying to improve maintenance.
Those included plans to make the process more transparent and to recruit staff to deal with shortages, particularly in trades, he said. “I think they are genuinely trying to improve, but they lack resources.”
When Valentine gets tired of calling the council’s maintenance line and local depot, he goes down to the council’s HQ on Fishamble Street, he says.
Private tenants can go to the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB) if they feel a landlord hasn’t fixed something or responded to a request within a reasonable timeframe.
Social housing tenants who rent from the council can’t.
Alison Gilliland, a Labour councillor, says that social housing tenants can go to councillors, who can usually sort issues and get a good sense of any wider circumstances that might be in play.
That might be easier than going to a body like the RTB, she says. “It would be less bureaucratic to go to a councillor and get them to advocate on their behalf.”
Dunne, the Independents 4 Change councillor, says the lack of an independent body to turn it is an issue. “That’s a problem.”
“I see no reason why local authorities shouldn’t also be answerable to the RTB,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
The Department of Housing didn’t respond to queries about the suggestion there should be an independent body with which social housing tenants renting from the council can file complaints.
Reluctant to Ask
Valentine says he is able to advocate for himself and hold his own. But, still he struggles to get the council to listen to what he needs.
Some council staff are helpful, he says. But the attitude of others, he says, means he dreads chasing what he needs. It’s not worth it, he says.
“Imagine if I was somebody with a mental health issue, or an old person. Or someone who wasn’t able to stand up for themselves?” he said. “I’m put off calling them, and I’m not afraid of people.”
For a long time, Valentine had wanted a fob for the main gates, he says.“Unless you have a car, you’re not given a clicker. You get a fob for the pedestrian gate, but you can’t open the double gates.”
“I’ve been very sick the past few years,” he said. “Two years ago, I spent eight months with Covid in hospital. Six days in ICU.”
He has chronic pancreatitis, he says, and also chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). At the end of last year he was really ill, he says.
One night, he had to call an ambulance, he says. “I couldn’t breathe.”
He sat hooked up to his nebulizer, waiting on a wooden bench in his kitchen, he says. The ambulance came.
But the gates were closed and he couldn’t go down and open them – and didn’t have a device to do it from where he was.
“Every time I got up and I tried to walk, my heart was going up, like, just start racing,” he says.
A blood-oxygen monitor on his finger gave his heart rate. “My heart was going to 148. So I couldn’t move. I had to sit there with the nebulizer on me to breathe,” says Valentine.
“Eventually, the ambulance woman had to get over the gate,” he says.
Valentine is no stranger to episodes and intensive care, he says. But “see that night, that was the scariest thing I’ve ever been through in my life”.
“I literally thought, the next time I’m coming out of this flat, I’m going out in a box,” he said. “I literally thought it was over that night.”
After that, once he got out of hospital, he pushed for a clicker so he could open the double gate without leaving his home. He went to Fishamble Street again, where, he says, they told him to call the emergency maintenance line.
He eventually got one, he says. “They made me wait weeks for it. I had to ring three times to keep asking them about it.”
Twice a council worker called him back to tell him why they wouldn’t give him one, he says. “But I just wasn’t taking no for an answer.”
He had to deliver a letter from his doctor and records from the hospital before the council yielded, and let him come and collect the fob, he says.
But who can he complain to about maintenance or estate management issues like this? he asks. “There’s no one to go to complain to.”
“There should be someone,” he says. “What’s the point of going to Dublin City Council to complain to Dublin City Council about Dublin City Council?”