Between April 2016 and April 2022, the number of permanent privately rented homes in Ireland grew by 7 percent, according to census data.
Yet the number of tenancies registered with the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB) during an overlapping period – from the end of 2017 to the end of 2021 – fell by almost 12 percent, the RTB’s data says.
It’s not just when it comes to trends that the two sets of data don’t mesh. The totals – even factoring in definitions – boggle.
The RTB estimated around 276,000 registered tenancies at the end of 2021. Census 2022 counted about 330,000 households renting from a private landlord.
Debate around how to build a sustainable rental market, and government policy, has been driven by the narrative that landlords are fleeing the market – selling up because of hefty taxation, regulation or the need to cash in on their pensions – and that these homes were being lost to renters.
The clash between the trends in RTB data and those in census figures, though – even allowing for different quirks in the data – throws all that into doubt.
If the census data is correct this could have major policy implications, says Sinn Féin TD and party housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin.
“We’ve all been working under the assumption that since 2017 the number of properties available to rent has been falling,” he says. “Our entire debate is thrown into question.”
Ben Thompson, sales and marketing director with Churches Estate Agents, says it wouldn’t surprise him if the fall in RTB registered tenancies isn’t down to fewer rentals, but to a growth in unregistered tenancies as the housing crisis worsens.
Tenants cannot ask or insist that tenancies are registered, says Thompson. “It’s a sign of desperation from the market.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing didn’t respond directly to queries about the policy implications of the census results showing an increase, not a decrease, in the number of rented homes.
“The operation of the RTB’s tenancy management system and the data collected by this system is an operational matter for the RTB and queries regarding their data should be directed to the RTB,” they said.
What’s the difference
The census counts occupied homes rented long-term from a private landlord as permanent private-rented homes.
In 2016, there were around 310,000 privately rented homes, according to that year’s census. By 2022, that had increased to more than 330,000, shows the more recent count.
Yet, there was a steady decline each year in the number of registered tenancies from 2017 to 2021, shows RTB data.
A spokesperson for the RTB said a primary reason for the differences is the data collection methods.
“The RTB primarily relies on data reported by landlords through registration processes. In contrast, the [Central Statistics Office] gathers information through self-reported censuses,” they said.
A spokesperson for the Central Statistics Office (CSO) said: “The census may include more informal letting arrangements and would generally be completed by the tenant whereas RTB registrations are made by the landlord.”
The CSO will carry out further analysis of the different datasets at a later stage, they said.
Ó Broin, the Sinn Féin housing spokesperson, says he has written to the CSO to try to clarify the figures.
If unregistered tenancies are behind it, then that is serious, he says. “It’s a really important question and we need to get the data.”
If the CSO is right and rental properties are increasing, then the entire narrative around landlords leaving the market in droves is called into question, he says.
It could be that some landlords are leaving but are being replaced by others. The central issue is whether the number of rentals overall is increasing or decreasing, said Ó Broin. “We urgently need the CSO and the RTB to clarify that.”
Catherine Clancy, chairperson of the Magazine Road and Surrounding Areas Residents Association in Cork, has long scoffed at the idea that the RTB’s tenancies register is a useful source to understand trends in the rental market.
The residents’ group surveyed around 300 rental homes in their area and found 99 of them were unregistered, she said earlier this year. The group had been reporting 54 of those homes to the RTB since 2017, she said.
Stephen O’Grady of estate agent City Homes said he thinks these days most tenancies would be registered. “I’d have thought landlords would all be registered with the RTB.”
But Thompson, the estate agent with Churches Estate Agents, says he is not at all surprised by the figures. There have always been some small landlords who don’t register their tenancies, he says.
Estate agents have to register all the properties on their books, says Thompson. But “we are aware of a black market”, he says. “A lot of these tenancies would be cash-in-hand.”
In the current climate, no renter would challenge a landlord about their failure to register a property, he says.
Also, it is entirely plausible that some small landlords who were previously registered, dropped out of compliance because dealing with the RTB became a massive hassle, he says.
“The process is convoluted, even for a good estate agent, there are a lot of hoops to jump through to do tenancy registration,” says Thompson.
What about students and licensees?
In April 2022, the CSO found there were around 330,000 rental homes nationwide, while four months earlier the RTB said it had around 276,000 registered tenancies.
That leaves a gap of 54,000.
(The RTB changed the way it registers tenancies in 2021 and so the number for that year is estimated. However, the trend is clear: the number of registered tenancies dropped each year from 2017 to 2020, too.)
There is one difference in how the RTB and the CSO count some renters, those in student accommodation.
On top of its mainstream private tenancies, the RTB has another register for student-specific accommodation – like the big blocks just for students – which lists 21,000 tenancies.
The CSO counts some student-specific accommodation as communal living, and others as permanent privately rented homes.
It counted around 11,000 students in 133 student-specific accommodation complexes as being in communal living, says the spokesperson. So, they weren’t among the private renting households.
The other 10,000 students may have been. Although, given that the census counts households rather than each tenancy – and some of these students would likely have been sharing – these would likely account for fewer than 10,000 households in the census.
A spokesperson for the Irish Property Owners Association (IPOA) said the RTB figures will never match the census because not all privately rented homes need to be registered with the RTB.
Renters who live in a home where the landlord or a close relative is also living, such as lodgers through the rent-a-room scheme, do not need to be registered with the RTB, she says.
But it is likely that those homes wouldn’t be flagged as rental households in the census, either.
The census asks whether the home is owned outright, or owned with a mortgage, or rented, or if the person or household is living there rent-free. There is no space on the form to flag that one person is a homeowner while someone else is a lodger, licensee or renting a room.
Still, the spokesperson for IPOA says the rental sector is shrinking, referring to the RTB figures.
“The rental market has shrunk by 43,000 homes in the last five years because of the regulatory and financial burdens that are being heaped on the sector,” they said.