Leaks, mould, and damp are evidenced in numerous rental properties, but councils are far from overrun by complaints about landlords, writes Caroline O’Doherty

When the Dublin Tenants Association ran its #rentripoff campaign on social media last month, it sought to highlight the exorbitant rents and unjustified increases private tenants were suffering.

But what it also brought to the fore was the very poor conditions in which renters were living.

It’s one thing having to spend 40% of your income on rent but when all it gets you is a single room with no natural light and a landlord who believes he has the right to barge in whenever he wants, it sounds like even a nominal rent would be too high.

It might be better, however, than the one-bedroom flat with “extensive mould, damp, water dripping from the walls” that costs one couple 50% of their joint wages.

And it is probably preferable to the experience of another couple who were evicted from the house they rented for four years “after we tried to get the landlord to repair external walls, leaking roof, and black mould”.

Leaks, infestations, broken electrical appliances, and plumbing problems all feature in a litany of misery that is riddled with damp, mould, and cold, and topped by a large helping of fear.

It suggests that the country’s city and county councils, which are responsible for enforcing the statutory minimum standards for private rented accommodation, must be overrun with complaints from tenants. But the opposite is the case.

Sixteen of the 31 local authorities provided the Irish Examiner with figures that show hardly any tenants are using the formal complaints system.

Examples of the replies are as follows:

  • Wexford: “Approximately 10 complaints per year”;
  • Clare: “a small number”;
  • Waterford: Fewer than 20 complaints per year;
  • Carlow: One complaint in 2013, none in 2014, five last year, eight to date this year;
  • Limerick: 16 last year, seven so far this year;
  • Tipperary: Nine last year, three so far this year;
  • Galway county: Four, six, seven, and five over four years;
  • Mayo: Four per year;
  • Louth: 12, 19, and 4 over a three-year period;
  • Cork City: 34, 39, 24, and 22 over four years;
  • Cork county: 15, 25, and 39 over three years.

Dublin City had more than 400 per year so, even taking into account its very large number of rented properties, it does appear that tenants are more likely to use the formal complaints system there than anywhere else in the country.

It’s not just the anecdotal evidence gathered by a social media campaign, or the experience of bodies like housing charity, Threshold, that suggest the level of complaints do not reflect the reality. When councils carry out routine spot checks on rented dwellings, they find on average that half of them do not meet basic standards. The top problems are damp, mould, and fire safety.

Only 5% of private rented dwellings were inspected in 2014, the last year for which records are available, but it’s not a stretch to conclude a 50% failure rate could apply across the board to all 300,000 registered rental properties — and possibly higher among the unregistered minority.

Stephen Large, services co-ordinator with Threshold, says the minimum standards are of limited value in the first place. “There’s a big gap in the standards in that the landlord only has to provide a fixed means of heating but there are no guidelines around energy efficiency or effectiveness so as long as there’s some form of heating and it’s working to some degree, that’s compliance,” said Mr Large.

“And while landlords have to provide a BER (building energy rating) cert, the rating they have doesn’t count.”

Renters face poor conditions but why so few complaints?

But it’s the enforcement of the standards that is the biggest problem. “We’re quite lucky with Dublin City Council because they’re proactive but in general people don’t associate the standards with the local authority and many local authorities themselves don’t associate the private rented sector as their responsibility,” said Mr Large.

“Go on to the average council website — you won’t find details of who to contact with a complaint, how to make contact, and what happens next.”

Even for well-informed tenants, the fear factor holds them back. “In the current climate people are very afraid that if they raise an issue, the landlord will retaliate by giving them notice,” said Mr Large.

“There is legislation in place under the Residential Tenancies Act where the landlord can not penalise the tenant for trying to enforce their rights but people are afraid to invoke the act — they don’t want to get into a dispute with the person who owns the roof over their head if they can at all avoid it.”


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