What we learned about renting in Ireland during the pandemic

Did such measures as the rent freeze, eviction ban and protection for relevant persons contribute to security for tenants, writes Juliana Sassi, a PhD student at the Department of Geography

The rent freeze had a limited impact on the participants in our research project (35 in total). This may be due to its restrictive character: only tenants financially impacted by Covid-19 and meeting complex requirements would be exempt from the increases.
Additionally, only 11% of our participants were aware of the protection for "relevant persons'' – those in rent arrears - and only 475 people across Ireland benefited from this protection according to the Residential Tenancies Board . This is a very low figure when compared to the 3,800 households that have been served with rent arrears warning notices and the 1,122 households that have been issued with notices of termination of their tenancy in the last 10 months.
The eviction ban had a more positive impact. 86% of those we talked to were aware of it and no research participant was evicted or had their tenancy terminated while it was in existence. However, six participants were to be evicted after the eviction ban was lifted.

Overall, 40% of research participants did not feel secure in their homes during the pandemic, and only 20% reported that the eviction ban had a positive impact on how secure they felt. Two reasons were identified for this. First, tenants reported that the short-term nature of the eviction ban undermined its potential impact. A tenant from Wicklow explained that "you're just prolonging what’s going to happen in the long run. It made no odds, to be fair".
The second reason is that some tenants did not believe that landlords would comply with legislation, based on their experiences of renting in the private sector. A lone parent from Blackrock said "I've seen throughout the years that landlords tend to find loopholes to get around it".
The research findings also bring to the forefront the power imbalance among tenants and landlords. The majority of research participants (71%) reported a positive relationship with their landlord (close to 80% reported by the Residential Tenancies Board). However, when questioned how they felt about contacting the landlord, only 54% reported feeling confident. These contradictory answers indicate the relevance of policy makers listening to tenants to capture the complexity of the tenant-landlord relationship to address this issue.

These tenants had avoided asking the landlord for rent reduction, or to fix significant maintenance issues in the property such as chronic mould and damp, pest infestation and faulty plumbing. A Brazilian tenant in Dublin, who reported having a positive relationship with the landlord, said he did not contact the landlord in relation to minimum standards' issues in order to avoid "bother". To control dampness, he and his partner got three electric humidifiers that they keep on 24 hours a day, an expense added to their electricity bill.
Tenants' concerns around contacting their landlord were typically linked to either not wanting to 'hassle’ their landlord and keeping a ‘low profile’, or the perception that any contact with their landlord might trigger a rent increase. Broader issues such as the housing shortage and unaffordability also influenced tenants' confidence to negotiate. This is the context for the tenant-landlord relationship, which increases tenants' vulnerability and limits their power to assert their rights.

When most of the population are affected by shortage, unaffordability, tenure insecurity and housing speculation, both short and long-term policies that tackle structural inequalities in the housing sector are required. The Residential Tenancies (no 2) Bill, proposed by Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage Darragh O'Brien, extended the protection for those in rent arrears due to Covid-19 for another six months.

It also linked the annual increase in Rent Pressure Zones to general inflation, which is currently below 2%, less than the 4% allowed before. However, the bill overlooks the fact that prices are already too high and can still increase. It will not challenge power imbalances or promote a real sense of security for tenants.

Considering that tenants do not feel confident negotiating with landlords, a rent cap linked to income needs to be established to make housing affordable. Cost-rental schemes are also an alternative. A long-term ban on eviction would promote tenure security.

Moreover, increasing the housing supply is imperative to promote tenant's security. It should be done by local authorities building social and affordable houses on public land, not selling these lands and paying private landlords for the provision of housing. Combating speculation is a good start in reducing the costs of new builds. This can be done by taxing institutional investors, which would also increase revenue. These initial measures and reforms could reduce the relevance of the market in housing provision and could stimulate us to imagine a new normality where all people can access affordable and secure housing.

This piece is based on the working paper entitled Experiences of 'home' in the Irish private rental sector: a qualitative research study of the experience of tenants during the COVID-19 pandemic

(Front photo credit:  Tom O'Neill on Unsplash)