Wednesday 26 October 2016

Compromise urgently needed to protect tenants

Published 22/10/2015 | 02:30

Minister Alan Kelly is calling for rent certainty for tenants and wants to link increases to inflation for four years, but inflation has shown little or no growth in the past 12 months
Minister Alan Kelly is calling for rent certainty for tenants and wants to link increases to inflation for four years, but inflation has shown little or no growth in the past 12 months

My elderly male friend was visibly agitated. He kept dropping objects, couldn't finish sentences and crumbled up his slice of cake without eating it.

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I found him in a state of some distress when I visited him recently in his snug little home - a privately-rented flat where he has lived alone for almost three years. He was well settled in there and happy, after moving to be close to family who could help with caring for him. However, the previous day he had received three months' notice to leave from his landlord.

The reason advanced was that the apartment is needed for a relative. Maybe so. Or possibly the owner believes the place could command a higher rent, and it's cleaner to start afresh in a rising market where tenants far outnumber the properties on offer.

The old man I visit occasionally has a limited income. He could manage some scale of a rent increase, but perhaps not jacked up to the level the landlord either needs to meet his obligations, or wants to meet his expectations.

No negotiations were entered into and notification ending the tenancy was simply sent in the post. All legal and above board. Nevertheless, a decent old widower trying to pay his way in life was now watching his carefully constructed security vanish; gone in the space it takes to slit open an envelope.

We talked about how he'd find somewhere else nearby, perhaps in the same complex, but our words lacked conviction - as the rental bubble and a chronic housing shortage went unmentioned.

We agreed his family would see him right. We considered how well he kept the flat and predicted the landlord might regret his decision if he wound up with troublesome tenants. But all the time we chatted his tea cooled, untasted. His fingers fumbled ceaselessly in his lap and his eyes drifted around the nest that would not be his for much longer.

I saw his gaze linger on ornaments, on framed sports medals, on the mementos of his many decades of life. The idea of boxing them away and trying to make a home elsewhere was troubling my friend. He was attempting to be stoical, but he was on the verge of being overwhelmed by the prospect of starting over, reconstructing from scratch that sense of familiarity and safety which helps to ground all of us.

There are a raft of measures to address the housing shortage and homeless crisis, among other related issues, expected However, who knows when, or if, these policies will materialise, considering reports of fundamental disagreements between Environment Minister Alan Kelly and Finance Minister Michael Noonan over the former's wish to impose limits on rent increases.

Mr Kelly is calling for rent certainty for tenants and wants to link increases to inflation for four years, but inflation has shown little or no growth in the past 12 months.

"Immoral" rent rises have to be addressed, says Mr Kelly. Landlords only have the right to put up rents once a year, but they can do so by as much as they choose. Tenants are free to walk, of course, but how to find alternative accommodation in a bubble market?

Meanwhile, Mr Noonan is said to have been lobbied by property investors anxious about realising returns on their outlay. Fine Gael is opposed to capping price rises in the rental sector on the basis that artificial controls might discourage landlords from renting - thereby reducing the number of available properties.

There were hopes that a raft of incentives to increase the number of new houses and apartments built by developers would be included in the Budget. Rent and housing supply are "two sides of the same coin", as Mr Kelly has pointed out.

The Budget did make a start, with Nama mandated to build 20,000 more units by the end of 2020. They aren't particularly earmarked for social housing, however.

Against this backdrop, rents are shooting up. Even the outside possibility of rises being capped appears to have persuaded some landlords to put their increases in place while they can.

I encountered another case this week where a businessman and his family were given notice to move out of their rental house to make way for a new tenant. Two weeks later the landlord said his plans had changed and they could stay, provided they accepted a €400 rent rise. That's a significant hike by any standards. The tenant is suspicious and unsettled, but cannot easily source a suitable alternative.

Some middle ground must be found soon, with winter on the horizon and ever higher numbers sleeping rough. On the one hand, landlords need to be encouraged to make accommodation available, rather than decide it's not worth their while. On the other, rent certainty seems a reasonable request by tenants.

A sensible policy must be approved at Cabinet and put into operation quickly - delays caused by any impasse, possibly including ideological differences between the two parties, are adding to distress levels in the community.

I won't easily forget the mental suffering caused to my frail old friend at the prospect of his world collapsing. No doubt others have witnessed similar cases.

Naturally, landlords have a right to fair rents, but there is an even more fundamental right to consider: a citizen's need to be housed. One right need not show the door to the other - that's what the art of compromise is about.

Irish Independent

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