Friday 28 October 2016

Katie Byrne: a room without a view

Bedsits now meet minimum standards but there's no accounting for taste

Published 10/04/2016 | 02:30

Features writer Katie Byrne
Features writer Katie Byrne

I've been tentatively looking for a place of my own: a one-bedroom rental where I can walk around in my underwear, keep strange hours and eat jars of peanut butter while gloriously safe in the knowledge that all the food in the fridge belongs entirely to me.

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The options are limited. After a little browsing, I soon realised that I'll have to pay not much less than the rental price of a two-bedroom apartment in order to get somewhere decent.

The other option is a unit in which the bedside table is a gas cooker and the only decorative piece is the regulation fire blanket that is affixed to the wall. A room of one's own where the microwave is balanced on top of the television and the wide-backed nursing home chair looks suspiciously like someone took their last breath in it.

Bedsits have come on considerably since the last time I was browsing, though. The 'bedsit ban', which came fully into effect in February 2013, means rented properties are required by law to meet minimum standards. Hence all bedsits, or 'studios' as they are now known, have mod-cons that make the teak '70s furniture look even more anachronistic by comparison. Fridge and freezer. Tick. Cooker hood. Tick. Fire extinguisher. Tick. Unfortunately there are no laws prohibiting linoleum flooring, mustard carpets or curtains that look like William Morris experimented with lysergic acid.

There is, however, a law that requires all bedsits to have 'self-contained sanitary facilities'. This strikes me as odd. Bedsits were traditionally for people experiencing straightened times and the communal bathroom was the sacrifice these tenants made for cheaper rent. In fact, it's a sacrifice that most co-tenants make: even renting a room in a penthouse doesn't guarantee you an en-suite…

We now have less bedsits on the market, partly because landlords have sold the properties rather than pay for planning permission and refurbishment, and partly because rooms have been converted to accommodate bathrooms. Meanwhile, the increased price of the refurbished units has driven many low-income tenants out of the market… or towards the bedsit black market.

The Private Residential Tenancies Board should be congratulated for improving living conditions on the whole but I seriously question some of its minimum requirements. The minimum studio size would have been more equitable than a regulation bathroom. And what use is a 'sanitary facility' that a small jockey would have difficulty navigating if the accommodation is the size of a broom closet?

Still, it's a largely forward-thinking measure, even if it contributed to the housing crisis. Our environment shapes our mental health and health is a human right. These regulations protect tenants' dignity, along with their welfare and safety.

And let's not forget that bedsits usually house the most vulnerable members of society: the elderly, the unemployed, the recently separated… Granted, they are a character-forming rite-of-passage for students - and occasionally the Monday-to-Friday crashpad of Big Five employees who head home for the weekend - but they are mainly populated by people who are at increased risk of developing mental health problems.

Studies bear this out, one of which found that people of working age who live alone are significantly more likely to be depressed. I wonder if the paisley curtains are a contributing factor…

During my rental search, I noticed that some landlords met the new requirements and then some. Their refurbishment included new wooden floors, storage units and a couple of IKEA chairs. Yet others have interpreted the 'minimum' aspect of the requirements quite literally. Here you can see a crude, pig farmer arithmetic at work. They've begrudgingly invested in the heating appliances but sure the nursing home chair will do them…

Some people think bedsits, in their current guise, will eventually be fazed out. Nonsense. Environment Minister Alan Kelly recently published guidelines allowing developers to build 45sqm studios (so long as they are in a scheme of more than 100 apartments with communal facilities) as an affordable housing alternative.

In other words, bedsits/studios - whatever you want to call them - aren't going anywhere. The challenge now is to reimagine the four-walls-and-a-fire-blanket interior structure.

Why French People Do It Better angles are a little tedious at this point, but Parisians really are the best in class when it comes to restricted living space. They often add mezzanine bedrooms accessed by ladders and clever bookshelf room dividers to create the illusion of space.

They know how to do a lot with a little and property developers building these 45sqm studios would be wise to look there for inspiration. As for the landlords still renting out beds that have seen more action than Steven Spielberg? Cough up. It's the humane thing to do.

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