The Covid-19 pandemic strained household budgets across Ireland, with renters being hit particularly hard. Despite restrictions being lifted and thousands returning to employment, the effects continue to linger, with tenants now grappling with a cost-of- living crisis.
Dozens of disputes recently published by the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB) provide an insight into a private rental market where arrears are a significant issue, eviction notices are on the rise, and show how Covid-19 resulted in some people becoming accidental landlords.
In one case, a landlord was ordered to pay €5,000 in damages after changing the locks of an apartment while the tenant was in hospital and removing his belongings from the property. The RTB found the tenant suffered trauma and stress and had to rely on homeless services in the aftermath.
Atlantic Hotel Management Limited in Co Clare began renting one of the holiday apartments connected to the Atlantic Hotel in Lahinch to a man in December 2020.
He was charged €800 rent each month, did not pay a security deposit, was not given any lease and the length of his stay was not specified.
The man was previously living in a house that needed a lot of work and in the winter months it was not appropriate for his needs.
“It was like a building site with no electricity or running water,” he said.
Alan Logue, director of Atlantic Hotel Management, gave evidence that a member of his administrative staff signed a form for Clare County Council to enable it to make Housing Assistance Payments (HAP) to him on behalf of the tenant, but while he agreed to facilitate the application for HAP, he never intended to enter into a landlord-tenant relationship. Covid-19 restrictions were in place and there was no one staying in the hotel’s apartments as guests. The tenant’s family was known to him, so when he was asked to rent the apartment, he understood he was obliging the man in a gesture of goodwill for a few months.
In April 2021, emails were exchanged about the tenant vacating the apartment in advance of restrictions being lifted in June. The landlord needed to get vacant possession of the apartment in order to offer it as a holiday rental, which would bring in around €1,000-€1,200 per week in the high season.
The landlord claimed the tenant agreed to move out by June 1 but did not. He said he could not get through to him on the phone in the weeks that followed. When the tenant left the dwelling for a hospital visit one day, the landlord had the locks changed and contacted the tenant’s sister about where to collect his belongings.
The tenant said he was under the impression that because he was in receipt of HAP, he had long-term security. He also claimed he could find nowhere else to rent.
In coming to its decision, the RTB found the occupation of a premises may constitute a tenancy in spite of there being no intent by the parties to specifically create either a license or a tenancy.
“It is the RTB’s position that there is a public interest in ensuring that persons in a vulnerable position, or one of little or no bargaining strength, are entitled to the protection of the Residential Tenancies Act,” the decision maker said.
The RTB also said the tenant should have known that the landlord would seek to return the apartments to use as holiday rentals when restrictions were lifted.
“The fact that the apartments were empty, as was the hotel, due to Covid-19, did not mean that the appellant landlord would not seek to return them to their prior use,” the RTB said. “The tribunal finds that the respondent tenant cannot have been unaware of these factors but may have chosen to ignore them.”
The RTB determined he was a tenant, no notice of termination was serviced and the changing of locks was consequently an unlawful termination of tenancy. He was initially awarded €10,000, but this was reduced to €5,000 on appeal.
Rent arrears were the biggest area of dispute between landlords and tenants during Covid.
In a case published last week, a company called Spiritus Limited was ordered to pay Trailfinders Ireland Limited, a travel agency on Dawson Street in Dublin city centre, €60,000 in arrears.
The monthly rent for the penthouse apartment was €2,800 and the landlord said no payment had been made since March 2020.
Spiritus is listed as a food activities company and is understood to have been seriously affected by the pandemic.
A warning letter and notice of termination was served on the tenant, which the RTB found to be valid, and the tenant was ordered to pay the arrears.
In another separate case, a tenant was ordered to pay arrears of €21,000.
A spokesperson for the RTB said landlords “were encouraged to show forbearance during this period” and potentially look at entering into informal agreements for reducing rents or entering into payment plans to tackle rent arrears.
“The RTB encouraged landlords and tenants to communicate as early as possible, any issues that may arise in order to keep the tenancy working.
“The law did not prevent landlords and tenants from entering into informal agreements with regards to rent reductions or rent arrears payment plans.”
Efforts to contact Atlantic Hotel Management and Spiritus Limited were unsuccessful.