Tuesday 20 August 2019

Home truths: Listed, protected, and now rotting

Some homes have not had a penny spent on them in two generations.
Some homes have not had a penny spent on them in two generations.
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

Back in the 1980s there existed a rather peculiar bar in the heart of Dublin 6 flatland. If you passed it by you wouldn't even know it was there. From the outside it was a Victorian two-over-basement house on a quiet residential stretch.

The hostelry was accessed to the front side of the building through a rather innocuous entrance and the bar was contained in a back-end extension. Only the presence of a fleet of aged and battered Volvo, Peugeot and Ford Cortina estate cars outside gave the hint that anything was going on at all.

This was where, at the epicentre of bedsit land, the D2, D6 and D8 bedsit landlords gathered (or rather hid) to drink, compare notes and socialise. The patrons were a strange breed - all male, likely mostly single or wife oblivious, aged in their 60s and 70s, shabby, scruffy, shiny old slacks or misshapen jeans. Former cops, former sparks, former brickies. Jacks of all trades and masters of maybe one. All landlords by profession. Their badge of office: a key chain of jailer proportions hanging off their belts. All rich. Sometimes paying no tax. They spoke quietly and seriously, never getting inebriated.

Presumably they drank off the beaten path for fear that a pint in one of the area's livelier bars could result in being collared to replace a dead washing machine or dicky dual ring wall-mounted cooker.

Most landlords in Ireland today are ordinary folk and couples who have invested in one apartment or one house as part of their old age pension. The full-time city landlord of old has been a different breed, and has dwelled largely in the realm of Pre-63 bedsits. His game was acquiring a large two, three or four storey building in whatever condition, divide them up into the largest number of the smallest possible spaces and rent these out to the most number of people - largely students, single civil servants or rent allowance tenants.

Today that hidden drinking establishment is gone and the battered estate brigade have slowly been pushed out by new standards or chased for every penny by a wholly techied up modern taxman. More recently, their bedsit warrens have been outed by local authority inspectors clamping down on breaches of recent regulations which demand, among other things, the closure of bedsits without own bathrooms and kitchens.

But while the full-time bedsit landlord of old may be fading, vast tranches of mouldy Pre-63 bedsit warrens remain. Some are standing empty and some are still slums, stuffed to the gills as likely today with refugee families as single Irish rent allowance tenants.

For some time, an unusual amount of these buildings are offered for sale and not selling. There are a number of reasons for this. Regulations introduced but enforced only very recently have forced buildings which have not been altered since the 1960s or 1970s to be closed down as bedsit warrens. Overnight they have been required to become fit for economically-viable alternative uses for which they just don't qualify.

Most, by nature, are either located in Bedsitland in a spot which would not induce a buyer with an upmarket conversion in mind to take the plunge (the only ones with the cash to do it). Or by their sheer size (three or four storeys over basement), they require a million spent on them to make them hitherto viable propositions in any form.

Homes which have had a full-time landlord of old in charge of them for 40 years have often not had a penny spent on them in two generations. The gutters are gone, the roofs are patchy and the floorboards are rotten. They are for all means and purposes the equivalent of a terrace version of the rural mansion in cheaper parts, gone to seed.

And recently their prices have been falling and falling. A Dublin 1 property containing more than 12 flats and which currently earns more than €117,000 per annum under current tenures, is on offer now for the price of an average middle-class semi. For those buildings which are occupied, the yields are phenomenal - up to 20pc per annum.

In too many cases the lettings are also in breach of the most recent regulations, and just waiting for local authority inspectors to shut them down. It means many of the buyers aiming to rent them in current condition are unscrupulous.

These are beautiful and historic buildings with masterful joinery and cornicing work hidden behind beauty-board and mdf panels. But prohibitive preservation and refurb costs mean an asking price of €650,000 for one such two or three-storey-over-basement in Dublin city centre (without grants or incentives) is, in reality, an investment of €1.1m to €1.6m when we take into account the work necessary to render them useful for anything at all that is practical and legal. Inhabited they have rotted slowly for 50 years. Now empty, they're dying faster. Ironic then that most come 'protected' with listing orders.

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