Wednesday 22 November 2017

Is our minister all alone on bedsit land?

Irish people of a certain age all have their own worst- bedsits story to tell. They were often a grimy affair and eventually were made illegal
Irish people of a certain age all have their own worst- bedsits story to tell. They were often a grimy affair and eventually were made illegal
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

The landlord told me pointedly (he prodded me with his finger as he said it) that he lived in the house himself - perhaps to indicate some bona fides standard of habitability for his premises. The personal seal of approval so to speak.

A short, shook looking man in his sixties who was enveloped in a droopy cardigan that no wife would have sanctioned, he fought to subdue a renegade comb over as we walked to his house on Grosvenor Square.

Mr Shook led me up a narrow stairs where years of meshed dust had obscured the true colour of the runner carpet underfoot and where the 1970s still reigned supreme and bold and loud in wallpaper. He stopped on the return to tease through a jailer's keyring before isolating the one that opened the bedsitting room I had come to view.

It was a single room, just a bit bigger than a bathroom and most of it was taken up with the single bed. Otherwise it had a single wooden kitchen chair and a single side table on top of which an ophaned TV cable ran to a TV shape in the dust. I lifted the end of the cable. "The pipe is gone a while now. Sure there's never anything good on telly these days anyways."

Fitted to the wall above the head of the bed and two foot off the mattress, was a twin-ring electric cooker panel. The first thing you'd see each morning would be its grease-stained underworks. Breakfast in bed would take on a whole new meaning. "The last tenants just moved out," he offered. "Two nice country lads studying agriculture at UCD." Two? Bloody hell!

The sash window was minus the lower portion of its wooden frame and the wind blew in through the gap. I put my fingers into the gap and ran them along the edge of the exposed glass pane. "It's the restoration people that make it impossible. I can't find the right wood to replace it with." A football-sized hole (it might have been made by a football) in the internal wall, had been covered with a torn off piece of pegboard fixed on with staples. The bare bulb hanging overhead was nicotine stained. The enamelled tub in the shared bathroom (with four other bedsits) looked like it was usually deployed for dissolving things in acid.

"Seventeen quid a week I'm looking for."

He looked at the floor. I said nothing. "Em, maybe you're looking for something that's a bit more… em salubrious?" he observed. As it happened Mr Shook put my 20-year-old self in touch with a landlord across the road. From him I ended up renting a very funky and spacious own-door, garden-level flat. I spent five very happy years there for a far more substantial IR£40 a week.

All Irish people of a certain age will have a "worst bedsit" story. A friend told me about a big room in a period house with sofa, bed and kitchen. When she asked where the toilet was, the landlord swished back a green shower curtain in the corner to reveal the porcelain throne and a small wall mounted sink - next to the sofa, armchairs and coffee table. "Pardon me, I'm just off to the…"

Having had so many friends who lived in bedsits through their twenties, I have been in and out of my fair share of them. The good, the bad and the ugly. We remember it all: hall and landing light switches that give you 15 seconds to reach the upstairs flat you're going to, or else fumble in the dark. There was coin-operated gas cookers, paisley-pattern carpets that stuck to the soles of your shoes, beauty board, lino and "two bar" plug in heaters with one bar running. Damp, mould mice, woodlice and carpet mushrooms.

There were very good reasons why 13,000 bedsits were erased, it was just the timing that was unfortunate. Some bedsits let out at top rates exhibited truly despicable housing standards and in so many cases they were genuinely health threatening. So this week the Labour Party joined other voices urging Eoghan Murphy not to go through with his plans to reopen bedsits, calling such plans a "regression."

But there may be other unforeseen issues to deal with. Hundreds of Pre 1963 landlords were forced to sell their hovel buildings of a dozen bedsits in the relatively recent wake of the ban. These huge buildings, most in truly awful condition, were suddenly transformed overnight from goldmines into virtually valueless ramshackle propositions.

Following the letter of the law (or forcibly shut down by local authorities) their owners sold them at a pittance - often as low as €300,000 for buildings of 4,000 sq ft. A few years previous they'd have been worth more than €1m as they stood. Change the law and they're worth that again. So surely a reversion would open up substantial legal claims against the state for massive losses?

And do we really know how many buildings out there are still in bedsits? Those operating illegally are obviously already occupied so they won't help the housing crisis while most of those vacated have already been sold. Might backtracking on bedsits simply usher in a brand new generation of tight packed slums constructed afresh by vulture funds to take us back to rotten standards which will have to be dealt with again down the road?

That existing empty bedsits are needed in the short term emergency (if they are there at all) cannot be disputed. But steps to legalise them should be announced as temporary emergency measures from the outset. Otherwise the big funds cash in again on the housing crisis while rental home standards will be transported right back to 1984.

Indo Property

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