Wednesday 18 September 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'In the real world, not all landlords are villains - and not all tenants are saints'

If private landlords are to play their part in solving the housing crisis, it's vital to stop demonising them

Homes. Photo: Stock Image
Homes. Photo: Stock Image

Eilis O'Hanlon

There was a landlord in Germany a few years ago who took a male tenant to court in a bid to make him pay for damage to a marble toilet floor which he claimed had been caused by the man's habit of urinating while standing up.

Despite accepting that the accuracy of the man's aim had indeed done damage to the other person's property, the judge ruled in the tenant's favour, saying that standing up to pee was "common practice".

The case caused much amusement at the time, but it did seem a bit unfair. The house belonged to the landlord. He surely had every right to be aggrieved. Instead, his defeat was greeted as a victory against the whole landlord class.

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That also seems to have been the general reaction to last week's victory by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission in its case against landlords.

The Workplace Relations Commission has now ruled that rental adverts placed on daft.ie which use terms such as "would suit families or professionals only" or "references required" are in breach of the Equal Status Act, and has ordered the country's largest property website to block such ads from appearing in future.

It's fair enough that landlords should not be allowed to discriminate against potential tenants on the grounds of race or sexual orientation, but surely there must be exceptions to every rule? Many landlords would prefer to have female tenants because they're assumed, rightly or wrongly, to be less trouble. Likewise, who wouldn't rather have settled thirtysomethings renting their house than a group of rowdy, partying twentysomethings?

The main reason this ruling was deemed necessary is to stop landlords from discriminating against people in receipt of social welfare or whose rent is paid by rent allowance - people who obviously need places to live as much as anyone.

On the other hand, these houses do belong to someone else. If that person has paid for it, or is trying to meet mortgage payments by renting it out, why shouldn't they be allowed to decide who lives in it? It is they who will be forced to pay for any damage or shortfall in rent should a tenant turn out to be unsuitable. Is it fair to demand that they should lose the right to choose who lives there?

It is easy to cast private landlords in the role of villains, but they don't have it entirely their own way. According to the Institute of Professional Auctioneers and Valuers, many are leaving the sector because of high taxes, excessive regulation and irresponsible tenants. Those are some of the reasons there were 1,700 fewer landlords in 2018 than three years earlier, thereby restricting supply and pushing up rental prices. Reports also indicate there has been a sharp rise in the number of tenants refusing to leave houses when asked to do so by the owner. The number for this year alone has already exceeded the figure for the whole of 2018.

On a human level, it is impossible not to feel sympathy for those who refuse to budge out of fear at what awaits them in the private rental sector. That doesn't mean the burden of meeting citizens' right to a roof over their heads should be shouldered by landlords rather than the State.

The vast majority of rentals pass without any problems whatsoever. Tenants pay the rent on time and treat the property with respect. Landlords, in turn, leave them alone.

However the number of disputes between landlords and tenants is increasing, and it's not always the landlord's fault.

There are plenty of documented cases where landlords have given tenants a lengthy period to vacate properties on compassionate grounds, only for it to backfire. Not all tenants play by the rules.

The problem is that landlord rights and tenant rights are seen as being in conflict, with every victory for one regarded as a bloody nose for the other, whereas they need to be complementary. Partly as a result of creating a hostile environment for landlords, the number of houses available to rent decreased by 2pc last year, with a predictably inflationary effect on prices. It is lazy stereotyping to suggest it is all the fault of grasping landlords.

Of course, landlords will continue to find a way to rent their homes to professionals, whatever words the Workplace Relations Commission says can or cannot be used in their advertisements. Those looking for accommodation are simply going to have their time wasted by going along to view properties that they have no chance of being offered. And if, as seems inevitable, there is a spike in the number of cases against landlords on the grounds of discrimination, then it will only have a further deterrent effect on private landlords to get into the sector at all.

No one likes being told what they can do with their own land and property.

One oft-suggested solution is to build more social housing, and it is true that the last two Fine Gael-led coalitions have overseen the construction of significantly fewer council houses than the Fianna Fail-Green government which preceded them. All the same, it is probably far-fetched to believe that the days will ever return when 40pc of housing stock was being built by the State.

Private investors out-gun the public purse too heavily. In the last three years, the amount spent by local authorities and housing bodies on buying private houses for use as social housing - which in some rural areas accounts for more than 70pc of social housing stock - was only around €1bn. In comparison, private investment in Irish property went up four-fold between 2014 and 2018 to an eye-watering €27bn. That is more than the annual health budget.

It is not only the State which is being outmatched by multi-million euro players in the private sector, it is also small-time individual landlords. They need to be treated fairly so that they continue to play their part, or soon there'll be no one left in the market but large institutional investors, often based outside Ireland.

It should be a partnership, and if the quid pro quo is that private landlords are free to specify who they want renting their houses, it is a small price to pay - even if it's as simple as preferring families or professionals with references, or asking men to sit down when they pee.

Not all properties are suitable for all tenants. Those who own the homes are best placed to make that call.

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