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European standards for tenants

Screen shot 2014-12-19 at 13.28.24By Paul Newsome

Dr Padraic Kenna’s pleas in the last two editions of Village for rent-control legislation and ethics in housing policy were just too gentle on Ireland’s systemic prostration in the face of unquestioned landlordism.

Workers’ house prices inflated by four thousand five hundred per cent between 1990 and 2007 in Drumcondra Dublin. A sample red-brick, three-bed house bought for €22,000 in 1990 had bloated to a valuation of €860,000 by 2007 without having another brick added to it. The only properties worldwide that bested these percentages were speculative land rezonings in suburban Ireland and the CPO sell-out to farmers who sold their land for motorways, constituting 25% of the cost of the road programme.

Brian Lenihan stated at the beginning of the crash that house prices had risen by 250%. If that was the case our sample house would have risen to €70,000, not €860,000.

None of our esteemed, academics, economists, journalebrities, opposition politicians or media strung out on property-ad revenue attempted to correct this farcical assertion. Between 2007 and 2014 – the years of the Great Recession – the price of our sample worker’s house had dropped back to circa €400,000. That’s still 2, 000 (thousand per cent) above the pre-Celtic-Tiger price. But we are still told by the same people whose greed and negligence caused the boom and bust that workers’ houses are now ‘half price’, ‘cheap’ ‘under-priced’ etc.

The greatest driver of this explosion in the cost of basic workers’ homes was, and still is, Ireland’s particular brand of un-regulated landlordism. This is the peculiar desire of one sector of society to own the home of another sector for profit: that post-famine gombeen desire to secure and fund a landlord’s own economic future, pension, retirement and old age with rent extracted from worker renters. Typically, defenders of landlordism do not ponder how those captive renters will fund their own pensions, retirement and old age when they are no longer able to earn or afford rent, who having spent twenty or thirty years paying off the Celtic Tiger negative-equity mortgages of the landlords, have nothing but eviction, homelessness and dependency on the State to look forward to in their own final years. They themselves are expected to live without ever owning their own home. What else can we call this except property apartheid  for ordinary, particularly blue-collar, citizens.

Fifty-thousand rural peasants armed with little more than pikes and pitch forks rebelled against landlordism in 1798. For six months they fought a bloody war with the British occupying forces and their conscripted yeomanry across Leinster and beyond, in Ireland’s first ideologically driven rising against landlordism. After the ten main architects of that Rising were ambushed in Oliver Bond’s house, Dublin declined from actively joining in the rebellion. Forty-eight years later the Great Famine, directly caused by the State system of landlordism devastated Ireland. The estimation of deaths from starvation, disease and exposure through mass evictions along with mass emigration on coffin ships are now just millions of statistics stored in National Archives. Sixty-nine years after the famine, in 1916, the GPO became the focal point in the struggle for ordinary Irish citizens to control their own destinies and own their own homes …

But in 2014 there are still around one and a half million workers enslaved to property-apartheid landlordism in the Irish ‘republic’. Nothing has been learned from multi-generational struggle about the undemocratic immorality and injustice of free-for-all private landlordism.

Indeed the famine and our colonial past seem to have generated a property fetish entirely unknown to industrial societies in Europe.

For instance, the namawinelake website informs us that there are 160,000 landlords who own four properties each. Future generations will balefully try to figure out how or why Ireland’s self-proclaimed Republican Party, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and their acolytes so wholeheartedly embraced for the duration of the Celtic Tiger and beyond the concept of absentee landlordism from Section 23 to the ‘Bulgarian play’ option re-establishing property ownership as the strangling grip of the minority of the privileged and wealthy over the majority when generations of their predecssors had fought to eradicate it.

Napoleon once described England as “a nation of shopkeepers”. Today Ireland is “a nation of landlords” where renters pay off the negative equity mortgages of the predatory speculator landlords, and their rents also prop up the banks bailed out by the tax exchequer. Ireland’s EU citizen renters have none of the regulations, legislation, laws or security of tenure which our compatriots in mainland EU member states take for granted. The Irish political system has ejected private renters from the State’s duty of care by handing their finances over to an Ahernist, politically-appointed, the PRTB. At the same time in 2004 Ahern also scrapped the last remaining right that residential renters really had in law (from 2009), the right to a renewable thirty-five year lease when they had paid rent for a minimum of 20 years. Our cohort of boom-town landlord TDs cheered the disciplines of the market without bothering to declare their interests.

As the infographic opposite shows, rents in Dublin have risen 26% since 2011 in a near-inflation-free economy.

The Landlord class had not gone away. With the sniff of a downturn they diverted their liabilities for property and second-home tax (and water tax) on to their tenants with the rise in rents being immediately trumpeted across Ireland’s slavering property media as a sign of a shortage of housing in Dublin, though it was in reality merely the rise of suppressed demand.

There is a national conspiracy in favour of both (a) landlords and (b) landlordism. The budget announcements of social housing only highlight the oppression of first-time private buyers most recently manifest in the Central Bank’s clampdown requiring draconian 20% deposits.

And why did the establishment figure of former An Bord Pleanála chairman, now National Buildings Agency boss, John O’Connor recently call for “rent-only” tiny apartments to be built in Dublin for “a young mobile workforce”?

The For Sale signs bristling like election posters from every road, street, alley and lane in Dublin last year disappeared as if by magic in the space of a few months in 2014. Where did they go? Who in cash-strapped, recession-stricken Ireland could suddenly afford to buy up these tens of thousands of empty houses in Dublin?

The agenda is to build (a) too many ‘units’ and (b) most of them as buy-to-lets.

So currently the board of the PRTB is calling for 80,000 new ‘units’ across Ireland. If all of these new units were controlled by landlords signing up to the PRTB it would net that company €40 million in charges to landlords at €500 per unit.

The Chartered Institute of Surveyors and the inevitable Tom Parlon (CIF) echo this agenda for their own vested reasons.

There is an almost compulsive unwillingness to see the possibilities for emancipating our beleaguered tenantry. So how, for example, could NAMA’s Frank Daly justify telling Sean O’Rourke during a radio interview that NAMA was refraining from flooding the market with properties when there’s allegedly a housing shortage?

NAMA’s weakness for landlordism was manifest during the silly season of August 2014 when it announced the sale of 761 apartments to one individual Canadian-backed corporate landlord. No journalist asked whether the renters living in those ‘units’ should have been given the opportunity to buy them themselves.

Jan O’Sullivan, then Minister of State for housing did her bit, ironically announcing that many ghost-estate ‘units’ would actually be demolished.

Before Labour joined Fine Gael in government trades unions had voted to undertake a national mortgage strike. They proposed to set up a website signing up 100,000 negative equity mortgage holders who would en masse refuse to pay any more until the negative equity over-value of their homes was written off. It made the news for a while – then Labour got into power.

Citizen renters in most EU member states are safeguarded by very strong security of tenure and rental regulations. Most are automatically entitled to a nine-year lease, rent rises restricted in line with the cost of living, six-months notice to quit and very high standards of accommodation. Commissioner Phil Hogan is automatically entitled to these legislated standards if he has to rent in Brussels. Meanwhile, his compatriot Irish EU citizen renters back home in their own constituncies in Ireland have no such legislation and are not protected by The EU Parliament. What we do have is a board of twelve professionals in the PRTB where not even one member represents any renter’s organization or association.

International predatory property speculators are advised by websites to to avoid EU mainland countries because of the very high pro-tenant standards and legislated controls in place. Ireland on the other hand is seen as a rental Klondike for foreign property speculators looking to gorge themselves on unregulated rent profits which they will then take bank in other countries.

The supine Irish government grovels and crawls on its knees to Europe across the bogs of Ireland. They have no problem ‘implementing’ austerity and every demand and regulation suggested by Europe. It’s time they tapped the best of Europe – its protection against landlordism. •