Above That banger of an illustration above is by our one and only Redmonk. Throw his name into the search function for a tonne more of his well daycent works over the years.
At the start of November, the tenants of 52 Mountjoy Square were served with an eviction notice. For the last few months the landlord had been trying to raise the rent above the 4% biannual increase allowed under government rent caps announced last year. He’s not the only one and the case of Paul Howard has only highlighted the weakness of the RTB and the complete lack of any body supporting tenants. Sean Finnan investigates.
The Residential Tenancies Board was set up back in 2004 through government legislation, to maintain a register of landlords and tenants, while also providing a dispute service for the same. Under the Residential Tenancies Act 2004, it is a legal requirement for all landlords to register a tenancy with the RTB. If a landlord fails to comply they may “be convicted and fined up to €4,000 and/or up to 6 months in prison. There is also a daily fine of €500 for a continuing offence”, according to the RTB’s website.
Once a dispute is registered with the RTB, the RTB must then contact both parties and offer either mediation or adjudication. As a mediator the RTB, according to their website, aims to “give both parties a shared understanding of the problem so they can work towards reaching a mutually satisfactory resolution of the matter”. The RTB has replaced the courts as an adjudicator where tenant and landlord disputes are resolved. However there is difficulty in balancing both of these roles. This came to the fore over Christmas when the landlord Paul Howard, who had a number of RTB judgements against him, once again defied an RTB hearing and attempted to illegally evict his tenants.
This episode highlighted both the pressure the RTB are under to juggle its roles and the problem it is having in enforcing its judgements on landlords. I spoke to Seamus Farrell of Dublin Central Housing Action to understand more about the RTB’s role as mediator.
“There’s a constant effort at balancing the interests. However there are fundamental contradictions in the interests of the tenants and the landlords. The landlord’s aim is to raise rent to make more money out of it and then the tenants aim is to have a secure place to live. This is playing out with slum landlords illegally evicting people using a high level of threat and violence, sending round heavies. RTB can’t really deal with that complex of a case or that level of force being applied by the landlord.”
This is clear in how intimidated some of Paul Howard’s former tenants felt even after they won their RTB dispute. One tenant who lived in 52 Mountjoy Square from late 2016 to early 2017 told rabble about the harassment and intimidation he received once he confronted the landlord about a letter that arrived in the apartment from one of Howard’s creditors stating he should no longer be paying rent to Howard.
“That’s where things got really bad. He totally lost control, came knocking like a maniac at the door, kept ringing our phones, sending angry emails. My roommates called the police who came and explained to them to change the locks ASAP and to not answer to Paul Howard. Howard arrived shortly after with a 3 days eviction notice to leave the apartment. But on Sunday evening, as an attorney who became our lawyer on the case witnessed, eight muscle-men forced the door, put everyone out of the building, put most of belongings, all mixed up together in bin bags, out on the street, with a lot of our stuff missing.”
On the 23 March 2017, the RTB found in favour of the above tenant who was awarded €3,260. The landlord has refused to pay a cent and the tenant states: “the case became too expensive to pursue so I filed another enforcement with the RTB so they would contact another lawyer’s office on our behalf, we’re still waiting for them to contact us.”
It is becoming increasingly clear that the RTB is struggling to deal with landlords who are more powerful since the housing crisis began. The rapid increase in rents accompanied by dwindling of supply has not only bequeathed them a lucrative market, but the ability play one desperate renter off another in a race to the bottom. The more unscrupulous of the landlords are well aware that if they don’t pay out on the RTB’s determination order, few tenants are willing to go through a lengthy court battle to receive their dues.
Meanwhile many landlords are using a refurbishment clause to circumnavigate the new rent pressure zones. This “refurbishment clause” is a loophole in government’s rent pressure zone legislation that gives landlords the right to evict on the issue of a thirty day notice. In December 2017, tenancy advocacy group Threshold stated that they received a huge increase in the number of calls relating to the tenants being served eviction notices due to the landlord citing ‘refurbishment’ issues.
Over 20 families were served eviction notices from an apartment complex in Cork last November for this reason. They have since formed Leeside Anti-Eviction Group in an effort to prevent the illegal eviction from taking place. I spoke to Aileen of the group to find out what was going on.
“I got the eviction notice on the October 12 last year. My date of termination was the following March 23. There was adequate notice given but through Threshold we found out that the notice was invalid. There wasn’t enough information provided for it to be legal. They stated that the purpose of eviction was refurbishment so in order for that to be valid they have to have planning permission (due to scale of refurbishment), the name of the contractor, and what works are to be undertaken.”
The landlord in this case is Lupus capital, a subsidiary of former US presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital. The vulture fund refused to engage with the tenants so the Leeside Anti-Eviction group took things into their own hands on the advice of Threshold. As the eviction was seemingly illegal the group decided to commission a local engineer through the help of local councillor Mick Barry to investigate the fire issues that the Vultures were evicting them for.
“Lupus capital are exaggerating from their own understanding of regulations. The engineer found fourteen fire safety issues. He said while the issues are urgent and need to be done they were all in the communal areas so we wouldn’t have to leave while they were addressing them. There are three blocks in the whole complex and all the remaining tenants are in the main one with complete block of 24 apartments empty. The engineer was suggesting that there is no need for mass eviction if it was organised better.”
At the start of March the RTB gave three weeks to Lubus Capital to produce documents proving that the refurbishments to be undertaken were necessary. If it finds in the tenants favour, this will offer some solace to the tenants that their concerns were valid. Previous form has shown that the RTB struggles to enforce its determination order on lone slumlords, never mind private equity funds that have the means to fight whatever ruling all the way through the courts.
However what becomes clear is that the organisation of tenants puts pressure on the RTB to act in the public eye, and in doing so victories big and small emerge.
Illustration by Redmonk