19 November 2008

Irish Government plans to ban Bedsits

After banning smoking in public and proper light bulbs, the Irish government is now also planning to ban the traditional rented bedsits, as part of a series of new measures, trying to improve standards in the Irish rented accommodation sector.

A new government proposal will see one-room units phased out by new regulations, insisting that rental units should have their own sanitary facilities.

The idea of fading out the many thousands of poor quality bedsits is to be welcomed in general, and the move is actually overdue. It could and should have come years ago, when there was more than enough money available to modernise and improve old apartments.

But now, as economic recession is hitting the whole country and causes great financial distress for many of us, the measure will turn out to be a double-edged sword. Most of these old bedsits, many with facilities of 1950s and 1960s standard, are owned by dodgy landlords who not even declare their earnings from them. The units are predominantly rented by the most vulnerable and poor people in the country, especially unemployed single people, recipients of social welfare and incapacity benefit, and also a good number of elderly people, living on their own.

Since the influx of many foreign workers into Ireland in recent years, a lot of these bedsits are now also occupied by people from eastern Europe, who come here to work and send as much money as possible home to their families. So they go for the cheapest possible option when it comes to accommodation, which is in Ireland the old bedsit with very little comfort and facilities. There are seldom rent books and documents, and the rent is usually paid in cash and collected by the landlord himself every week. Thus many landlords, who are not far removed from the old slum lords of 19th and early 20th century Irish tenements and often lead a shady life, make plenty of money from their bedsits without ever paying a single Cent in taxes.

It is - as I said above - a positive step in the right direction to tackle this problem, close bedsits that are barely fit for habitation and make the landlords to renovate their properties and pay at last their taxes. But the question is how the new law will be enforced? Will we see hundreds of housing inspectors going around the country, checking on rented properties and their occupants and owners? Or will we just have another piece of meaningless legislation, with looks nice on the statute books, but has no real impact on the ground?

Given my experience with Irish politicians, local authorities and landlords, I suspect that it will be the latter. There are already plenty of regulations in place under which a good percentage of old and dingy bedsits should be taken out of the market, as they are shambolic at best and even a health hazard for the occupants at worst. But nothing has happened for years. All is going on as it has been for decades, with the most poor and vulnerable tenants being exploited by landlords who grow rich and fat on them.

So one has to wonder why the government is coming up with this proposal now? The answer is actually quite simple. Rents have been falling, and continue to fall in value, all across the country.
In fact rents have fallen to their lowest levels in more than two years now, according to one of Ireland's biggest property websites.

Analysts say that Irish rents have dropped by an average of 3% across the country in the past three months, due to what it called "the dramatic increase in the number of properties available to rent".

This is of course the result of the uncontrolled and nonsensical building boom during the years of the 'Celtic Tiger', when within just a few years new apartment blocks were built everywhere, and with no regards to real demands.
Here in Waterford alone I know several of these massive blocks which are more than half empty. And if the Department of Health and the Department of Social and Family Affairs would not put large numbers of - mostly African - asylum seekers in there at the taxpayers' expense, they would be 80% empty.

At the start of November, there were over 18,000 properties available to rent nationwide, up 133% on the level of the same time last year.

Economist Ronan Lyons says that "2006 and 2007 saw an unprecedented number of new homes built in Ireland - probably over 170,000 in two years. With no shortage of unsold properties, rents can be expected to continue to fall for perhaps another 12 months".
"Much lower numbers of new homes built from 2009 on - perhaps only 55,000 over the course of 2009 and 2010 - should bring Ireland's property market back into balance," he added.

So, what is really behind the new government proposal? It is not the concern for poor tenants in dingy little bedsits with no proper facilities. And it is not the will to collect taxes from dodgy and unscrupulous landlords, who are well-known to local authorities and politicians, and often even welcome financial supporters of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.

No, the real reason for the new proposal - and for its timing - is that the government's friends in the property industry, the many developers who became millionaires on the back of the 'Celtic Tiger' and just kept building and building new apartments like mad - and with borrowed money - are now facing real financial difficulties. So they come running to their friends in high places, asking for help.

The government's answer seems now to force low income tenants out of their bedsits and into a vast array of empty modern apartments they really cannot afford, even at a time of low rents.
Thus the developers will have a new source of income, which might help them to survive the current crisis and economic recession.

And who will pay for all this? You and me, and every taxpayer in the country. Because the poor bedsit tenants cannot afford the rents for modern apartments, they will apply for - and receive - rent allowance from the Department of Health.
At the same time the owners of the old bedsits will apply for - and receive - improvement grants for their buildings, also paid out by the government, which means from our taxes.

None of these measures have been properly budgeted for, and are not even mentioned in the 2009 Budget. So the money will have to be found elsewhere, and most likely be brought into an emergency 'mini budget' next year, which will come anyway as things stand now.

If the government would really care for those who live in bad old bedsits with no proper cooking and sanitary facilities, they would pass a new law that defines the minimum standards for rented accommodation and make the landlords responsible for it, with the explicit provision that they will not be allowed to raise the rent after they have made the required improvements.
Those who make their main income from bedsits are wealthy people, and in the current situation they would not want to lose their tenants. So they would - and would have to - comply with new rules, and still make plenty of money.

Once again we see the government proposing what looks at first glance like a good idea, but after examination of the details it turns out to be just another scam. But then again, what else can one expect from Fianna Fáil?

The Emerald Islander

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