Empowering vulnerable tenants in a failing system

Empowering vulnerable tenants in a failing system Irene Dunne, a project worker with Threshold. ©Fran Veale
Homelessness Supplement 2019
Chai Brady speaks to Threshold about Ireland’s crippling housing crisis

 

Renting families are not only struggling to afford their homes, but are hesitant to engage with their landlords regarding accommodation issues in fear of real or perceived repercussions, an Irish charity warns.

On the frontline of the housing crisis, Threshold assists with a plethora of queries and defends vulnerable people from homelessness.

With the crisis continuing seemingly and alarmingly in perpetuity, people are becoming increasingly desperate to keep their homes, but this is leading to the standards of tenancy or much-needed repair work not being addressed.

The sooner people engage with Threshold regarding a dispute the better, according to project worker Irene Dunne.

While the charity gives advice and advocates on behalf of individuals struggling with a difficult tenancy, it’s important that they’re approached at the  “initial stages of maybe a difficulty before it escalates” according to Ms Dunne.

This is particularly relevant if an arrears or anti-social behaviour case is brought before the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB), as it is then in the hands of an adjudicator whose decisions are legally binding.

Advice

She described a case she was assisting with last week, in which a father of three called in to ask advice about a landlord not extending their lease for another four years, after the family had been living in the house for almost eight years.

“The children are of an age they were born in the house, this is their home, they don’t know any other home,” says Ms Dunne.

“And obviously their friends the school, it’s a huge wrench for people because when they do go into temporary accommodation, it’s whatever is available. People are traveling from one end of the city to the other side of the city in early morning trying to get children to school so that their lives aren’t disrupted, so that they’re still around their friends in school.

“Then you have that awful thing of them going back to maybe a hotel room or a B&B, there’s no facilities for them to cook.

“People are doing everything they can to remain in their tenancy, they’re nervous, and particular people who are more vulnerable, if English isn’t their first language as well, and that they can’t get their point across, they’re fearful of what might happen. They don’t know what their rights may be, they may not be au fait of what should be happening and there’s that element throughout.”

In another one of her cases Ms Dunne spoke of a woman with children who had to vacate her rented house in North Co. Dublin while work was being done to tackle pyrite issues.

“We assisted her to vacate the property and got her temporary accommodation from the local authority so she moved out with her family,” says Ms Dunne.

However it was when she was in the temporary accommodation that the landlord unexpectedly served her with a notice, despite reassurance from the landlord there would be no break in her tenancy.

“I got on to the landlord and explained this is not what he could do, he must reinstate her in the tenancy and then issue a notice. She moved back into the tenancy, she left in June and was back in September and this is still an ongoing case with us – we’re still very much involved.

“She could have been out of the property if she hadn’t got in touch with us and we hadn’t worked on her behalf with the landlord.”

Ms Dunne says that it’s “quite unnerving” for many people in the private rental sector, particularly people who have lower incomes.

Although the charity mainly receive calls from people who have low incomes, there are many couples who are both working and on “decent wages” who still find it hard to manage exorbitant rental prices.

They also receive calls from people who aren’t in immediate danger of losing their home, but could be looking for advice as to how to approach their landlord regarding a particular issue. Once they give consent in writing to Threshold they can intervene on the tenant’s behalf – or even just give advice.

Recently Threshold have expressed concern about the large amounts of data being asked for by letting agencies and landlords – from PPS numbers, pictures of themselves and links to social media accounts – in order for people to be given preferential treatment at the pre-letting stage of the private rental market.

Practices like this, and others are what Threshold has been vocal about, and continues to advise people about who avail of their services.

Although landlords can often be painted in a bad light, Ms Dunne says there are good and bad landlords just as there’s good and bad tenants.

“You would have to say that, the vast majority of landlords are willing to speak at least and to listen to what you have to say, obviously there is pressure on everybody, on some landlords there might be pressure from a financial institution to get a certain amount of money back from a particular property.

“The pressure is on to sell or to get more rent, sometimes they see no alternative than to sell,” she added.

Stressful

Helping people fighting to keep their houses can be “stressful” says Ms Dunne, but with good supports in the Threshold office they’re able to keep their heads above water.

“People do break down on the phone, they break down in the interview rooms, men and women. Sometimes you have people come in in extremely difficult circumstances, maybe English isn’t their first language and they might have one of their children in who is interpreting for them.

“That’s very upsetting because the child is hearing something they shouldn’t be hearing but the parents have no other option, they need that help. That can be difficult.”

Despite the challenges, Threshold are continuing to do all they can to support those fighting a failing housing system and to give advice to those in need.

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