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Understanding tenants’ agency in the Irish private rental sector

New research by Dr Michael Byrne and Dr Rachel McCardle, in collaboration with the housing charity Threshold, looks at constraints on tenants ability to advocate for themselves and how this contributes to the issues besetting the Irish private rental sector.

Over recent years Irish governments have introduced a variety of policy reforms responding to the growth of the private rental sector (PRS). These reforms have however been undermined by the ongoing issue of non-compliance on the part of landlords. For example, despite the capping of annual rent increases at 4% within designated Rent Pressure Zones (RPZs), annual average rent increases continue to be in excess of this figure and more than 40% of tenants within RPZs have received rent increases of greater than 4% (Ahrens et al., 2019).

At the heart of the problem of non-compliance is the role tenants play within policy implementation and enforcement. The Irish regulatory regime can be described as ‘tenant-led’ because it is up to tenants to address breaches of their rights or legislation, e.g. by challenging their landlord or registering a dispute with the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB) – the regulator of the PRS and exercises a quasi-judicial function in dealing with disputes between landlords and tenants. This is predicated on the assumption that tenants are in a position to express agency, i.e. to advocate for themselves. Our research, based on qualitative interviews with tenants, examines the constraints on tenants’ agency and their impact on the ability of tenants to advocate for themselves. Our research finds that tenants’ agency is constrained by insecurity, which is in turn embedded in the legislative and market contexts. Three principle constraints can be identified: fear of conflict, fear of loss of tenancy and market context.

Tenants fear conflict with their landlord per se. In the Irish rental sector, the majority of landlords are non-professional landlords and the relationship between landlord and tenant is typically informal. Conflicts between landlords and tenants are often messy, emotional and heated. One interviewee noted:

I’m nervous of [my landlord] knocking on the door and what he’s going to do… I just don’t know how nasty it’s going to get.

The experience of conflict has an immediate impact on tenants experience of ‘home’ by undermining feelings of safety and security. One interviewee, when asked if she felt at home in her current accommodation following the outbreak of conflict with her landlord answered:

No, definitely not. No, we just go there to put our head down basically… it’s not home.

Tenants fear that conflict may lead to loss of tenancy due to retaliatory behaviour on the part of landlords. The fear of losing their home represents the single most significant constraint on tenants’ agency:

So I had to put up with that because… if you complain too much then you’re out [of the property].

Under Irish law, tenancies can be terminated by landlords under certain circumstances. In addition to rent arrears, these include because the landlord intends to sell, refurbish or use the property. However, because these grounds for termination relate to landlords’ intentions, tenants feel they have little recourse to challenge them. As one tenant noted:

[I]f a landlord is determined to sell his property he will do what it is in his power or in her power to do that, you know … So nothing can stop him.

Although the penalization of tenants and retaliatory evictions are prohibited under Irish legislation, this was in fact a common experience among our interviewees, up to and including illegal eviction (see also Shelter Cymru, 2013).

Experiences of insecurity also play out in a market context. In Ireland’s extremely tight rental market tenants feel ‘easily replaceable’ and believe finding an alternative property will be extremely difficult. Tenants reported ‘literally begging’ to be housed. The market context intensifies tenants’ dependence on their current landlord, thus magnifying fears of loss of tenancy. These concerns are particularly acute for tenants who experience discrimination. Tenants with children and rent subsidy recipients are the two groups which feel most disadvantaged in finding rental accommodation.

Our analysis supports recent advances in how we conceptualise security in the PRS, by emphasising that security is experienced across multiple dimensions and domains (see Hulse & Milligan, 2014). In addition, our findings suggest that the landlord-tenant relationship is central to security of tenure and to the issues of enforcement and compliance. While insecurity is a function of the legislative and market context, tenants experience insecurity in the context of their relationship with their landlord. Tenants, for example, attempt to anticipate landlords reactions in order to avoid conflict. Ultimately, the landlord controls the tenants ongoing access to their home. This is a key factor in undermining tenants experience of security and ability to advocate for themselves (see also Chisholm et al., 2020; Lister, 2004).

The report sets out two key recommendations. The first is to strengthen security of tenure. Strengthening security of tenure can not only enhance tenants experience of housing, it can also empower tenants to advocate for themselves thus contributing to more effective policy implementation and enforcement. Second, policy for the PRS should be designed in a manner which recognises the fundamental power asymmetry between landlord and tenant. The current understanding of the tenancy relationship in Irish legislation and policy understands landlord and tenant as equal parties in a contractual relationship in which each has rights and obligations. A more sociologically informed understanding of the landlord-tenant relationship provides a more accurate understanding of the reality of the tenancy relationship and policy which incorporates this understanding is more likely to be effective.

Dr Michael Byrne is a lecturer in political economy for the School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice, University College Dublin.

Views expressed by authors may not represent the views of CaCHE.

 


References

Ahrens, A., Martinez-Cillero, M., & O’Toole, C. (2019). Trends in rental price inflation and the introduction of rent pressure zones in Ireland.

Chisholm, E., Howden-Chapman, P., & Fougere, G. (2020). Tenants’ responses to substandard housing: hidden and invisible power and the failure of rental housing regulation. Housing, Theory and Society, 37(2), 139–161.

Hulse, K., & Milligan, V. (2014). Secure occupancy: A new framework for analysing security in rental housing. Housing Studies, 29(5), 638–656.

Lister, D. (2004). Young people’s strategies for managing tenancy relationships in the private rented sector. Journal of Youth Studies, 7(3), 315–330.

Shelter Cymru. (2013). Making rights real: Preventing retaliatory evictions in Wales. Shelter Cymru

 
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Date: July 29, 2020 11:42 am

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