Thursday 24 January 2013
I congratulate the Minister of State on the Bill. I agree with Deputy Nolan that we are just tinkering at the edges. We need to consider how we manage, enforce and co-ordinate legislation on rented properties and I support his call for a task force. There are housing estates in vast areas of Cork city with no owner-occupier and just rented accommodation or there might be a single owner-occupier in a row of houses with the rest being rented. That does not lend itself to the development of community through a proper mix of housing. That approach needs to be taken now. How we view housing is changing. There is now a generation of Irish people – unfortunately, perhaps – who might now regard themselves as being committed to a life of renting as opposed to looking forward to buying or owning their own property. That is why we need to review our approach to housing. That should be our fundamental starting point.
Undoubtedly, the landlord and tenant need to live up to their responsibilities and duties in unison. While the main focus of the Bill is on the private-rented sector, particularly the role of the landlord, it is important that we recognise that the majority of landlords and tenants are decent people, both living in mutual co-operation and respect. However, there is the minority and there are those who, for whatever reason, do not live up to their responsibility. Our landscape has changed and our expectations regarding the type of dwelling – be it an apartment or house – have changed. We should never be allowed to compromise that expectation on the tenant’s part. Equally, the tenant also has a duty.
I acknowledge the difficulties that the PRTB encounters. I have been a party to hearings with the PRTB and have found the work of staff dealing with investigations very comprehensive.
While waiting times for hearings are lengthy and people do not often get the outcomes they want and are disappointed on other occasions, the PRTB makes decisive judgments. While I am often critical of the board, it provides a service and is an important part of our housing agencies.
I welcome the decision of the PRTB in the Bishopscourt residents’ case. It is important to put on the record of the House what happened in this regard. Residents alleged that the occupants, or their associates and visitors, of two rented properties engaged in persistent anti-social behaviour, including street brawls, late night parties, recklessly driving souped-up cars, theft from neighbouring houses and drinking and urinating in public, which is activity all of us in this House would condemn out of hand. Having complained to the landlord, whose response was not in their view satisfactory, the residents made a complaint to the PRTB. This was the second time they had taken up the matter with the PRTB.
The residents based their complaint on three subsections of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004, namely, section 15(1) under which a landlord, as the designated owner of a property, has a duty to enforce tenancy arrangements, section 15(2) which states, “would be … adversely affected by a failure to enforce an obligation of the tenant were such a failure to occur and includes any other tenant under the tenancy involved in that subsection”, and section 16(h), which states in regard to the role of the tenant, “not behave within the dwelling, or in the vicinity of it, in a way that is anti-social”. These provisions armed the residents in demonstrating to the PRTB that the landlord, in failing to tackle anti-social behaviour, was in breach of his duties to them. Following two hearings by the PRTB, it was established that the residents had “clear, credible and compelling evidence of the affect the anti-social behaviour had on them and their families.” They were able to show through the use of this legislation that their quality of life was being greatly affected and that the anti-social behaviour was particularly stressful, frightening and upsetting for older people.
The PRTB also found that the landlord was in breach of his duty to the residents who suffered inconvenience, loss, stress, distress and upset and that their entitlement to peaceful enjoyment of their dwellings was adversely affected. This shows how effective legislation can be. There is an obligation on landlords and tenants to respect the rights of their neighbours and to not behave in an anti-social manner. I pay tribute to the residents association in Bishopscourt who demonstrated that the landlord and his tenants were in breach of the legislation. To its credit, the PRTB enforced payment of a fine of €29,500 to the residents, one of the largest amounts ever awarded by it.
I would now like to draw the attention of the Minister of State, Deputy O’Sullivan, to a model which I hope she, in conjunction with the Minister for Education and Skills, will look at in the context of students, student accommodation and student behaviour. This model, which is a register of landlords and tenants, is operated by University College Cork, and should, I believe, be introduced throughout the country. In this regard, there is joined-up thinking between the students union, college authorities, Garda Síochána, local residents and landlords. When a complaint is made, representatives of the college and students union visit the students residing in the property which was the subject of that complaint and make contact with the landlord. A property in respect of which persistent problems arise and which problems the landlord fails to deal with can be removed from the register by the college. There are regular meetings between the college, students, local residents and the Garda. These meetings are action-orientated. The college and Garda respond to each complaint and requests by residents. There is also strong community policing in this area through Mr. Ken O’Connell, the community garda, landlords and the residents association, all of whom deserve great praise.
The college has bought into this idea and keeps excellent records of complaints and so on. It also has in place a good process in terms of managing complaints, although some do manage to slip through. As my constituency office is located in that area, I hear all sides of the argument from landlords, tenants and residents. This is an example of a voluntary code of conduct that is working well. The University College Cork guide to renting accommodation states that anti-social behaviour on the part of UCC students is a serious breach of student rules and a complaint can be referred through formal student discipline procedures to UCC as detailed in student rules. I would also like to put on the record my appreciation of the role of the UCC students union. Next Tuesday, Cork Institute of Technology, CIT, will hold a coffee morning for local residents to demonstrate that students living in rented accommodation and residents can live and interact in a mutually respectful way.
After eight years, there are still difficulties with the PRTB. The radical reform promised has not yet taken place. Dispute resolution is slow, often delaying landlords obtaining overdue rent and making it difficult for them to end troublesome tenancies and causing delays for tenants experiencing difficulties in having their cases processed. Tenants who continue to live in a property in respect of which a dispute arises are often vulnerable. It is important there is a further review of the housing market. I welcome that the Minister of State has undertaken to review the deposit protection scheme, which was the topic of discussion during a meeting I had earlier this week with landlords from Cork, who are good landlords.
I welcome the Bill and congratulate the Minister of State on her initiative. I look forward to further dialogue with her on this issue.