Chris Lynch and his wife made a mistake.
Soon after they signed the lease on their new apartment, they started to face problems. “It was so damp and cold that our daughter was walking around in her outdoor clothes inside,” says Lynch. “The kitchen amenities, not all of them were working well.”
Lynch said they would reach out to the landlord and it would take ages for them to get back, and even longer to get anything fixed.
The previous tenants, when Lynch and his wife managed to make contact, said they hadn’t been able to raise a child in the apartment either. That’s why they’d moved.
If Lynch and his wife had known what the flat was really like before signing their lease, they’d have looked elsewhere, he says.
It was an experience that led Lynch out onto Dublin’s streets to chat with fellow renters, where he found others with similar experiences.
It got him thinking, and in late November, Lynch launched DwellDown, a website that gathers information from renters in the city about the quality and their homes.
He says it’ll be like TripAdvisor for Dublin’s rental market, and he hopes that it will help give renters more power in what he sees as a landlord’s city.
A Bit of Sunshine
DwellDown is still in its infancy, but Lynch hopes more and more renters will make use of it.
“It could help bring up the quality of accommodation,” he says. “Obviously there’s different things you’re looking for in terms of what you’re renting. Whether it’s safety or the upkeep of an apartment, the more stuff that’s brought to light the better it is for everyone involved.”
DwellDown is, for now, a renters’ survey.
You enter your address and then rate – on a scale that runs from 1 to 10 – the overall quality of a number of features, such as the overall comfort of the home or the quality of communication with your landlord.
Once enough renters have been surveyed, Lynch plans to move on to the next stage of the project: throwing it open as a rental database.
“By bringing transparency, it will help produce more quality for accommodation,” he says. “The good landlords will rise to the top and the ones that aren’t keeping up will fall at the bottom and hopefully we could drive that rent down.”
With short supply and a high demand for rental properties, Lynch says a renters’ database may not solve all the problems. What it could do, though, is democratise the marketplace, and that includes bringing landlords on board.
The platform will, it is planned, have ratings and feedback from tenants, and a response box where landlords can have their say. “I’m not worried about breaking any law or slandering,” he says.
A site like DwellDown is a good idea, says Mick Byrne of the Dublin Tenants Association.
Tenants are often forced to make decisions quickly about whether or not to move in somewhere, and there’s long been a lack of transparency in the rental sector, he says.
But the rental sector is not a level playing field, and policy changes will be fundamental to improving the sector for tenants, says Byrne.
“Nearly everybody in the rental sector is on a low-to-moderate income. There are very few high earners in the sector,” he says. “I would say for the majority of tenants this won’t significantly change their level of empowerment within the sector.”
A democratic, consumer-led process won’t be effective until the overall regulatory framework is altered, says Byrne.
“That’s pretty fundamental,” he says. “Somebody’s going to end up in the crap accommodation with brutal landlords and it’s going to be people on the lowest income.”
But to the extent that some tenants have choice, a site like DwellDown could help, and it could also help to bring more visibility to problems in the sector. “If you found, for example, that a lot of the properties listed are getting negative responses from tenants, then that’s hopefully something people could use to lobby for policy change,” he said.
It may force some landlords to raise their game too, says Byrne.
For Lynch, DwellDown is as much about transparency as anything else.
He says that, in a way, it’s a bit like S.M.A.R.T. Housing, a programme in Austin, Texas that was established to help students there rent lower-than-market-price accommodation.
But while S.M.A.R.T. Housing involved the city of Austin incentivising developers to include affordable housing in their projects by offering them fee waivers and fast-tracking development reviews, Lynch hopes DwellDown can drive down rents simply through transparency.
“I think it will help people by bringing things that were formerly in the shadows into light, setting expectations for the rent that you’ll be paying,” he says. “It’s so there’s no surprises out there, that you can uncover enough truth about the living experience versus the rent being paid.”