When Working on Housing Issues, Finding the Owner Is Often the First Challenge

Since 40 people were forced to move out of two overcrowded houses on Summerhill Parade earlier this month following inspections by Dublin Fire Brigade, Michelle Connolly has been trying to track down their landlord.

Connolly, a member of Dublin Central Housing Action (DCHA), a group that helps those affected by the housing crisis, says tenants are often in the dark about their landlord’s identity.

DCHA is trying to help the tenants file cases with the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB), which adjudicates disputes between tenants and their landlords, says Connolly.

But without knowing who owns the property, they’re not sure what to write down on the forms. “That’s something we’re struggling with in this case,” she says.

Between the Cracks

Not knowing the landlord’s identity is particularly common among migrants in overcrowded situations, says Connolly. “It seems to happen all the time.”

“They don’t have much option but to go in with a bunch of other people sharing a room that they found on something like Facebook,” she says.

The last registered owner of 37 and 38 Summerhill Parade, according to the most recent Registry of Deeds records, is Des Kelly Carpets Ltd. The documents showed the company owning 37 as recently as 2011, and 38 as recently as 1999.

Both houses were sold for €360,000 on 22 December 2016, according to the Property Services Regulatory Authority’s Residential Property Price Register. But the website doesn’t say who they were sold to.

There are two ways main ways of determining land ownership in Ireland. Both services come under the auspices of the Property Registration Authority of Ireland (PRAI).

One is the Land Registry, the purpose of which is to register a person’s legal right to a property. The second is the Registry of Deeds, where title deeds to a property are registered.

The Property Registration Authority had not responded by the time this was published to queries sent Friday asking how long after a sale a new owner has to register their ownership with the Land Registry.

Connolly says she has been told by the Land Registry that there is a backlog in registering new deeds, which, she says, doesn’t help when trying establish ownership and a landlord’s identity.

As it stands, says Connolly, with the many issues affecting the rental market, “this probably seems like small fry but actually, now, it has been highlighted. Maybe someone should do something about it.”

Who’s the Owner?

It’s not only activist groups that can find it hard to work out who owns a property. Dublin City Council also sometimes finds it hard to pin down who owns a property when working on its vacant sites register.

Each case is different, a council spokesperson said by email. “However, in the simplest of terms, if it is registered in the Land Registry, it is easier than if it is unregistered land,” they said.

There are no cases, so far, where the council has been unable to add properties to the register because it cannot determine ownership, the spokesperson said.

However, enquiries are ongoing to establish ownership “on the difficult cases”, they added. These include cases where “probate is an issue, liquidated companies, commercially sensitive cases involving NAMA”.

In 2011, it became mandatory for purchasers to register their new ownership – but, of course, that only affects land that changes hands. Would it not help to have mandatory registration of ownership for all properties?

The Land Registry “can’t cope with changes since 2011”, the council spokesperson said. It already has a “huge backlog and putting further pressure on it wouldn’t help matters”, they said. “However, a possible solution might be to introduce legislation to simplify the process.”

The challenge of determining property ownership has been a long-running problem for Peter McVerry Trust as it tries to bring derelict and vacant buildings across the city back into use as homes, says Francis Doherty, head of communications.

For some such properties, there is no trace or record of any description that they can find. Others have a very old registration, or an incomplete registration. For others,  they have “only the solicitor involved in the transaction”.

Of the older empty homes, “most were empty prior to 2011” and haven’t been sold or registered since it became mandatory to do so.

Some aren’t loaded up onto the Property Registration Authority’s Landdirect.ie website, so someone has to go to King’s Inns to check agency’s microfilm records there.

That is possible for those in Dublin. But groups outside of Dublin – he mentions volunteer and community groups in Limerick – may not have the time. “They are not able to go to Dublin to find out on a microfilm.”

“The lack of information on the ownership side takes up most of our energy and time,” says Doherty.

Peter McVerry Trust often writes to the solicitor mentioned in a record, asking them if they will forward correspondence to the owner – if they’re still in touch with them. Some will say they don’t have records any more of who the owner is, while others might forward it on.

“We don’t get a lot of replies,” says Doherty. “It’s really really difficult.”

The Collectors

Under the Residential Tenancies Acts 2004–16, a landlord is obliged to provide the means for a tenant to contact them or provide contact details for an agent acting on their behalf, according to spokesperson for the Department of Housing.

A landlord is also obliged to register a tenancy with the RTB within a month of a new tenant moving in, and this registration should include the landlord’s name, address for correspondence and PPS number, or provide the same details for an agent acting on their behalf, the spokesperson added.

“For data-protection reasons, the names of landlords and tenants are not published on the RTB’s public register of tenancies,” the department spokesperson said.

Connolly of Dublin Central Housing Action says that in many cases she has dealt with, though, these agents, who act on behalf of the landlord and who collect rent from tenants “are considered by the people living there to be the de-facto landlord”, she says.

In the case of Summerhill Parade, there was more than one agent acting on behalf of the landlord.

The Search

Connolly says there are various steps DCHA usually takes to try to track down a landlord if it’s unclear who owns a property. These might include looking through planning permissions and checking the Land RegistryRegistry of Deeds, and Property Price Register.

Summerhill Parade has proved a particularly tricky case, she says. “Generally you’d hope the tenants know.”

A landlord has an obligation to provide the RTB an address for correspondence. But the RTB also “would encourage tenants at the start of the tenancy to request these particulars in the event that such disputes arise”, said an RTB spokesperson, by email.

Where a tenant does not know their landlord’s identity, and submits a case against them to the RTB, the RTB “will use all avenues available to it to attempt to locate the landlord’s details to enable the application to proceed”, said the spokesperson..

This includes using information from other state bodies – like the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection – as well as the RTB’s own internal database.

Said the spokesperson: “We also use public information such as the Land Registry, the Vision-Net Database (a database of Irish Companies and Directors) and other internet sources.”

But it would be a lot easier if property ownership was available in a public database, says Doherty, of Peter McVerry Trust. “It’s in the public interest, the common good.”

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Cónal Thomas: Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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