Genna Patterson and Kevin Murray were both suspicious about would happen after they moved out.
So they kept an eye on websites which list rentals. Then a friend sent a link to a page that showed their former apartment, a ground-floor flat with one bedroom on leafy Garville Road in Rathgar, was now going for €1,950 a month.
That was 50 percent more than the €1,300 the couple had been paying.
They could have shrugged it off. By then, they had packed up and closed the door behind them in August 2017, and exited the city to live with Patterson’s family in Wicklow.
But the rent hike made Patterson indignant. She wrote to the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB) to tell them the rent seemed to have gone up by €650 a month.
“We didn’t want people to be caught out by having to pay over the odds than what we paid,” says Murray. “We were trying to keep on top of it, and help out wherever we could, I guess.”
The RTB sent back a form to fill in – which she did with some evidence: the screenshot of the post, her lease, and texts of an earlier exchange over rent.
“We confirm that we will actively pursue the Landlord in question,” wrote the enforcement section on 6 November 2017.
She got a follow-up email the next day. “The onus is on the new tenants to lodge a dispute if they believe the Landlord increase the rent higher than 4% having regard to the formula,” it says.
Putting the onus on sitting tenants to complain, even though she had sent in details was frustrating for Patterson. “If I see a murder, do I have to be related to the victim to report it?”
When one of the owners of the property, Marie Ryan, had tried to raise the rent by a lesser amount while Patterson and Murray were still tenants, she said in texts at the time that as there had been “extensive works completed, this is an allowable increase”.
But Ryan had not responded by the time this was published to a call and texts asking to talk about the larger rent increase, after they moved out.
Across the city, the law is that maximum rent increases should be no more than 4 percent a year, in most cases. Yet rents are rising faster than that.
In December 2016, then Minister for Housing Simon Coveney capped rent increases for Dublin and other parts of the country with fast-rising rents – unless there has been a “substantial change” to the home, the property is new, or it has been empty for two years.
According to Daft.ie, average rents have risen in the last year by 13.8 percent in the city centre, 11.5 percent in the south of the city, and by 13.4 percent in the north of the city.
In Dublin 6 which takes in Rathgar, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment was €1,665, up 10.5 percent from a year ago, the report issued earlier this month found.
While some owners may say they have to raise rents to recoup the costs of improvements, Patterson sees another culprit: lax enforcement.
“The government brought in this cap to prevent rental increases and no one is doing anything about it at all,” she says.
The Rathgar flat and its skyrocketing rent also illustrates the difficulties in challenging rent increases, and raises questions around who is allowed to challenge rent increases, and whether it should be made easier for tenants to do so.
Daniel Derenda and his three friends needed a stop-gap when, days before they were supposed to move into a different house in the city centre, that lease fell through.
They found, through the landlord, the flat that Patterson and Murray had vacated a few weeks earlier, and squeezed in two bunk beds, figuring the place would do until they found somewhere larger.
In early September, they signed a lease and agreed to pay €1,900 a month.
Derenda didn’t know what the tenants before them – Patterson and Murray – had been paying and only found out later that it was less. “We didn’t think of asking that at all,” he says.
He and his fellow students didn’t stay long in the apartment, partly because of the crowding. “We just decided it was too much for us, so we had to leave,” he said.
After texting a month’s notice in early October, Derenda and his friends got into a dispute with the landlord over the deposit and ended up at a hearing at the RTB.
In preparation, Derenda reached out to Patterson, who had left a forwarding address. She highlighted the rent increase, he says.
“It turns out there was a huge disparity in the amounts that we were being asked to pay,” said Derenda.
He flagged the rent issue with the RTB during the hearing, he says, but the four students had already moved on by then and he hasn’t heard anything since. “We did draw that to their attention.”
He didn’t push it though because they were more focused on getting the deposit back, he says. “We weren’t really thinking about the inequity of what had happened.”
Doing It Up?
Landlords can increase the rent by more than 4 percent if they make “substantial changes” to a property.
In November last year, the Residential Tenancies Board put out advice on what counts as a “substantial change”. Works that are part of ongoing upkeep, or to bring a home up to minimum standards, in general don’t count, it says.
So, replacing furniture or carpets or appliances is unlikely to qualify, while an extra bedroom, or an extension, likely would. “The works must be out of the ordinary and not usual works,” it says.
Derenda says there did seem to have been some work done between when Patterson moved out in late August, and they moved in in early September. “There was a new carpet put in, and painting was done,” he says. “But that was the extent of it.”
Murray said he looked at Derenda’s photos of the apartment, and didn’t spot that much substantial had changed since he and Patterson lived there.
Marie Ryan didn’t respond to texts asking to talk about the rent increase.
Patterson’s complaint about the higher rent advertised for the next tenants at the flat in Rathgar didn’t end the way she hoped.
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said that “the RTB do not have jurisdiction to hear a case lodged by a previous tenant in relation to the rent a new tenant is paying”.
But if it’s up to sitting tenants, they’re vulnerable, and unlikely to jeopardise getting an apartment they’re offered by challenging it themselves, says Patterson. “Once I get a place, I’m not going to start questioning.”
Also, many tenants don’t look back once they’ve moved on. Brendan Meskell came across a posting for his old room back in 2015 – which he had left because the property managers said they were refurbishing – and the rent had jumped from €1,400 to €1950, he says.
It was hard to tell from photos, but it looked as if some work had been done but not loads. “I was pretty dumbfounded really. All I could think of was just to laugh at it.”
He didn’t reach out to the new tenants, though. “I never even thought of that. I was actually so weary and tired by it,” he says.
The Department of Housing spokesperson said that landlords have to tell new tenants what the previous tenant was paying in rent. (Derenda says he wasn’t told.)
But while honest landlords will be honest, there’s really no way for tenants to check unless they are in contact with a previous tenant, says Gavin Elliott, the legal officer with the housing charity Threshold.
It’s a perennial issue that the RTB will only accept disputes from sitting tenants unless the case relates to an “illegal eviction”, says Elliott.
“It’s not proposed that it would change,” he says, and if a tenant has a suspicion that they are paying more than a previous tenant, they still have to prove that.
In September 2017, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy said he planned to bring in changes to strengthen rent-review laws, and give the RTB more teeth for enforcement.
The government is drafting the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Bill at the moment, said the spokesperson for the Department of Housing.
The department also has plans for a public rent register that “will improve transparency of rental price data, and allow renters to assess prevailing rent levels in an area”, the spokesperson said.
But knowing the average rent in an area won’t help when two identical apartments in the same block can lawfully demand vastly different rents, says Elliott. “It doesn’t really help you a lot just to know what your neighbour is paying.”
People may take speculative cases as a way of putting the onus on the landlord to demonstrate that rates are legal, he says. That risks clogging up the system.
Indications are that the RTB may get powers to investigate as the board evolves from a dispute mediator to a regulator – which would be welcome, says Elliott.
But it’s hard to say at the moment what that means because there’s little detail as to what will be in the bill, he says. “So we’re not at all clear exactly on what is proposed.”
The Department of Housing spokesperson said measures being looking at would mean a landlord would have to tell the RTB of any exemption from rent-increase limits and the RTB could take enforcement action if required.
This should reform the rent-pressure zone to deliver a “more effective and transparent approach to its operation”, the spokesperson said.
Patterson says that big rent increases in the meantime are having lasting effects. “Preventing renters from ever saving for their own place, having a decent life-style, or indeed living somewhere nice on a reasonable salary,” she says.
It’s unclear what the current tenants in her old apartment in Rathgar are paying.