Some tenants in Dublin are living in deplorable conditions while waiting to get their rental homes inspected by the council, says Peter Dooley, a founder of Dublin Renters Union.
In May 2020, Dublin City Council switched how it inspects rental properties across the city, the first step it takes in forcing landlords to get buildings up to code. It moved from in-person inspections to a new “virtual” process.
Dooley says that system is not effective. Now that most services are back up and running he wants to know when the council will get back to physically inspecting properties.
Several tenants he represents want the council to do physical inspections of their homes, he says.
One has desperately bad damp in his bedroom so has been kipping down in the living room, says Dooley. “He hasn’t been able to sleep in the bedroom for the last year.”
That tenant wants a real-life physical inspection, says Dooley. “He wanted to show the people what was going on.”
So far this year Dublin City Council has carried out 1,044 virtual inspections, says a Dublin City Council spokesperson. (And none in-person.)
There were 72,817 rental tenancies in the city in 2019, according to a reportby the National Oversight and Audit Commission (NOAC) – so it’s just a small percentage of those.
But the council spokesperson said that virtual inspections have worked well and the council has succeeded in bringing 938 properties into compliance, including some that were originally inspected in previous years.
“Dublin City Council are currently preparing to return to physical inspections which will be undertaken in parallel with the continuance of some virtual inspection,” he says.
How the System Works
In 2019, Dublin City Council did 5,606 inspections of rental properties, according to a report for that year from the NOAC.
In 2020, amid the pandemic, the council carried out 3,020 inspections – of which 1,794 were physical inspections and 1,226 virtual, according to a letter from Dublin City Council to the Department of Housing.
Most of those (1,823) were inspections that the council does of rental homes when tenants join rent subsidy schemes, the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) and the Rental Assistance Payment (RAS).
Meanwhile, 447 inspections were carried out in response to complaints, says an inspection report included in correspondence between the council and department.
Under the virtual-inspections process, the council sends a checklist to the landlord to complete. An environmental-health officer then assesses the property based on that, and by talking to tenants.
Virtual inspections rely on photographic evidence but wouldn’t capture the smell of dampness, for example, says Dooley.
Dooley says he wonders how the council staff know that the photos the landlord submits are even taken in the property in question.
A spokesperson for the council said the landlord sends in the photographs that the environmental-health officer reviews and they also engage and cross-reference with the tenant in the property.
“So if the photographs were not from the property in question it would become apparent,” says the spokesperson.
If the complainant is not satisfied, or if the landlord doesn’t engage in the process, then the tenant can request a physical inspection to happen once the public-health guidelines allow, says the spokesperson.
According to correspondence with the council from February 2021, officials in the Department of Housing suggested that the checklist that is sent to landlords should also be shared with tenants for verification.
Council staff said that its legal advice was that it wasn’t the tenants’ responsibility to assess properties. Instead, the environmental-health officer checks in with tenants verbally, it says.
Fiona McElree says council workers in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council area, where she lives, recently carried out a “virtual inspection” of her rental home.
“I was very happy with the entire process, which was relatively non-intrusive but at the same time made me feel that someone was looking out for my interests,” says McElree, who is on the housing assistance payment (HAP) scheme.
The letting agent asked McElree to take photos of the property, which she did, and to verify that there were smoke alarms and a fire blanket.
The fire-safety items were missing, says McElree, so the letting agent arranged for those to be fitted and for the gas boiler to be serviced.
Afterward, she was phoned by somebody in the HAP section of the council, she says. “To make sure that I was happy with the property and that there were no outstanding problems.”
One difference between physical and virtual inspections is the follow-up measures that are possible, when properties are found not to be in compliance.
The council cannot currently issue official “improvement notices” based on the results of virtual inspections, says the spokesperson. It has issued “virtual improvement notices”, an earlier response from the council said.
An improvement notice sets out the works that the landlord must carry out to remedy a breach of the regulations.
If the landlord doesn’t do the work, the council can issue a prohibition notice, which means the landlord cannot rent the property again once existing tenants leave until it has fixed all the problems.
Tenants who believe their living conditions are below minimum standards can also file disputes with the Residential Tenancies Board.
Is It Working?
There’s been no process yet to check whether or not virtual inspections are capturing the conditions of properties as effectively as physical inspections.
Once public-health guidelines allow, Dublin City Council will go back and physically inspect 15 percent of the homes that have been virtually inspected, to check if the information provided was accurate, said a council spokesperson.
“If the properties are found to be non-compliant with the standards legislation then immediate enforcement action will be taken including the serving of improvement notices and/or instituting legal action,” he says.
Dooley says the tenant he is representing with severe dampness in the bedroom has been trying to get a physical inspection for a year, he says, and needs evidence for a case at the Residential Tenancies Board.
Private rental inspections should be classed as essential work, Dooley says. “You need to show people what the condition of the place really is. It is very hard to see it in a photograph,” he says.
Tenants want to know when the council will resume doing physical inspections, says Dooley.
“They are not even giving a timeframe for when they are back up and running – but most other things are back,” he says.