A Dublin Man Battles Against One of the City’s New Leviathan Corporate Landlords

Leonardo De Oliveira Lima would usually use a fob.

But just to demonstrate, on 19 January, he stepped up to one of the doors to his apartment complex on Thornleigh Row in Applewood Village in Swords, slid his hand behind the pull-handle and gave it a tug.

The door squeaked. He pulled again and it jolted open. “See how kids get inside?” he says.

There used to be a stronger lock halfway up the door frame, but now a single magnet lock at the top of the frame holds the door shut, says De Oliveira Lima. “That one is not strong.”

To the left of the door, buzzers on the intercom are decorated with scribbled notes. “Call my number,” says one. “Not working ring on the phone,” says another.

Through the open door is a short corridor with a door at the end to the left, beyond which at the foot of a stairwell, a warm radiator has been half-ripped from the wall, cardboard stuffed in behind it.

In November 2020, De Oliveira Lima filed a complaint with the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB). Security and maintenance in his complex of 35 homes had deteriorated since January, he said.

The properties had been sold in January 2020 to Jersia Limited, one of 13 Cypriot subsidiaries with hundreds of rentals across the city, all owned by LRC RE-1, a Luxembourg-registered fund managed by LRC Group, which has become one of Ireland’s biggest landlords.

When the RTB tribunal hearing came around in June 2021, De Oliveira Lima complained of the intercom not working, the sensors on the lift door malfunctioning, his car being vandalised, people congregating in the underground car park, where a man was also living in a former security hut with piles of rubbish all around, dirty common areas, and teenagers breaking in – and at one point threatening him and his son with a metal bar – because the complex doors were easy to open.

Leonardo de Oliveira Lima. Photo by Lois Kapila.

On 14 June 2021, an RTB tribunal ruled that the landlord had breached its obligations, in not allowing the tenants peaceful occupation of the dwelling and failing to maintain the dwelling in the condition it was at the start of the tenancy.

The landlord should pay €5,139.11 in damages to De Oliveira Lima and his partner within 28 days, said the RTB’s order.

Some fixes have since been made. The lifts have been up and running and the man living in the underground car park is gone, and piles of rubbish cleared. Some chipped floor tiles have been repaired and big mushrooms scraped off the car park wall.

But De Oliveira Lima waited to hear from the representatives of Jersia Limited, he says, about the damages he was owed, and for the building to be made secure and the common areas given a good wash and clean.

He’s still waiting, he says. “They never contacted me. They never answer my calls.”

A June 2020 report for the housing charity Threshold noted concerns that the rental laws don’t do enough to recognise the asymmetry of power between landlords and tenants who – even with some recent changes – are largely responsible for pursuing any enforcement in rental standards themselves.

While big company landlords currently control a small percentage of the city’s rental market, that concentration is expected to accelerate, and with it, the gap between the resources and capacity of tenants such as De Oliveira Lima trying to press their cases, and those of the multinational multi-million-euro funds they rely on for their homes.

Representatives of LRC Group, and property managers, didn’t respond to queries sent by email at the end of January, or phone reminders earlier this week.

At the RTB

De Oliveira Lima’s main complaints are about the common areas.

In apartment blocks where homes are owned by lots of different landlords, there’s usually an owners’ management company (OMC) responsible for the management and maintenance of common areas, says Gavin Elliott, a legal officer with Threshold.

A landlord can ask the OMC to carry out works, he says, but they have no real power to make it take action and some OMCs don’t have the resources to do so.

But “if there is only one owner, then they are the landlord, the responsibility lies with them”, said Elliott.

In June 2021, Rory Forde of Bloomford Property Management, acting as the landlord’s representative, told the RTB tribunal that landlord Jersia Limited had bought 21 of the 48 apartments in this phase of the complex in April 2020.

Forde blamed problems in common areas on an old property management company which, he said, the landlord had inherited and struggled to change.

“This was difficult because the management company was linked to the old owner of the apartments, who still retained ownership of the remaining apartments in this phase of the development,” the RTB report said Forde had told the tribunal.

But company documents suggest a different story. LRC Group’s 2019 accounts say it “acquired Applewood, located in Swords, Dublin” earlier, on 29 January 2020, which matches the property price register.

And a list tacked on to a letter written by lawyers Byrne Wallace shows Jersia Limited bought all 35 apartments in the complex. (It also lists a retail unit and 12 apartments scattered elsewhere in the neighbourhood, bringing the total up to 48 properties.

Forde told the RTB tribunal that changing the management company had taken time, but had been done six weeks earlier. “And that the owner was not responsible to the tenant for failings in the common areas,” the RTB report says.

For a while, the management company responsible for common areas was Purple Property Management, tenants say, but it’s unclear for how long that was.

Paul Murray, the head of Purple Property Management said: “We managed that site for a short time, there was existing issues with the development.” It was for about six months, he said, but couldn’t say the exact dates and wouldn’t talk more.

The RTB tribunal found that the landlord was responsible.

The landlord hadn’t made a reasonable effort to remedy the issue, and hadn’t taken the steps it could under the Multi-Unit Development Act 2011 to enforce maintenance of common areas, it ruled. “Instead, the Management company was changed after almost 14 months,” it said.

“In the meantime, there was no secure parking, no working intercom, no or very limited lift access for 6 months and no maintenance being done to the fixtures and fittings of the common areas, with vandalised walls and floors in disrepair,” says the RTB report.

Photo from October 2021 taken by Leonardo de Oliveira Lima of some of the rubbish, that was later cleared, in the underground car park.

Neither Forde of Bloomford Properties, nor representatives of LRC Group, responded to queries about why they told the RTB that they only owned 21 of the apartments in the complex from April, rather than all of them from January.

They didn’t respond to queries about how if they own all the homes in De Oliveira Lima’s complex, they weren’t able to change management company earlier if that was needed.

An RTB spokesperson, speaking generally, said it is an offence under section 113 of the Residential Tenancies Act to knowingly provide a statement of information which is false or misleading to an adjudicator, tribunal or the RTB.

As it is a criminal offence, a criminal standard of proof applies, they said. “Any matter complained of must be proved beyond all reasonable doubt.”

If alleged misleading information is presented during a tribunal, it should be flagged with the panel to deal with during the hearing, they said. “The case party also has the option to submit their query to the RTB if it only becomes clear to the parties after the case has concluded.”

It’s up to the RTB’s board to decide whether to prosecute a claim before the courts, they said. To date, they have never done that under section 113, said the spokesperson.

An email shows that De Oliveira Lima flagged his concerns about the accuracy of testimony around whether Jersia Limited owned all the homes with the RTB in August 2021 with the RTB.

Still Issues

In May 2021, a sign was posted up in the Applewood complex corridors to say that Greendoor Property Management would now be responsible for common areas.

In October 2021, tenants got an email that Home Club would now be responsible for property management, replacing Bloomford Property Management. Tenants now write to Home Club when they’ve issues inside their apartments, they say, but get some correspondence about external areas from Home Club too.

On 19 January 2022, De Oliveira Lima stooped down towards the grubby blue carpet on the stairs on his wing of the apartment complex.

“This is the mark of cigarettes,” he said, jabbing a finger at the black smudges on the floor. “It’s cigarettes, cigarettes, cigarettes.”

Teenagers still break in to hang out and smoke in the stairwell, he says. They sometimes leave obscene graffiti, which Lima has rushed to paint over before his six-year-old son can ask him what it is.

The carpets are dirty too. When Gannon Homes owned the complex before January 2020, cleaners would be in each week for the common areas, said Aivaras Pocius, who also lives in the complex. “The windows, hoovered it, everything, the tiles.”

The carpets would be washed regularly, he says.

On 13 January, he sent an email to Greendoor Property Management asking if they were going to wash the carpets given it had been almost two years.

Workers had traipsed through to refurbish two apartments near him and he thought the carpets might see some love, says Pocius. “They get more dirty.”

On 18 January, he got a response from Greendoor Property Management.

“The carpets were unfortunately vandalised over time and again there is a large expense in replacing them,” it said, “and unfortunately there appear to have been a number of items not maintained by the previous owners so it will be sometime before many things can be upgraded.”

Photos of dirty carpets that were attached to an email sent by Aivaras Pocius to Greendoor Property Management in January 2022.

Some tenants say they worry that they’ll be blamed for poor upkeep and made to pay for maintenance issues that aren’t their fault.

On 11 November 2021, Jack Prendergast, a letting agent with Home Club, the company in charge of property management, warned tenants in an email that people seemed to be forcing a block door open and damaging it.

Any issue with the lock should be reported through its online system, he wrote, and they would pass that on to Greendoor Property Management, the company in charge of maintaining the common areas.

“That issue with the door has been going on for so fucking long,” said Ross Baker, another tenant in the complex on 19 January.

The small yard outside his home is handy for a smoke and chat with neighbours. Sometimes, he glances over into an apartment stairwell and sees young lads have made it into the block, to roll and smoke joints and weigh bags, he says. “It’s crazy.”

Emails show De Oliveira Lima raising issues with doors and teenagers breaking in to mess around inside with property managers as far back as July 2020.

In early June 2021, Pocius also reported the block’s dodgy doors to Greendoor Property Management. The doors were old and had been broken loads of times, he wrote.

“Kids using force opening them easy and getting inside. Is any idea when lift, garage gate and main doors will be fixed?” he wrote. He followed up at the end of June, emails show.

That same month, De Oliveira Lima had told the RTB that the front doors could be easily opened as the magnets were weak.

Forde, representing the landlord, had “disputed that the magnets on the doors were not working properly and stated that people accessing the blocks through criminal damage could not be stopped”, says the RTB report.

In the November 2021 email about the door, Prendergast, of Home Club, warned residents: “If the damage continues then costs for repair could be charged out to the tenants.”

De Oliveira Lima and Pocius say that tenants have tried to make the block more secure.

They patched up one of the front doors. “The hinges was broken, everything. And so we just fixed it with the pallets,” says Pocius.

They reconnected a magnet on the gate into the underground car park.

They put a little hook and latch on the inside of a door from the garage into the apartment complex. The magnet keeping the door shut had stopped working when power was cut to a socket on that side of the car park to stop somebody charging their electric car, says Pocius.

De Oliveira Lima says he has drawn back from interventions. He is scared that tenants will be accused of vandalism, he says.

In an email to Pocius on 22 January 2022, Greendoor Property Management said it is planning to fit new entrance doors by the end of February and to look at the block’s entrance system.

The email also said there was a big issue with residents dumping rubbish on the block floors. “Particularly children’s sweets.”

People were putting bulky rubbish such as mattresses in the bin room too, it said, so the landlord was getting fines from the bin company. “All of these unnecessary costs are wasting money which could be better spent elsewhere,” said the email.

Pocius says that the code for the car park gate, which allows access to the bin room, has been shared all around. Anybody can come and go into the garage and leave rubbish, he says, but “they’re blaming the neighbours”.

Pocius says he has thought about taking a case against Jersia Limited at the RTB himself.

But he watched De Oliveira Lima do it, he says. “It took loads of time you know and everything you know and loads of effort. I prefer more to spend time with my family than to do all this.”

Neither LRC Group or Greendoor Property Management responded to queries as to why long-standing complaints about maintenance, cleaning, and security, haven’t been addressed.

Other Routes

After De Oliveira Lima got the RTB ruling in his favour but hadn’t heard anything from his landlord, he contacted a local TD, Labour’s Duncan Smith.

Smith came to see the block and emailed De Oliveira Lima in August. Fingal County Council would arrange an urgent inspection, he wrote.

LRC Group has cashed in on state subsidies, through the Homeless Housing Assistance Payment and Housing Assistance Payment.

In 2021, the four Dublin councils collectively paid €2.8 million in rental subsidies for low-income households to LRC RE-1 subsidiaries, show records released under the Freedom for Information (FOI) Act.

(In 2020, tenants of LRC RE-1’s hundreds of properties in Ireland paid the fund €28.2 million in rent, show company accounts. Figures for 2021 aren’t available.)

In 2021, Fingal County Council, in whose area De Oliveira Lima’s complex is located, paid €18,850.10 to Jersia Limited, the records show.

On 17 December 2021, Fingal County Council said in response to an FOI request that environmental-health officers had not submitted any inspection reports in relation to conditions on Thornleigh Row.

A spokesperson for Fingal County Council last week didn’t directly address queries as to whether or not its environmental-health inspectors had checked the block and if so, what they had found.

“The Environmental Health Section have liaised with the property management company responsible for the management of these properties, and are not aware of any further matters to be dealt with,” they said.

De Oliveira Lima looked to hire a solicitor to push for enforcement of the RTB’s order. But he would have burnt through money, he says, adding up to more than the damages. A first consultation alone cost €307.50. Drafting warning letters would have put him back another €922.50.

In November 2021, De Oliveira Lima wrote a letter himself to Jersia Limited, Home Club and Greendoor, giving them an ultimatum and a deadline of 14 days to carry out all the necessary repairs.

He would hire a company to start fixing things and deduct it from rent, he said, if they didn’t. He didn’t hear back, he says.

De Oliveira Lima says he doesn’t understand why it would be down to the tenants to enforce an RTB order. “Why we have to open a case at the RTB and then we have to go to the court after because the RTB cannot make enforcement?”

The RTB did send him a letter to fill in, to apply to see if they would go to the court on his behalf, he says. “But I’m still saying, okay, how many months more I have to do this?”

For a few months in the stretch between filing his case with the RTB and his tribunal hearing, De Oliveira Lima paid reduced rent a month, holding back a few hundred euro a month, that he estimated would be equivalent to monthly maintenance fees. “Because I was fair.”

An RTB mediator told him he was wrong and that he had to pay his rent up to date, he says. De Oliveira Lima objected given the common areas weren’t maintained up to date, he says, but he and his partner got a letter from the landlord saying he owed arrears, and paid the difference back.

In August 2021, after he got the ruling in his favour but had heard nothing from his landlord, and no word on the €5,139.11 he was owed, De Oliveira Lima stopped paying his rent again.

This time in full, he says. “They still want me paying rent every month and keeping like doing this? The regulations in Ireland have to be changed for everyone.”

By law, Jersia Limited could send him a warning letter for rent arrears, and later a notice to quit – move to evict him, in other words. De Oliveira Lima hasn’t heard anything though, he says.

Meanwhile, he says, the company is finding ways to make more money. “To increase more, the profits on this.”

Adding to Rents

From his balcony on the second-floor, De Oliveira Lima can see into the complex courtyard, where a path runs around a shrubby lawn, overlooked on three sides by cream walls, back doors, porches, and windows.

Last summer, he watched from afar as workmen stripped out one of the homes, refurbished and repainted, and then another a couple of doors down.

He wondered, he says, why they were doing these big renovations when they hadn’t fixed the doors and properly cleaned the common areas – and how much newer tenants would pay.

Recent tenants in the Jersia Limited complex in Applewood said they didn’t want to talk about their rents and leases.

But LRC Group said in June 2021 that it has added on service charges and car parking charges separately to the rent for newer listings at another Jersia Limited complex in Dublin’s south inner-city.

Advertised rents for some apartments at New Maltings near Ushers Quay have shot up. In January 2022, apartment 230 was listed on Daft.ie for €1,847 a month. In September 2017, it had been rented for €1,100 a month, shows an old sales brochure.

LRC RE-1’s 2020 accounts note that it has determined that, aside from rent, there are “service charges, management charges and other expenses recoverable from tenants”.

Leases include services such as “overall property management, including common area maintenance (CAM) services (such as cleaning, security, landscaping, snow removal), as well as other administrative and support services”, it says.

De Oliveira Lima’s lease dates from October 2016. It just mentions rent, no extra charges. He doesn’t understand, he says, how it can be legal for Jersia Limited to add these for new tenancies.

A spokesperson for the RTB said that landlords can charge for extra services on top of the rent if it’s clearly set out in a new lease agreement.

“Any charges imposed must be lawful and cannot result in there being additional obligations imposed on tenants that are inconsistent with the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 (as amended) (the “RTA 2004”),” they said.

Owen Duggan, assistant manager in Eastern Region Services at the housing charity Threshold, said that service charges became an issue after 2016, when rent-increase caps were brought in in rent-pressure zones.

Some landlords decided to charge tenants for parking spaces or bins, say, when it had until then been covered by the rent, he says. “This was a defacto rent increase and a breach of the RPZ rules.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing hasn’t responded to a query sent on 21 January about concerns that landlords adding extra charges on top of the rent neuters laws capping annual rent increases.

A spokesperson for LRC Group, and one of its asset managers, didn’t respond to queries sent at the end of January. But last June, a spokesperson said that LRC’s landlords stick strictly to the rules and regulations set by the RTB. Rents in the Jersia Limited complex at New Maltings had been set in line with RTB regulations, they said.

LRC RE-1’s 2020 accounts give no details on what it considers “other expenses recoverable from tenants”. Some tenants in Applewood say they are fearful of extra maintenance costs, as warned of in Home Club’s email about the damaged door.

On 11 October, Ross Baker reported his overflowing toilet cistern to the online portal for Home Club, the property manager that took over from Bloomford in October 2021.

Two days later, he emailed Home Club too. “My toilet is broke and unusable,” he wrote. “I cannot use the bathroom I would like this fixed asap.”

A message back on the online portal said: “We just need confirmation that you understand that if the issue is a blockage caused by wipes or anything like that you could be liable for the cost of the call out?”

Ross Baker and his dog. Photo by Lois Kapila.

Baker didn’t want to risk having to pay, he said, on 19 January 2022, stood in his apartment kitchen. “They’re treating me like a private individual calling a plumber down the road.”

For a few days, he tried to fix it himself, filling buckets with bleach and hot water and pouring it down the toilet, he says, which eventually worked. But “it got quite gross”.

Duggan, the assistant manager at Threshold, said that a tenant would be asked to pay if they have caused damage in some way outside of normal wear and tear.

What’s considered normal wear and tear and what is excessive can be subjective, says the RTB’s website.

Says Duggan: “The tenant may also have some liability if they did not inform the landlord in a timely manner about the maintenance or did not give the landlord access to make the repairs.”

Next Resorts

On a recent Thursday, De Oliveira Lima sat on a tall chair and leant against an old fridge, which was filled with dry goods, packets of dry roasted peanuts, bags of tortilla chips, and tubs of breadsticks.

The fridge is now a cupboard. It broke but De Oliveira Lima didn’t tell the landlord or property manager.

He thought it might keep the rent down if he didn’t, he says, so he went and bought a new one instead. “But it just doesn’t work.”

In November 2021, he got a letter about a rent increase which would kick in next month. It’s bigger than he would expect, he says, as his landlord put in the wrong date for his last rent review.

De Oliveira Lima is still on a rent strike, anyway.

He would start to pay again the moment the building is secure and properly cleaned, he says, although he would prefer to just move.

He hasn’t had any luck finding a new home. Nobody answers his Daft.ie enquiries. He has solid past references, but he can’t now rely on one from his current landlord.

Digging in seems the only option, he says. “Sometimes, I just feel, okay now I’m going to the end because I couldn’t find any place to move as well.”

Author:

Lois Kapila: Lois Kapila is Dublin Inquirer's editor and general assignment reporter. She covers housing and land, too. Want to share a comment or a tip? You can reach her at [email protected]

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