President Michael D. Higgins signed the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020 into law on August 1st, ensuring tenants who are struggling to pay rent as a result of the pandemic remain protected. This legislation has been met with mixed opinions with Sinn Féin Housing Spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin, one of many opponents to the act describing the measure as an “attack on renters”.

TDs Cian O’ Callaghan and Aodháin Ó Riordán showed concerns about the Act’s scope and purview, stating that “in most cases, failure to pay rent is not why people are evicted into homelessness” and that the proposed law’s “cumbersome and technical system” leaves too many exceptions for evictions to occur still. Mick Barry, TD, feared that the act is “too narrow” and would “fail to protect many vulnerable tenants who are at serious risk of homelessness”.

The new act, replacing the blanket moratorium on rent increases and evictions ensures anyone on Covid-19 payment, the wage subsidy, or housing assistance that their rent will not increase nor will they be evicted before January 11th. These tenants will also able to apply to the Residential Tenancies Board, ensuring their landlord must give 90 days eviction notice (up from the usual 28). . For those not on wage subsidies or the Covid-19 payment, Pre-Covid tenancy rules apply once again.

Just under two weeks after the Act’s enactment nine tenants, eight of whom were non-nationals, were evicted from their Phibsborough property with no notice because of a legal dispute of the landlord with a third-party. The tenants, with support from activists have since gained re-entry to the property.

Former Students’ Union President, Joanna Siewierska, told The Tribune that this was “shocking”, “absolutely unacceptable and shows the lack of protection for tenants in Ireland.” Siewierska was a strong advocate for tenants’ rights during her presidency, leading protests in opposition to UCD’s plans to increase campus accommodation rent by 4% annually.

She also noted that “young people, migrant workers, people with disabilities – these are groups which we know find it more difficult to secure accommodation and are extra vulnerable to living and working precariously.” She concluded that “the truth is that tenants’ protections in Irish law, [even without considering the impact of Covid-19] is very weak.”

Cian O’Callaghan, TD, expressed further worries for those who have not been on a Covid-19 payment and will not receive any protection under the act. In talking to The College TribuneNiamh Harnett, Law with French Law UCD, voiced similar concerns, stating that most young renters were not in a position to receive the Covid-19 payment and are left even more vulnerable as a result. While the act is returning practices to normal, Niamh noted that most people are not back to a normal economic situation.

UCD Students’ Union supported the campaign by the Homelessness and Housing Coalition to extend the blanket rent freeze and election ban. Welfare Officer, Ruairi Power, told The Tribune that ending the moratorium during a pandemic is difficult to justify. He stated that the “business-as-usual approach to housing provision [does not serve] the interests of ordinary people” and that “10,000 homeless is not an acceptable figure”.

However, a student who spoke to The Tribune said that it would be naïve to think the moratorium could be extended until a vaccine is found, citing the economic non-viability of this option. Minister for Housing, Local Government & Heritage, Darragh O’Brien’s statements in the Dáil represent this sentiment as he expressed how landlords rely on rental income and that the act seeks to “protect tenant’s rights and the legitimate interests of landlords” while “entering an economic recovery phase”.

The Students’ Union told The Tribune that they will continue to advocate for a rent freeze to be enacted for the duration of the pandemic, “which is not over as is clear from the rise in cases”. Power claims that economic recovery will be impaired by any further outbreaks, the new legislation failing to quell that possibility. The Union attended a socially distant protest at the Customs House on the day the legislation was passed.

Accessibility and general public knowledge of the Act is also an issue. When asked by The Tribune, 9/10 interviewees responded that they had not heard of the Act, some claiming that “they really should”, with others citing difficulties in finding the provisions online. “Many young renters don’t know their rights”, says Tommy McDarby, Stage 4 Law with Politics, and “the act won’t turn unscrupulous landlords any more scrupulous”.

More robust legislation has been called for by UCD students and the Students’ Union as well as rent increase caps and bans on evictions to be extended. The Union committed to fighting for students’ rental rights. To them, it is important to make everyone feel secure, not only against the risk of homelessness itself but also the extra risk the pandemic poses in an already dangerous and stressful situation.

Oisín Magfhogartaigh – Reporter