Eileen Keeley holds a homemade sign at Tuesday’s Raise the Roof protest outside the Dáil about the Government’s plan to lift the eviction ban. It reads: “I’m 80 years old and facing homelessness.” Eileen is with her daughter Rachel Keeley-Ferrufino; her son-in-law Fanor Ferrufino; Phoebe, one of their two dogs; three birds; two hamsters; and two guinea pigs.
On the 15th of next month, they say they are all to be evicted from their home in Arklow, Co Wicklow. They have nowhere to go. “We went to the council and they said they had no emergency places,” says Rachel. “They said we’d have to go with family. We said we had no family to go with.”
“They said ‘When you are homeless, come to us then’,” says Fanor.
A comment was sought from Wicklow County Council.
It’s not Rachel and Fanor’s first experience of the housing crisis. They say the rent on their previous home was raised suddenly. When they said they couldn’t pay the new rate – they weren’t on Housing Assistance Payments (HAP) then – they were evicted. They ended up staying in hotels (“not luxury hotels”) which they paid with their own money and help from their church. They put all their stuff into storage. They put their dogs into kennels. Rachel has fibromyalgia. Fanor has a heart condition. They’re dreading doing it all over again.
They’ve lived in their current house for around five years. It was offered to them by a colleague of Fanor’s. “He’s a nice man,” says Rachel of the landlord. After they moved in Rachel’s mother Eileen had a bad accident and needed someone to look after her. She moved in with them, relinquishing a council home in the process. Then last winter their landlord told them that he had to sell the property. They were terrified. They thought they would be homeless for Christmas and were incredibly relieved when the eviction ban was announced. But three months later they are no better off.
What did they think when it became clear the ban would expire? “We were crying,” says Fanor.
“I know [the ban] wasn’t meant to be forever, but I think I thought it was going to last until we were looked after,” says Rachel.
A woman from the housing agency Threshold, who they described as a “kind lady”, explained their rights. They’ve contacted local politicians. Most emails they send to estate agents are not responded to, they say, and when they go to viewings they are rejected. “They don’t accept HAP,” says Rachel. Or they don’t accept pets. Rachel rubs Phoebe behind the ears. “She was abandoned by her previous people.”
Fanor is due to start a new job but it’s based in Dublin and he has no idea where they will be living. “We’ve lived in Navan,” says Rachel. “We’ve lived in Greystones. Arklow. Who knows where next.”
Eileen is worried about the pets and what will happen to them. “I’ve never been homeless,” she says.
“It’s her nightmare that she’ll be sleeping in the car,” says Rachel. “I keep telling her we won’t. But it’s hard to say what will happen.”
The eviction ban was a response to a crisis, but it has created an artificial cliff edge. Threshold has received queries from 1,853 renters who face eviction once the ban lifts. The agency believes that this number will exceed 2,000 by the end of the month and notes that not every person being evicted contacts Threshold. Residential Tenancies Board (RTB) figures from March suggest there are 4,741 notices of termination outstanding from July, August and September last year (which was a significant increase on the previous three months). According to Threshold the majority are “no-fault” evictions. “In the majority of cases the landlord wishes to sell the home.”
Most housing NGOs do not believe enough has been done to address the underlying issues to justify lifting the ban.
“For quite a number of people there was a respite offered by the eviction ban, [but] five months has come around fairly fast,” says Ann-Marie O’Reilly, national advocacy manager with Threshold. “The rates of evictions are as high. And I don’t know to what degree the local authorities have been able to increase their emergency accommodation capacity.”
David Carroll, CEO of the homelessness service DePaul, says he worries particularly about vulnerable people being evicted. DePaul will do what it can to assist but its services are already stretched. “Even before the end of the eviction ban all of our services were full…With the eviction ban lifting we are facing an unknown situation...We would have increased our bed numbers on the back of the cold weather period…We’ve expanded our existing services as much as we can.”
In general housing NGOs would like the Government to adequately resource local authorities to purchase adequate numbers of properties with sitting tenants via the Tenants in Situ scheme, and many would like such opportunities to be expanded beyond just HAP tenants. Others want to see faster access to new social housing units and for some short-term rentals to be turned into long-term housing.
O’Reilly thinks the Government needs to carefully consider how, if landlords continue leaving the market, the rental sector will be organised in future. This has to be done in a way that protects renters, she says. Due to a shortage of rental properties and the ability of landlords to pursue no-fault evictions it can be difficult for tenants to assert their existing rights. She would like to see longer-term leasing for older tenants and families, in particular. “Maybe a way to incentivise landlords… would be a reduced tax on the rental income where a long-term lease is provided.”
Mike Allen, director of advocacy, research and communications at Focus Ireland, says that if landlords continue selling up it is likely owner-occupiers will displace vulnerable renters. “There is consensus that the answer to our housing and homelessness problem is ‘supply, supply, supply’ but the reality is that until we get that supply in place there are very serious questions about ‘distribution’, which are much more difficult to discuss as they involve winners and losers…The net effect of all this is, quietly and over time, to shift the burden of our housing failure onto the shoulders of the most vulnerable in our society.”
Leila* is very worried about her 63-year-old mother Angela*. She will be evicted from her flat on April 1st, the day the ban is lifted. Angela has been renting all of her life but the places she can afford have become smaller and smaller over the years. Some 80 per cent of Angela’s possessions are now in storage. She lives in a flat in Dublin. “It’s tiny, you shouldn’t even call it a one-bedroom,” says Leila. “It’s essentially a bedsit.”
The landlord began talking about selling last year, and is, Leila says, vocal about the fact the eviction ban prevented this. Angela hasn’t received a proper written eviction notice, says Leila, but because she is intimidated by him “she hasn’t the strength to argue with him or challenge him”.
Leila has been doing her best to help her mother find somewhere but most advertised places are not even responding to queries. Angela’s current rent is around €900 a month but they are now looking at places that cost from €1,200 to €1,500. At viewings, says Leila, “you’re surrounded by 30 or 40 other people viewing the place.” In all instances the agents are not interested in older HAP recipients like Angela. “They take the professional couple who comes in after.”
Because she is considered vulnerable Angela is high on her local council’s housing list, but one-bedroom options are scarce and she has been waiting a long time. One of the housing agencies is hopeful Angela will have a place in a soon-to-open development, but not by her eviction date.
All of the meetings and paperwork cause her stress. “She’s constantly asked to email things or scan things, [things] she doesn’t know how to do,” says Leila. “We have access to her email so we can check in for her. Everything is tailored around people who are meant to be tech-literate or have access to printers and scanners. I’ve had to travel to her at short notice in order to help her.”
Some of the well-meaning advice Angela receives is completely unhelpful, says Leila. “‘You can go stay with a family member.’ Well, I rent with other people... My brother had to move out from Dublin because he had a partner and they had a child.”
Angela is terrified. She may have to move to the couch in Leila’s shared flat, which would, as Leila points out, break the terms of her own lease. “She has, over the last year, been under incredible stress and mental anxiety and strain. It’s gruelling to watch.”
Jessica Freed is an actor and writer in her 50s. She is already technically homeless. She was evicted in September 2020 and has been couch-surfing and staying in friends’ spare rooms but her options are running out. Given the lifting of the eviction ban she fears she “may not even be able to access emergency accommodation. My parents are dead, there’s no family home. My sister lives abroad... You don’t couch surf in your 50s.”
Freed can list everywhere she has rented since 1989. If she had been paying a mortgage instead of rent, she says, she would have it paid off by now, but as a self-employed actor with no financial help from family a mortgage wasn’t possible. Her last tenancy, in Crumlin, lasted for 15 years. She shared the house with her mother who had lost her sight and needed a carer. A year after her mother died she was issued with an eviction notice. She said the need to renovate was given as grounds for eviction.
She’s been on a Dublin City Council housing list for 12 years. “If someone is on [a different] housing list longer and moves to your list, they push you down.” Looking for a home is demoralising. “You could send out hundreds of messages and get nothing back. I got an excellent reference from my landlord but no chance to show it.”
As an activist with the campaign group Raise the Roof, Jessica would like to see a referendum on a right to housing, a ban on property hoarding and an end to HAP, which she says just uses taxpayers’ money to inflate rents. She thinks the State should refurbish vacant buildings (“Give me one of those empty floors above a shop and I’ll turn it into a home”). She believes the long-term answer is extensive State-built social housing. People’s homes, she says, should never have been mixed up with other people’s pension plans. “Small landlords should never been put in the position of being responsible for social housing. The whole thing is dysfunctional.”
Jessica works hard. She continues to get acting gigs. She’s a member of ReActors cooperative agency which she co-founded and which the actors run for themselves. She wrote a play which she is hoping to put into production. But she is constantly distracted by stress.
In anticipation of having to leave where she is currently staying, she has to arrange storage for her things. She notes that homeless people are “not allowed to have possessions”. She has to think about the things she will need to pack in her suitcase or leave at a friend’s place for easy access. She will also ask friends can she stay with them when she has acting jobs so she doesn’t have to simultaneously deal with emergency homeless services. “I have very good friends,” she adds.
On the day she leaves where she’s currently staying she will declare herself homeless at the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive’s Placement Service at Parkgate Hall “and then I’ll ring around every night to see if there’s [emergency] accommodation. And with all the people coming into the system there’s probably going to be nothing.” She fears she will end up “camping in Phoenix Park.”
As we talk she consults a notebook with neatly-written notes and speaks with surprising calm. When I ask about her calmness she says she experiences “worry and leaping anxiety” but she also knows none of this is her fault. This is, she says, about fair access to housing, security of tenure and Government failure.
“This isn’t my failure…Otherwise intelligent, caring people [put] people in silos - the deserving poor, the undeserving poor. There’s no hierarchy of need here. It’s a structural issue. My need isn’t any greater than somebody recovering from drug addiction. It doesn’t matter. We’re all in the same boat… Food, water, housing, they’re basic human rights.”
In October last year the residents of Tathony House, a three-storey apartment complex in Kilmainham, Dublin 8, were told they had to be out by June 2nd, 2023. Of the 35 apartments, resident James O’Toole estimates that 26 or 27 are occupied, and that 60 or 70 people will be evicted now the ban has been lifted. “The eviction ban basically would have kept us in our homes. It would have given us more time.”
O’Toole is a People Before Profit activist, and the day after he received his eviction letter he printed up leaflets and put them under his neighbours’ doors. They read: “What do you think about the fact we’re all being evicted? I’m one of your neighbours. I think we should do something. I think we should get organised… get back to me.”
Seven or eight households met and set up a tenant’s WhatsApp group. Other tenants joined. Many aren’t Irish and O’Toole suspects they were unaware of their rights. They contacted Threshold and took a case to the RTB (a date has not been set). They also started protesting at Dublin City Council. “And then the council started to contact us because our campaign got a lot of media attention… Evictions of entire blocks are quite rare.”
They campaigned for the council to buy the property. A housing association has told residents they would be amenable to running the place as social and affordable housing, but they need the council to greenlight the funding.
“There’s a precedent in Cork where Leeside Apartments was bought [by the housing association Clúid with Cork City Council], and there were mixed tenancies,” says O’Toole. “In other words there was people on the housing list and people who weren’t on the housing list, and the people who weren’t on the housing list just continued to pay rent at the level they were paying privately.”
They’re still waiting to see what will happen. O’Toole works for the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed where he mans a welfare rights phone line. “I spend every day now talking to people who need rent supplement because they can’t afford to pay the rent, and they’re in fear of being homeless. So when I answer the phone, I’m like, ‘yeah, I understand your situation’.”
O’Toole and his wife have lived in Tathony House for 14 years. His wife is Swedish and her family are flabbergasted that Ireland permits no-fault evictions. “[They] were asking ‘what did you do?’… In 14 other European countries what’s happening to us in Tathony House would be against the law. On TV shows you get a lot of Government spokespeople saying, ‘oh, you can’t prevent landlords from selling their property and leaving the market.’ In Sweden they can still sell the property [but] the tenants stay in situ…We’d just get a letter in the post saying, ‘oh, by the way, next month, you’re paying your rent to a new landlord.’ That’s the kind of eviction ban we need, a ban on no-fault evictions.”
He has looked at what is available. “There’s nothing out there… I really, really don’t see how we’re going to find a flat with so many other households looking… People here are terrified. We had a tenants’ meeting last night and one of the guys upstairs, he was making the point that he works in Spar, he does shift work, he pays tax and yet he lives in a society where there’s no housing option for him… There’s literally nowhere to go. I think it’s dawning on people that more and more of us are going to have no choice but to fight… Are people going to volunteer themselves for homelessness?”
A comment was sought from the landlord.
*Names have been changed