Republican News · Thursday 27 January 2000

[An Phoblacht]

Tullamore's private rented scandal

Health board and UDC pay slum landlords

It took Sinn Féin's Joe Coughlan just a few months on the Tullamore UDC to challenge what must, on any account, be gross illegality by the Midland Health Board (MHB) and the UDC, who have turned a blind eye to deplorable conditions in some private rented accommodation.

Several private landlords are subsidised by the MHB to `provide' accommodation which does not meet any of the requirements laid down in legislation.

``Conditions are simply unacceptable. Some tenancies are not fit for human beings. Whole families with one or two children are living in one room `flats' in appalling overcrowding,'' says Joe. ``The double bed would fill half the room, the cot and single bed fill the rest. In some cases there is no hot water, heating or bath/shower facilities. One tenant talked to me of spending 52 per month on electric heating through an adjusted meter.

``Worse, some of the flats have no fire escapes. Some have windows barred on the outside. In others, there is no proper ventilation for kids who are seriously ill with asthma and other illnesses, undoubtedly result of drafts and damp.

``I visited one flat today and you could wring the curtains out with the damp. In another house, divided up into several `flats', the ballustrade on the stairway is missing supports. This is dangerous, but kids have nowhere else to play, except on the stairway.

``In another `flat', every time the faulty shower is turned on, the water pours down through a live electric light holder on the ceiling of the flat below.''

Private rents in Tullamore are on average 65 a week for one room. Some tenants are on social welfare and receive a partial rent allowance of 45 to 50 a week to set against the rent.

Joe Coughlan raised the matter at two recent UDC meetings. He said the housing was a disgrace and pointed out that the council and MHB were facilitating these landlords.

Says Joe: ``Councillors have the right to summon offending landlords who are not registered. The council has a duty to inspect properties, to oblige private landlords to conform to standards and to prosecute if they fail to do so. The council and MHB have the obligation to provide alternative accommodation to housing which does not meet required standards or fire and safety regulations. So I want to know why are people still living in these conditions? Why are these slum landlords still allowed to rent these `flats'.''

Town Clerk Sean Ryan has undertaken to get any flats inspected ``in a matter of days''. Joe points out, however, that ``a number of these flats have already been inspected by the MHB staff who, before paying out a rent subsidy, are required to visit the tenant and view the premises''.

Not all health boards consider they have the capacity to inspect properties. In Dublin, the Eastern Health Board has explicitly denied, in a recent programme manager's report, that it has the specialist resources to assess premises' compliance with either planning or building regulations. In consequence, Dublin Corporation, at the insistence of Sinn Féin Councillor Christy Burke, has recently established an inspectorate for this purpose.

Tullamore's Town Clerk reports that the MHB has no such limitations on their skills. ``So why does the MHB subsidise rents to these slum landlords and continue to turn a blind eye to the deplorable and unsafe conditions in these flats?'' asks Joe Coughlan.

Several councillors have pointed out that the landlords use bully-boy tactics. Tenants are frightened to complain for fear of threats of eviction and homelessness, or of finding their things put out on the street. It has happened before.

``It is important that people have credence in the Town Clerk's endorsement of the legal position which obliges the local authority, in conjunction with the respective health board, to provide accommodation for homeless people,'' says Joe.

``No one will be left homeless on the streets in this town,'' says Sean Ryan. Nevertheless, there are 200 families on the housing waiting list, and the Department of Environment has allocated only 100 new houses over the next four years to the town. At the UDC meeting in December, Sean Ryan is reported as saying that once people were housed out of unsatisfactory flats, then closure orders could be put in place, but this could not be done until there was enough accommodation.

``And when is that likely to be?'' asks Joe. ``Meanwhile these slum landlords are able to continue to exploit the plight of people who are desperate for accommodation. These landlords must be brought to book and not allowed to take money from the state and tenants for unfit accommodation.''

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