The story Prime Time didn't tell
Remember Julie on the Prime Time special on Ireland's slum landlords, the slim young girl with a baby in her arms and another little child who ran away in fear from the landlord. There were rats in the yard, there was no heating, nowhere outside of the room safe was to play, the small room that housed two adults and the two kids. There was sewage seeping up through the ground floor entrance hall, no hot running water, tokens for the shower which didn't work, no fire escape, and the windows of the house were barred up. That was where Julie Rattigan and her family lived - 9 Church Street, Tullamore.
Julie, Derek and their two children,aged four years and six months, respectively, finally moved out of these appalling conditions. They got one of the new council houses allocated in May by Tullamore UDC. Julie had wrung the hearts of a nation when she talked last month on Prime Time of the terrible conditions in which she lived. It's a great victory, after what they have been through. ``We owe it all to Jody here. We wouldn't have got it without him,'' says Julie.
``It's the terror,'' says Julie, ``that the landlord will evict you, or come one evening with the heavies when you are on your own, that makes you put up with it. You have to. It's only when Jody came along that we had someone that would help us, tell us our rights. We weren't on our own any more.''
``All I did'', says Jody Coughlan, a Sinn Féin councillor in Tullamore, ``was to make enough waves to force our UDC and the County Council to face up to their joint obligations. That is, their obligations to check that rented property in the town is of an adequate standard and meets fire and safety regulations, and to recognise that if people are thrown onto the streets by the landlord, that the council, along with the health board, has an obligation to house them.
``There are another 480 people on the housing list, waiting for a place to live,'' says Jody. ``The council are planning some 200 houses over the next 18 months. By then, the list will be twice as long. Tullamore is earmarked as a development town and it is growing at a rate of knots. We can't afford a local UDC that allows the health board to pay exorbitant rents to landlords who are illegally renting out substandard accommodation, without fire escapes or proper facilities.
``And Miles Shorthall is not the only landlord in this town getting away with it. The councillors just don't care. What good are we, if we turn a blind eye to what is going on?'' asks Jody. ``We got elected to change all this.''
Miles Shorthall has had to move tenants out and undertake structural repairs on 9 Church Street. Meanwhile, there are many former tenants whose lives are not so easily repaired.
Martina Tyrell is one. She lived in 9 Church Street for four years. ``It was,'' she says, ``a continual battle. I was in the ground floor flat beside the sewage outlet in the passageway. Five tokens for the shower cost £1. ``Then he wanted £5 on top of the rent as a charge on bin collection. The rent was £65, of which I had to pay £13.50 myself, out of the welfare money I got, which was about £50 a week at the time.
``The shower water ran down the electric cable to the overhead light in the ceiling. I refused to pay until it was fixed. He cut off the electric to my flat just before Christmas, then he threatened eviction. He'd come in at any time of day or night. Then he removed the door to my room. He said it was his.''
It was an endless saga of misery and fear living with the continual stress of eviction and bullying. ``I became asthmatic, my hair fell out with alopecia. We tried to help each other out in the seven flats in the building, but everyone was afraid, afraid of landing out on the streets, and we didn't know our rights. Jody was not around at this time.''
But as Jody says: ``These landlords are still around, and not just in Tullamore. It is up to councillors to insist on the legal rights of tenants in the private rented sector. What good are we if we don't?''