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Pandemic impedes inspection of rental homes

Ever since my election to the City Council in 2009, I have worked to improve standards in the privately rented sector and ensure those enhanced standards are properly enforced. As a renter myself, I suppose I have a self-interest in this but more fundamentally than that I believe with renters spending a large chunk of their income on rent, they should be entitled to get quality accommodation for their buck!

Last month, after a request I made prior to Christmas, the City Council’s Principal Environmental Health Officer (EHO) attended a meeting of the Dublin Central Area Committee. Before providing a detailed, I thought I’d explain the role of an Environmental Health Officer when comes to standards of rental homes.

ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH OFFICERS & STANDARDS IN RENTAL ACCOMMODATION

Environmental Health Officers are “authorised persons” who are empowered to inspect a private rented home made under the Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations 2019. Given the increased number of people using private rented accommodation across the North Inner and consequently a corresponding increase in reports of gross overcrowding and serious non-complaint lettings, I sought a presentation from the Council’s team on their work to ensure standards are being maintained and that renters are not being forced to fork our hard-earned cash for properties and homes that fail to meet even basic standards as set out in law.

In recent years, following a comprehensive report I published, including a raft of recommendations to improve enforcement of these standards, Dublin City Council restructured the Environmental Health Section and set up a Rapid Response Team of Environmental Health Officers to respond efficiently and effectively to complaints in relation to gross overcrowding and serious non-compliant properties. This team is available to respond to initial referrals received or allegations of gross overcrowding instances within premises and aim to undertake a site visit within 24 / 48 hours of receiving the referral. The primary aim of this initial site visit is to gain access to the property and undertake an inspection. This inspection will then inform the team as to the direction of any subsequent investigations warranted by the various sections e.g. Planning Department or the Fire Brigade, within Dublin City Council.

In addition, the existing Environmental Health Officer teams are split into North and South City geographical areas remained in situ and continue to respond to tenant complaints, proactive inspections and inspections under the Rental Accommodation Scheme and Housing Assistance Payments scheme. A Senior Environmental Health Officer leads each of these three teams. The RRT and the South City team have a complement of 5 Environmental Health Officers, while the North City has a complement of 10 Environmental Health Officers. A Private Rented Unit was also set up within the Environmental Health Section. It is an administrative unit supporting Environmental Health Officer and it also has a co-ordinating role with the various sections within the City Council that have an enforcement role in relation to private rented properties.

The Unit is responsible for the media campaign to keep people aware that there are minimum standards required in the private rental sector and how to make complaints. The dedicated email address for complaints is privaterented@dublincity.ie and dedicated phone number is 01 – 222 6500.

INSPECTION REGIME DURING THE PANDEMIC

In March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, the initial priority was to ensure that all existing open files continued to be actioned. Across the Spring of last year, Environmental Health Officers substantially increased, the use of telephone and e-mail interactions with landlords and tenants to ensure that already served improvement letters and notices were compiled with.

Photographs and relevant certification from landlords was received and the completion of required remedial works was verified by tenant. As a result of the public health measures introduced to combat Covid 19 and to ensure the health and safety of staff and tenants alike. it became clear that physical inspections would be

severely curtailed during the pandemic. Therefore, the Council’s Environmental Health section developed a Virtual Inspection Programme for private rented properties.

This Virtual Inspection Programme covers the three main private rented inspection strands:

  • Complaints,
  • Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) and
  • Rental Accommodation Scheme (RAS) inspections.

A cover and information letter along with an inspection checklist was developed for sending to the landlord.

The preferred method is now by email. The landlord must return the competed checklist along with all relevant photographs and certifications within between 4 weeks for complaints to 6 weeks for HAP & RAS. Environmental Health Officers commenced Virtual Inspections in late Q2. Along with interacting with the complainant / tenant and the landlord this continues to be the initial method of “inspecting” all rented property. Separate information and cover letters have been developed for dealing with complaints, HAP & RAS. The cover letter explains the reasons why the Virtual Inspection is taking place currently. The information element is a synopsis of the legislative requirements. The checklist details the requirements of the legislation and must be complete by the landlord and returned to the Environmental Health Officer. When the checklist is returned, the Environmental Health Officer will review the information received and will determine if it is enough to consider whether a physical inspection is not warranted at this time. They will also have engaged with the tenant to ascertain if they have any issues with the property. Where the Environmental Health Officer determines that based on all the information received that the property appears substantially compliant then the file is closed.

From information provided to me by the Principal Environmental Health Officer, 15% of these closed files will be identified for physical inspection as soon as public health guidelines allow. Where the returned checklist shows that remedial works are required then the Environmental Health Officer will serve a “Virtual Improvement Letter” and will “re-inspect” at the end of the given period to ensure the required remedial works are completed.

In cases where the landlord fails to engage in the virtual inspection process or where the information returned is insufficient to determine compliance then a physical inspection will be undertaken as soon as public health guidelines allow. When a physical inspection takes place the appropriate enforcement action is taken along with any required referral to other sections. Physical inspections can only be undertaken in accordance and compliance with national Covid-19 public health guideline and the Council’s Health & Safety Operating Guidelines so as to ensure the safety of staff, tenants and landlords.

I understand that the Government acknowledges that local authorities are frustrated in their ability to conduct on-site inspections and accept that inspection levels have fallen considerably as a result of the pandemic. I believe that some Local Authorities are looking at alternative options for enforcing rental standards including trialling virtual inspection systems. Dublin City Council were the first and have been conducting virtual inspections since May. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage supports these important initiatives. While virtual inspection systems present certain challenges and limitations, they do offer a way of improving the standard of rental accommodation despite the pandemic

restrictions. The current pilot projects also offer an insight into the potential, if any, for virtual inspections post-pandemic.

INSPECTION NUMBERS IMPACTED BY PANDEMIC

The following is a summary of inspections over the past number of years:

FURTHER CHANGES & IMPROVEMENTS IN RENTAL STANDARDS NEEDED

The inspection of private rented houses is conducted under the Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulation 2019 which are made under the Housing (Miscellaneous Provision) Act 1992. However, it is clear that work is needed to further improve the current standards with regards to overcrowding, compliance with statutory orders and notices as well as further changes to the Residential Tenancies Board regulations.

With that in mind and following consultation with the Principal Environmental Health Officer, I have been in contact with Minister Darragh O’Brien and his officials in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage urging him to make changes in the following areas of legislation, including:

  • Amend the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1992 to include overcrowding as a housing standard for which regulations may apply.
  • Amend Section 34 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1992 to allow the Court direct a landlord to comply with the requirements of an Improvement Notice or Prohibition Notice within a specified time.
  • Amend the Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations 2019 to include “overcrowding” as a housing standard requirement.
  • Amend the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1992 to allow the Housing Authority to apply to the Circuit or High Court for an order requiring the immediate repair, restriction and or prohibition of use of a rented property in any situation where it considers there is a risk to the persons because of the conditions of the house or overcrowding in the house.
  • Amend the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 placing a legal responsibility on the landlord to ensure the rented property is not overcrowded. On registering with the RTB the landlord is to certify the maximum number of persons who may occupy the rented property.

I hope this information is of interest and assistance to you. However, should you have any questions or queries arising from the details outlined, please email me at RayMcAdam@gmail.com.

raymcadam View All

Fine Gael Councillor - North Inner City
Leader, Fine Gael, Dublin City Council
Chair, Urban Form & Planning Strategic Policy Committee

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