As the New Year rolls around, houses are impossible to buy for most young people, rents are still very high and derelict buildings lie unused across Ireland. It seems inevitable that housing will once again become a hot topic in 2022. Which explains the genesis of the Community Action Tenants Union…
We are in the midst of a major housing crisis in Ireland. Young people, in particular, find it almost impossible to buy houses or find accommodation. There are not enough houses on the market. The prices are too high. And, by the way, getting a mortgage has become the equivalent of jumping Beecher’s Brook in the Grand National. Without the help of a horse…
As a result, people who really want to put down roots are forced to rent apartments, flats and houses. And guess what? The situation here is even worse. Housing is scarce. Rents have skyrocketed to the point that many young people are paying an exorbitant percentage of their total income just to have a roof over their heads. The balance of power in Irish housing is heavily skewed in favor of landlords. You must ask yourself: why is this so?
Here is a possible answer. One out of five TDs is an owner. Is it any surprise, then, that Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien of Fianna Fáil recently announced legislation that would allow landlords to combine annual rent cap increases if they have not increased the rent over the course of from previous years. On the other hand, despite hundreds of complaints to the Council of Rent Tribunals for violation of authorized increases in so-called “rent pressure areas”, only a fraction resulted in sanctions.
Is there anything to be done to alter the balance? Waiting for supply shortages to resolve is not the solution, given that it will take at least several years. That’s why a group of activists decided to form the Community Action Tenants Union.
“Renters,” says Mitch Hamilton, a writer and game designer who is national communications manager for CATU, “have very little recourse under the law to have landlords punished or regulated if something goes wrong, or s ‘they don’t follow their instructions or break contracts.
So a different approach was needed.
“That’s why we decided to adopt the collective bargaining model,” adds Mitch, “which is the same power you would use in a company union, when you have a problem. So rather than going one-on-one to work out a problem with that one person who has so much more power over you, you have a full union of over 1,000 members standing behind you with support and solidarity.
BREACH OF CONTRACT
The Community Action Tenants Union was formed in early 2020, just before the pandemic hit. In just two years they have amassed 1,506 members, spread across almost 20 branches in Dublin, Belfast, Maynooth, Galway, Dún Laoghaire and Cork. The organization is funded and run by its members, with each branch setting its own goals and programs.
“CATU is deliberately decentralized,” says Mitch. “We have a national committee, but it is not a supranational training group. Each branch has its own agendas and pursues its own campaigns, with the understanding that if it wants national support, it can reach out and bring in those national members.
CATU’s work can take many forms. They will write to an owner on behalf of a member. Or actively show up to prevent a member from being forcibly removed. These are called “member defense cases”.
When CATU receives a call for help, the first step is to understand the problem and the member’s desired resolution. Although they have had several well-publicized incidents where they had to take immediate action to prevent an unlawful eviction, some members may simply want a formal acknowledgment from the landlord that they were wrong, in the event of an attempted rent increase or return of deposits withheld.
“We have had some success in the past with the reversal of withheld deposits,” confirms Mitch, “particularly from companies going through rental agencies. Active protests can take the form of targeted campaigns against their social media or protests outside of their businesses to let them know they can’t ignore us.
Is there an example?
“We had a recent case of a holdback,” he explains, “with a rental company that ignored our calls and did their best to pretend not to hear us. Some members asked for a tour that they knew this rental agency was handling, and when the agent arrived for the tour, he was confronted by CATU members who wanted to talk about the situation they were trying to ignore .
Although it may sound like a form of harassment, Mitch is careful to explain that CATU has patterns they follow when engaging in what he calls “escalations” of this type.
“Something like a ‘harassment’ campaign would never be our first resort,” he says. “Our first step in any action, always, is to write directly to the owner outlining precisely what needs to be addressed.
“It’s never a personal attack. We are very careful in all of these campaigns to ensure that the focus is on what the owner has done that violates the contract or the rules of the law.
Sinn Féin Parliamentary Assistant Oisín Dolan has been a member of three different CATU branches in Dublin City over the past 18 months. It highlights how precarious renting in the capital has become.
He helped found the Inchicore branch in April 2020. He then moved to a shared house at The Liberties. In September this year, one of her roommates informed the landlord that she would be moving out.
“The owner then decided,” says Oisín, “well, ‘you can all go with it’. The obvious reason – which he basically admitted to me – was so they could get it back on the market as quickly as possible. and raise the rent.
Technically, if the roommate who decided to move out was the name on the rental agreement, the landlord might have been within their rights. Either way, Oisín insists they weren’t given a reason for the landlord-initiated eviction.
“They emailed me,” Oisín recounts, “alluding to the idea that they were going to walk through the door if I didn’t come out in a week. Now, if I didn’t know my stuff, it would have been very, very intimidating. Although it was not pleasant.
“I knew I had CATU to back me up too. But I’ve had a few sleepless nights wondering if someone’s going to come through the door and whether or not they’ll send heavy, because I’ve seen that happen in other people’s kickouts.
Evictions are clearly a big problem. If you are successfully expelled, where will you go? The option of another even more expensive place is hardly a runner. More and more, owners are looking for referrals. So where does an eviction get you? It was with such scenarios in mind that, in late November, a coalition of CATU branches in North Dublin City launched its ‘No Evictions’ campaign. The campaign is a direct response to “the high incidence of violent evictions in this region”. CATU describes this as a humanitarian crisis. They’re right.
“CATU believes in direct action, which is basically taking the fight directly to the source of the expulsion,” explained Jess Bernard, the defense officer for the Phibsboro/Glasnevin branch members.
“The plan is to put financial and social pressure on landlords, so that they have difficulty running their businesses – because they shouldn’t be able to profit from violent evictions. They shouldn’t be able to profit from abandonment.
Squatting is also something some CATU branches are exploring, as a potential tool to highlight levels of abandonment across the country.
“It’s an effective method,” says Jess – who works with travel tech start-up TripAdmit and volunteers from the Small Trans Library and Trans Writers Union – “because it highlights how the housing stock in this country is left to rot by landlords.”
Ultimately, CATU is pushing for systemic change in housing in Ireland.
“Saying, ‘We want X, Y and Z changes in ten years’ doesn’t solve anything for someone who will be thrown to the curb tomorrow,” says Jess. “Obviously we have changes that we would like to see: the restoration of green spaces and community spaces; a housing policy approach focused on affordable public housing; housing for the common good, as opposed to for-profit housing; and, by extension, a restructuring of our approach to wealth in this country, ideally, so that people pay their fair share. For us, the goal is that for every long-term housing goal, there is someone around the corner who has a short-term housing need that we are here to help meet.
Ireland has, over the past 10 years, had great success in bringing about real change through community-led grassroots campaigns, such as the Marriage Equality and Repeal The Eighth campaigns. For Jess, collective action by groups like CATU could offer a similar solution to the housing crisis.
“It’s going to be normal people coming together to fight this,” she says, “on the grounds that we’re the ones it affects. It’s going to take a lot of work, but I think there’s real strength in this. everyone unite to say: “We will not tolerate this any longer”.
One thing is certain: something has to change in 2022. This may just be the beginning.
For more information or to join the Community Action Tenants Union, visit catuireland.org.