Crowded house: 11 people living in flat during pandemic

Updated / Friday, 4 Dec 2020 12:00
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By Barry O'Kelly

RTÉ Investigates went undercover to look at the harsh reality for tenants living in overcrowded conditions during Covid.

In a flat at 90 Ballybough Road in Dublin 1, four people live in a single room.

In one corner, next to the kitchen sink, pots are piled high on a mini-cooker on the counter-top. Close by, crockery and cooking utensils sit atop a second kitchen unit.

Nearer to the centre of the small room is the kitchen table. And on the other side of the room, a wardrobe and two sets of bunk beds are crammed into the corners.

The personal belongings of the tenants – from suitcases and books to clothing and a board game – are scattered throughout the limited space remaining.

In an adjoining bathroom, broken tiling leaves the cavity wall exposed just above the knobs used to turn on the shower. The ceiling is covered in a thick layer of mould.

"That's clearly very shocking living conditions. Immediately, you can see that people are in very overcrowded conditions," Orla Hegarty, an architect and assistant professor at University College Dublin, told RTÉ Investigates.

Tenants of the flat at 90 Ballybough Road must purchase vouchers from the landlord to use the washing machines, which are located in a yard littered with building materials, disused kitchen appliances, a shopping trolley, and an old mattress.

Pots are piled high on a mini-cooker on the counter-top in one corner of a flat at 90 Ballybough Road

There are an estimated 326,000 private rented properties in Ireland. The majority are in good condition.

But for those on low incomes who are looking for accommodation, it can be a very different story – especially in Dublin. Like at 90 Ballybough Road, cheap accommodation can mean sharing with strangers in confined spaces.

In normal times, overcrowded flats are a disturbing phenomenon. During a pandemic, they are a public health issue.

Over the course of several weeks, RTÉ Investigates went undercover to look at the harsh reality for some tenants living in conditions where social distancing and self-isolation are almost impossible.

Ads for these places are unlikely to be found on mainstream websites. Instead, they appear on social media pages aimed at foreign nationals.

The owner of the property at 90 Ballybough Road, John Finnegan, told an undercover researcher from RTÉ Investigates that he was planning on refurbishing the flat. But work had yet to take place at the end of our four-week tenancy, which cost €300.

RTÉ Investigates put a number of questions to Mr Finnegan, but he declined to comment.

One-room set-ups like that owned by Mr Finnegan are not unique. RTÉ Investigates found other examples across Dublin, a further four of which we visited during the course of our investigation.

For €237 per month, our researcher was presented with a bare mattress propped up against a wall at 29 Great Charles Street, off Mountjoy Square in Dublin 1. 

In a flat at 29 Great Charles Street, RTÉ Investigates was presented with a bare mattress sandwiched between a wall and a sofa

The mattress was taken down every night and placed on the floor, where it was sandwiched between a wall, a sofa and a washing machine.

There were three other tenants in this one-bedroom flat – but they had actual beds.

"It's back to sort of Dickensian times," Prof Sam McConkey, an infectious disease specialist at the Royal College of Surgeons, said.

"People squashed together is likely to lead to more transmission [of Covid-19]."

RTÉ Investigates wrote to the registered owners of 29 Great Charles Street. We were subsequently contacted by a property management company called Studio1 Property Services.

In a statement, they said that neither the company nor the owners were aware a fourth tenant was living there. They said the tenant has since left.

They also said they were fully compliant with housing regulations.

Bedsit-style flats were outlawed seven years ago. But, because the kitchen and bathroom are contained within a single residential unit, the flats we visited at 90 Ballybough Road and 29 Great Charles Street are not actually considered bedsits.

"This doesn't necessarily mean they are of a high standard, or even an acceptable standard in this case," said Lorcan Sirr, a lecturer in housing at Dublin Institute of Technology.

This room in a flat on Foley Street had three sets of bunkbeds installed

The one-bedroom flats we visited appeared to be from a bygone era. But in more modern buildings, RTÉ Investigates also found apartments with significant overcrowding.

In a residential complex on Foley Street near Dublin's Connolly Station, our researcher was given a guided tour of an apartment that was built just a few years ago, with a well-designed and comfortable kitchen.

But this three-bedroom apartment was not built for the 12 tenants that the person advertising the letting was seeking to accommodate there. We were offered a bed in a room with three sets of bunkbeds – to share with five other people. With so many beds in the room, the passageway was less than two metres wide.

Up to eight women share a single toilet in the apartment.

"When you have over-occupancy such as this, it presents a real and serious danger to the wellbeing and the health and safety of the occupants – more so than ever in our current Covid times," Kevin Hollingsworth of Chartered Building Surveyors told RTÉ Investigates.

The woman who organises the viewings and collects the rent told RTÉ Investigates that she is not sub-letting these beds, but rather simply facilitating students.

The registered owner of 13, Floor 4, The Steelworks on Foley Street, a person called JiaYu Zhai, told RTÉ Investigates that the apartment was "not contributing to the spread of coronavirus."

He also said it has "never been overcrowded" and that "there are always... only five tenants in the apartment."

However, during our four-week rental, which cost €230, we identified 11 tenants living at the property at the one time.

RTÉ Investigates observed a high turnover of tenants, who were typically migrants who study and work in low-paid jobs, in the apartments we visited.

"It's kind of embarrassing really that this is the standard of accommodation that we can offer foreign workers," Mr Sirr told RTÉ Investigates.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a drop in the number of foreign students coming to Ireland. In turn, the demand for rented accommodation has slumped.

Six women share this room in a bedroom at this house at 52A Western Way

But RTÉ Investigates found one man who appears to be bucking that trend: Diego Costa.

Our researcher met him at 52A Western Way, a three-bedroom property that is generating at least €5,600 per month in rent.

Mr Costa posts ads for beds to let at this property and collects the rent. He told us that, since the pandemic struck, he's been working as an intermediary between tenants and landlords.

The bedroom with a vacancy contained three sets of bunkbeds. Six women share this room, with six beds on one side, and lockers on the other.

In total, 16 people share this three-bedroom house. Each person has access to a shared wardrobe, but space in the bedroom is tight. For privacy, tenants drape towels over the bunk beds. There is a single shower and single toilet for the six female tenants of the room.

"It's a bit like a petri dish, where, if one person does develop Covid, then it is very likely that several others will," said Prof McConkey.

"I feel saddened and almost appalled by the idea that this is going on," he said.

A tenant told our researcher that social distancing in the flat is not possible. During the height of the pandemic in March, she said, a tenant became ill. Soon, others became unwell. No-one was ever tested for Covid-19.

The registered owner of 52A Western Way, Matthew Kelly, told RTÉ Investigates in a statement that only 11 tenants were living in the apartment, and that two of these had now agreed to leave.

He said the property meets the legal requirement for free air space.

Mr Kelly claimed that Mr Costa was sub-letting – and that he has now been "replaced" by someone else.

Though Mr Costa had clearly stated to our researcher that 16 people lived in the property, he told RTÉ Investigates in a separate response that there had "never been 16 people in the house."

Our research shows that, since the pandemic began, at least six people have left this property and been replaced by new tenants, something that was a concern for the experts who spoke to RTÉ Investigates.

"So it’s not just six contacts. If you're changing over the actual number of people when you're incubating the coronavirus – it could be even more than that when there is constant turnover.  So that makes control very difficult," said Prof McConkey.

As many as 12 people live in this flat at 48 Lower Sheriff Street when it's full

The transient nature of some tenancies was also evident during visits to an apartment located at 48 Lower Sheriff Street in Dublin 1.

The viewing was provided by an agent from a company called Green Label Properties, who did not seem to know who was occupying the room.

While the tenants said no beds were actually available in the room our researcher was shown, there was a high turnover of tenants – and six vacancies arose over a period of two months. RTÉ Investigates later secured a bed in the room, which up to six people share.

While as many as 12 people live in the flat when it's full, there are only two showers – and just one toilet.

The agent insisted we pay in cash, and declined to provide a receipt. "The key is your receipt," she said.

The owners of 48 Lower Sheriff Street said the property was being sub-let without their consent.

Marc Godart, who manages Green Label Properties, told RTÉ Investigates that the company has "terminated the stays" for some tenants in response to what he described as our "well-founded assumption that this may not be the best setting during a pandemic."

However, he later said that "no stays were terminated." Mr Godart also said that a maximum of seven people stayed at the apartment at any one time.

This is contrary to what RTÉ Investigates observed, and what we were told by agents from his company.

Figures obtained by RTÉ Investigates reveal that, in the first six months of 2020, three out of four properties were deemed to be non-compliant with housing standards on a first inspection.

More recent figures for Dublin City reveal that, in the first nine months of this year, 87% of properties were deemed on a first inspection to be non-compliant with the standards.

But in Dublin city and elsewhere, overcrowded properties are rarely inspected and closed down. This is partly because the 54-year-old housing law on overcrowding is outdated.

Dublin City Council told RTÉ Investigates that it has not used the 1966 Housing Act on overcrowding in over 10 years, calling it "cumbersome", "slow" and the penalties of €100 "minimal". The council instead has to rely on fire safety laws.

Greater penalties were proposed in the 2018 Overcrowded Housing Bill. But two years on, the bill, produced by Fianna Fáil while in opposition, is still before the Dáil.

"It’s happening," said Mr Hollingsworth, "because greedy people will continue to do such things until the threat of enforcement is real and credible."