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Should we bring back bedsits?
Should we bring back bedsits?

Oh, misery: Housing travesty leads to return of Bedsitland

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BACK in the 1980s, a friend invited me to see the ‘studio’ she was renting in Dublin 4. I thought a studio would be the height of sophistication, perhaps a loft-like airy space to rest your head and lead a metropolitan life (whatever that is) in a cool place. But as I was to learn from my own experience of trying to secure accommodation in Dublin, ‘studio’ is very much a euphemism for a (sometimes manky) bedsit.

My friend’s place had no natural light and was just one room with a tiny bathroom which you’d be self-conscious about using as every sound you’d make in it could be heard in the living/sleeping/cooking space. Nevertheless, my friend put a few plants into her restricted space and hung framed posters on the walls and even had occasional ‘dinner parties’ in her gaff. If you didn’t secure the only chair in the place, you sat on the bed, dinner plate perched precariously on your lap and wine glass resting on the floor. It has to be said, that as bedsits go, it was one of the better ones. The bathroom probably justified the relatively high rent charged by the landlord.

Bedsits haven’t gone away, you know. You would think these miserable abodes would be a thing of the past, conjuring up grimy damp cramped living conditions with maybe a primus stove to cook baked beans on and a sink for both washing your clothes in as well as your dishes. It would drive even a frugal renter straight to the pub. How can anyone be expected to live and thrive in a single room, more often than not, in a badly kept building.

Whether or not the housing minister goes ahead with his mooted plan to revoke the 2013 ban on bedsits in a bid to ease the housing crisis, they are not unfortunately a thing of the past. Google ‘Cork bedsits’ and you’ll see advertisements for them. There’s one advertised in the St Luke’s area. It’s described as a bedsit to rent in a detached house consisting of six apartments. The monthly rent for the bedsit is a saucy €550. But in today’s rental climate, where you can pay around €1,500 a month for an apartment, you can see how people would succumb to renting a bedsit if they’re desperate enough in their search for accommodation.

Rent is sky high. Why doesn’t the government introduce rent control? Rack renting landlords are a law unto themselves. Just 3% of private rented properties in County Cork passed minimum standard inspections in 2016 — but no legal action has been taken against landlords. Some are still renting out bedsits.

Bringing back bedsits is the politics of desperation, says former Green Party TD, Dan Boyle. Writing on Facebook, he said the problem is that people’s “poverty is being played on.” And he points out the “people who pay rent for bedsits pay proportionately more per square metre. This is all about shameless lobbying by a particular interest group that doesn’t wish to house people, but to pack as many people as possible into particular buildings.”

The bedsit scenario is like something out of a Sean O’Casey play with poor people condemned to living in appalling conditions. Bedsits or ‘studios’ are today’s tenements and they are not just a pitiful solution for the poverty-stricken.

People on what might be called reasonable wages can’t afford the cruel market-driven rental sector that treats people as units whose only function is to cough up money to line the pockets of landlords. Would any of our politicians (some of whom have more than one house) deign to live in a bedsit, even as a social experiment? Of course not. These people are almost paid to cross the road, and run up tabs in the Dáil bar that some don’t seem to be willing to honour.

But there is what appears to be some good news on the housing front with signs that the Government is preparing to turn Nama into a State-owned housing developer to fill the gaps left by the private sector. The agency would focus solely on developing land and delivering affordable housing.

In the meantime, hard-pressed renters have to scrabble for extremely limited space, sometimes being asked to pay two month’s deposit.

Under housing regulations, rented properties are supposed to meet minimum standards relating to structure, sanitary facilities, food preparation, storage, laundry facilities, heating, lighting, ventilation and safety of oil, electricity and gas installations — and fire safety and refuse facilities.

But Cork County Council has a mere three inspectors to cover 18,835 registered private rented properties. It’s a travesty.