Moving home is one of those life events which we have romanticised with the icon of the happy family; full of bustle, adventure and promise. The flit has been culturally packed with the all-American cinematic scene of loving parents lugging cardboard boxes, stuffed with the all-mod-cons of the dream lifestyle, from the front door to the back of the hatch-back, while well-fed catalogue kids play with the Golden Labrador in the front yard. This vision of perfection is a far cry from the plight of the refugee and the exile. Not all relocations are as lovely and wholesome as the Parental Guidance movies would have us believe. Sometimes, as is the experience for many vulnerable people, moving from one place to another opens one up to the cruelty and hostility of others. This is a reality which is understood best only when one acts in solidarity with those people within our society who are the most vulnerable; the poor.
Over a year ago I decided to move into Dublin’s inner city, to the Liberties; an area of town which has historically suffered the worst from the conditions of poverty and social exclusion. What I had thought to do was to test my own prejudices and those of ‘better-off’ Dublin concerning the lifestyle choices and attitudes of the people who live in those run-down houses between Cork Street and Thomas Street. Was it really the case that the houses were so decrepit because their inhabitants lacked any real care for their environment or any sense of social responsibility? These assumptions are the most natural conclusions of people who have never been in a position of financial insecurity; those who have always had enough in income or savings to have some measure of autonomy over their home and its location. For a monthly rent of eight hundred and fifty euros I came across an end-of-terrace, dilapidated three bedroom house; 23 Watkins Buildings on Ardee Street. Only around the corner in Watkins Square lived the Academy Award winning actress Brenda Fricker (My Left Foot, 1989); a long-time champion of the Liberties and its people. It was perfect for the Liberties experience.
The owner of the property, a Mister Ronan McDonnell, was rather shady and always reluctant to reveal his name or any other details by which he might be properly identified. Never once in the term of the contract did he ever divulge his full identity, and went to great pains to ensure that his 2001 Limerick registered Jaguar XJR motorcar was out of sight of the address when he was in the vicinity. On signing the contract to the lease he was ‘cute’ enough to illegibly sign his half of the bargain in the name of a heretofore unmentioned business (Celtic Oriental LTD) and give it the same address as the house I was moving into. Thanks to a friend in the civil service I was able to discover that there were quite a number of small construction businesses under the name of this same man and a handful of his associates. Not a few of them had changed their trading names frequently over the past decade. Ronan McDonnell was the perfect example of the infamous Dublin slum landlord. Once the contract was signed, the security deposit of eight hundred and fifty euros and a month’s rent (of the same amount) were paid in full the character of this Dickensian chap was developed a little more.
On viewing the house all of the windows were open; airing the house, the beds were covered in new linens and a leather sofa was taking up most of the living room. Now that I had the keys, and could battle my way through the front door – which had evidently been ‘kicked in’ and repaired a number of times before my arrival – it was a completely different story. Nothing could have prepared me for the state of the house once the smoke and mirrors had been removed. With the windows closed over the lack of ventilation created a stench of mould and urine which was suffocating, the kitchen produced a wholly indescribable stench and the general condition of the air caught like a powder in the back of ones’ throat. Upstairs was where the real shock was waiting. The mattresses in both of the bedrooms were bare and both were sodden with human filth; the true extent of which would only transpire later in conversation with neighbours. It took one whole month before the house was fit for human habitation, and it was only then that I would allow Ambrose (the dog who lives with me) to move his things in. Everything in the house had to be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. With the help of my longsuffering and dearly beloved friend the mattresses and the bed frames were removed from the house and destroyed. The insect infested wallpaper was removed and a fresh coat of paint was put on every wall.
In spite of all the work the house never became a home, and most of my belongings remained in their boxes until the lease had expired. Over time it became increasingly obvious that this was an effective poverty trap for people living on or below the minimum wage or on social welfare. In wintertime all savings were swallowed up in the heating bills, for the house had no insulation whatsoever and no means of stopping the perpetual draft through the building. The walls were sick; some insidious rot ate through every layer of paint, the roof let in on every downpour and there was the constant presence of miniscule white moths in every room of the house the whole year round. Of course Ronan McDonnell did not keep up his side of the rental agreement. He would repair things only insofar as he trashed everything he came into contact with, muddied newly shampooed carpets and made the problem worse for his efforts. After a while one was trained into not bothering to contact the landlord, and something tells me that this was the intention all along.
The neighbours, many of whom lived under the tyranny of similar property owners and ‘developers,’ had some very interesting stories to tell. A man by the name of Robert had lived at 23 Watkins Buildings before me. He was a native of the Liberties, an alcoholic who was well liked in the area. In his last days, he had taken to his bed, the stinking artefact I had to remove and destroy, as his internal organs gave out on him. He deteriorated and died in the master bedroom. It was a number of weeks before his lifeless body was discovered. He was the father of small children who no longer lived with him. He was hounded by his landlord, who came monthly on ‘rent day’ to exercise his intimidating ministry of presence on Robert. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace. Amen. This was the bed Ronan McDonnell hoped to make money from, and his reluctance to accept payment directly to his bank account was a manoeuvre he attempted on me. All that I can say regarding the end of poor Robert is that his latter days were certainly not enriched by the life of his landlord.
During this period Juraj, my friend and housemate, temporarily lost his job (like so many in Ireland at the present) and had to seek a rental supplement from the government. This is a basic right of all people living and working in the Republic of Ireland, and it is one of those things that the comfortable most resent of the poor and the unemployed. Yet such a support requires the signature of the property owner. Not all property owners have properly registered their taxable property and so have no desire to make themselves known as landlords to the authorities. This made the telephone conversation with McDonnell one of the most interesting and telling conversations I have ever had the misfortune to have had. Juraj is a citizen of the European Union from Slovakia who has lived and worked (paid taxes) in Ireland for a number of years, but when the chips are down and the landlord’s back is against the wall he is nothing more than another one of ‘them foreigners.’ I could not believe my ears to hear my friend thus described: ‘those people have some cheek!’ Those people! He must have been referring to those people off whose backs he drove a Jaguar and afforded to own a number of properties described by another friend (Paul) as ‘the sort of places down and outs live.’ He was right, of course, men like McDonnell prey on people who are in dire straits.
Oddly enough it was only on moving out that we came to the full realisation of the danger we had put ourselves in. Landlords of such disgusting properties know well that they will always find it difficult to rent out their houses, and the notice of departure from a tenant generally heralds a lean period. This prospect is one they do not enjoy. We understood that if we were to pay our last instalment of the rent then we would never see the return of our security deposit (this is the norm in the Liberties). People on the lowest incomes in Dublin simply cannot afford to go without the return of their security deposits and are therefore, more often than not, forced to remain in the homes they are living in. Our solution was to send Ronan McDonnell the following notification:
The lease agreement for 23 Watkins Building expires on June 5th 2012. It is my intention to quit the property the week preceding that date. The security deposit of €850; the balance of one month’s rent, safeguards you from any financial loss. I am also happy at the final inspection to discuss any outstanding monetary considerations you feel appropriate. You are of course at liberty to issue a 28 day notice to vacate.
With this message I included my personal email address to ensure that all further communication would be recorded. Not once did he avail of this route. Instead what happened was that, without notice (his contract stipulated that he give seven days written notice of a visit to the address), he came to the address and kicked through the front door. Fortunately this event was caught on the CCTV monitoring system of the Pentecostalist church across the street. On entering the house he confronted me, humorously enough, as I came from the toilet. At this point things could have gotten pretty complicated, and by Irish law his own life was very much in danger. What could one do? This is Ireland! I insisted that whilst this was his house, it was my home. I demanded that he take a seat and that I would make a cup of tea. Wonderful piece of psychology; bullies respond well to authority, so one has to be a lion tamer. After I had directed the conversation in a patronising manner to his wellbeing and his family, we ended up in a rather bizarre discussion about his fears for the future. At first he was reluctant to accept the tea, but once he did I found myself in command of the situation.
Naturally once he left the house, assured that I was a decent sort, I called the police; who took almost three hours to respond to an emergency call relating to a forced entry in the Liberties. There was nothing the police could do, as this was a civil matter; a fact which highlighted the danger people were continually placed in wherever these social conditions prevail. The two police officers did eventually take a statement for future reference only after I had insisted that I was ‘afraid for my life.’ Well of course I was; after the shock of the surprise visit I vomited for a night and had trouble sleeping for the next couple of nights. You should try it sometime. From this point on until we moved out all I had to do was pretend I was this McDonnell’s best friend; giving him constant updates on the progression of the move and so on. So we moved. Yet on the final inspection he handed me, without once looking at the house, a repair bill of two hundred and fifty euros. Now I was certain that the place was in better shape on my departure than on my arrival, but what did he care. I was honest with him and explained that I had no money on me (which was true), but seeing as we were now the very best of friends I suggested that we meet up at a local pub on Saturday evening where I would stand him a pint (like a grovelling peasant in the time-honoured Irish fashion) and pay my debts. This put a smile on his face, one which must have vanished when I didn’t show. But Dublin is a small town and soon my mobile telephone chirped with this text message:
I see you kept your luncheon date with your fellow clergymen yesterday, not so good when it comes to meeting your landlord to pay for damage caused to my house… you’re a real gent.
How entertaining it was that he managed to catch a glimpse of me all dressed up in the churchman garb. What a way to have your cover blown! Either that or I was with some unwholesome holy convocation. It matters not. My reply was swift and to the point:
There are only two things damaged; the lock you kicked in, and your brain. You will never understand what a ‘gentleman’ is. I hope your wife knows the bully that you are. You should be ashamed of yourself! I have left a fully documented complaint with photos with the Gardaí (police) at Kevin Street and the PRTB (The Private Residential Tenancies Board). Any further correspondence from you will be passed on to support the case against you.
That was on June 6th of this year (2012) and I have not heard a single word back from him. I have however noticed that he is now marketing the same address for a monthly rent of nine hundred euros. This is a blatant case of chancing ones’ arm so close to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Ronan McDonnell is not alone in this exploitative practice; in fact it is all too common in the more disadvantaged parts of inner city Dublin, and to a greater or lesser extent around the country. People are being trapped into dangerous cycles of poverty by such behaviour and the prevailing negative attitudes of the nation’s better off are doing little more than ensuring that this punishment continues. The poor are not poor simply because they choose to live in squalor; they are made to live in squalor because they are poor and lack the resources to escape the grip of such ‘landlords.’ As Christians we must always hold to the creedal confession that there is only one Lord, and to this Lord’s Gospel; a message of liberation from poverty and all forms of oppression. We must seek justice, in what we say and do, for everyone in our society. McDonnell and his ilk must be curtailed from their profiteering for “they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals – they trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth (Amos 2: 6-7 NRSV).”
© 2012 homophilosophicus