Wednesday, March 1, 2017
How new legislation could help keep thousands of families in their homes in Ireland
Irish tenants evicted from their smallholding for the non-payment of rent in an image from the Illustrated London News, December 16, 1848.
The word ‘eviction’ has a particularly poignant and cruel association in Ireland. For anyone who has even a passing knowledge of our history, the word conjures up images of ravaged families loading their scant belongings on carts in the threatening presence of well-dressed landlords and their agents.
It’s a scene, and a word association, that we would probably like to regard as being consigned to history. The reality, however, is that the threat of eviction remains very much part of life in contemporary Ireland.
Today, we tend to call it possession, particularly when it refers to eviction from a home that is mortgaged. It’s a term that slightly sanitises the devastating reality that people are being dispossessed of their family home, and a term that denotes that those being dispossessed are wholly responsible for their own fate.
The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. At least 30,0000 households — and that’s a conservative estimate, in my view — are facing the unthinkable fate of losing their homes largely because they are unable to service unworkable mortgage terms.
The people I represent are not cynical defaulters or shirkers. They are couples in their 50s or 60s who may have remortgaged their home to raise capital for a valid business expansion in the buoyant days of the early 2000s.
They are young parents who paid huge sums of money for very ordinary houses. They are single parents who don’t put the heat on in their houses and scrimp on food for themselves in order to try to meet the onerous repayment demands on their home loans — payments that banks may not even accept.
They are people with no money, with nowhere to turn, and, most often, with no choice in the end but to surrender their homes.
It is because of the fate of these ordinary people — our neighbours and friends — that the Keeping People in Their Homes Bill 2017, introduced yesterday in the Dáil by Independent Alliance TD Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran, is so important, and so overdue.
Utilising principles of EU law (which are already transposed into Irish law), the bill gives us a common-sense piece of legislation that lets courts balance the competing economic rights of corporate home lenders or their successors (so-called vulture funds) against the fundamental rights of ordinary individual borrowers who are facing homelessness.
At its core is what is known as the proportionality assessment or test, which is fundamental to EU contract and human rights law. Proportionality means courts can consider the effect of repossession on the whole household and the impact that granting or executing an order for possession of a home would have on people’s lives.
In practical terms, this legislation will allow a judge or county registrar to consider the effect that the loss of a home has on the physical and mental health of household members. Courts can examine whether there is suitable alternative accommodation available for the household to live together.
They can take into account the impact that home loss will have on children.
They can examine the viability of alternative arrangements to prevent home loss, or they can assess the potential costs to the State if it has to provide emergency accommodation and supports to the household in the event of home loss.
I have been representing people facing repossession since the economic crash nearly a decade ago. The people I work with are not speculators or wily investors.
They are not people who knowingly entered into home loans they couldn’t afford. They are not people who ever saw themselves in the desperate and precarious situations they now find themselves.
They are law-abiding citizens who want to co-operate with banks on fair terms, who want to be able to plan for their children’s futures, and who above all, want to stay in, and pay towards, their own homes.