It will come as no surprise to anyone, except perhaps the wealthy elite, that we are in the midst of a full-blown housing crisis. According to Focus Ireland, at the end of August 2019, there were over 910 young people living in emergency accommodation and the number of homeless families had increased by 348% since August 2014. These figures don’t even include the hidden homeless or those staying in domestic violence refuges. There is no shortage of land that can be used to build social housing. Yet, empty houses are sitting vacant while homelessness continues to rise. The housing crisis places homeless people and those who are renting in vulnerable situations where they are open to exploitation. 

Nothing highlights the huge power imbalance between landlords and renters more than the #SexIsNotRent scandal raised by Ruth Coppinger TD at the Dáil last month. A young woman living in Rathmines was sexually harassed by her landlord who said she could stay rent free until Christmas “if we can agree something.” The woman was lucky enough to be able to move on from the house but many aren’t so lucky. There is no official statistics in Ireland regarding landlords offering reduced or free rent for sex but it was reported in September 2018 by a YouGov poll in the UK that 250,000 women were offered reduced rent in exchange for sexual favours over the past five years.

Since this scandal broke, many more women have contacted Ruth Coppinger to say they have also been sexually harassed by their landlords. This unfortunate reality is a reflection of landlord greed and self entitlement in a country where misogynistic attitudes still permeate many aspects of women’s lives. Young women and other marginalised groups are more likely to work in precarious jobs on zero hour contracts and face heightened risk of sexual harassment by managers, bosses and the general public. They are also more likely to pay high rents, hence it is not surprising that landlords feel entitled to ask women for sexual favours in return for rent reductions. This begs the question: If your predator has the keys to your house, who are you going to turn to?

Landlords are empowered by a society that is a breeding ground for sexism and gender discrimination. In Ireland, victims are still shamed and disrespected; they are even told they were “asking for it”. The Irish Justice system is failing to protect victims of sexual assault as was clearly evidenced by both the Belfast Rugby Rape trial and the recent court case in Cork where a thong was used as evidence of the victim’s consent. Many cases of sexual violence go unreported and the few victims who do come forward rarely see justice delivered. The last Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (SAVI) report was published seventeen years ago and there are no up-to-date statistics regarding the volume of unreported cases in Ireland. This problem will only get worse as the housing crisis continues.

Tellingly, one third of TDs in the Dail are landlords and most of them belong to Fine Gael or Fianna Fail. Their “solution” to the housing crisis involves reinforcing the need for private landlords through the HAP scheme and building co-living spaces and luxury student accommodation which many can’t afford. More recently, Solidarity-PBP’s Anti Eviction Bill has been blocked by the government even though it was passed in the Dáil. 

The housing crisis provides the perfect conditions for parasitic landlords to exploit the most vulnerable in our society – including exploiting renters for sex. Luckily, young people are becoming increasingly politically active, spurred on by recent gains like abortion rights and marriage equality. It is important to remember these rights were fought for, not handed to us by the establishment! We need to build a movement that challenges the rule of profit in society. A movement that fights for real rent controls and a ban on evictions. We must STAND together in this fight! 

Photo via Kim Buckley/Twitter

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