AN OUTSIDE PERSPECTIVE:
Unlike the majority of my visits to private rented houses this one was anticipated as I’d been invited by a tenant.
As a North West community organiser for Generation Rent my role largely entails working with private tenants, through door to door outreach and also through what we call in the sector ‘dialogical relations,’ but what others might refer to as a good chat (with social change being the underpinning intention, because after all, we mean business).
This form of investigative organising, not only allows for first-hand experience and documentation of the state of rented properties, it also provides the chance to build relationships with tenants and support them in an ever increasing battle against illegality and disrepair.
In this instance, it was the first time I had been invited to see a property prior to meeting the tenants. My curiosity was piqued.
Before I’d even knocked on the door I could see that the windows were not sealed nor double glazed and the once attractive period house, with it’s lovely high ceilings and large glass pane windows had clearly seen better days.
Once I’d set foot inside the property, the stench of rotted mildew hit me full force and any lingering appreciation for period charm was replaced by concern for the five tenants being forced to exist in this un-liveable property.
As I was given a tour, I’d like to try to recreate this for the reader;
If you walk towards the lounge, you might be forgiven for thinking the property is open plan. As it turns out there is just a notable absence of doors, to both the lounge and kitchen. There are also 'feature's: such as the one below:
As if to add insult to injury, the kitchen itself has no working plug points, forcing tenants to use a labyrinth of extension leads from the hall and risk overloading multi-plug points. And if that wasn’t concerning enough this labyrinth of leads converge in the entrance to the kitchen, and demarcate the boundary point between kitchen and hall, where normally a (fire-safe) door would be. Instead, a trip and fire hazard rolled into one resides just in the threshold. Speaking of trip, the old cooker left in the property would routinely trip the power, and the fridge leaked.
During the first weeks of their tenancy the five residents battled bravely on with only a rusted microwave to heat their meals. By mid-December a working cooker was finally installed. But by this point pervasive black mould emerged in each room, leaking water from an exterior wall in an upstairs bedroom, wet and blistering walls in most rooms, and water damaged light fittings were making their presence known, showing through the paltry redecoration measures.
A huge fissure had appeared in an upstairs bedroom wall, while a separate bedroom had sprung a leak from the ceiling, and ‘no natural fibre was safe’ as black mould ate through the bathroom wicker baskets, clothing and shoes of the tenants:
During this time, one of the tenants had taken it upon herself to report all the incidences of hazards and faults in the property to the environmental health department of Manchester City Council. The same tenant had been suffering from increasing symptoms of asthma and was advised to leave the property by immediately her GP.
Manchester council had acknowledged her letter and these issues, and duly sent an ultimatum to the private landlord to fix the problems with the residence which he completely ignored; Hence the new cooker and working fridge replacements occurred in ceremonious alignment with the property being taken into new ownership.
However, the only notification that the tenants received of this ‘new ownership’ was via a letter from a Leicestershire based Estate Agents informing them that the property was from now onward, under their sole ownership and requested all rent payments to the named landlord to be stopped.
However, the landlord was familiar to the tenants, and the new estate agents, were not. The tenant who I met with even recalls how he continued to pay rent to his landlord, who had actually come to the property and gathered up ‘to the occupier’ mail, in order, as it later transpired, to prevent the tenants from realizing they should cease their rent payments.
The landlord in question continued to request and accept rent payments in spite of having no legal recourse to do so. The landlord had also denied all knowledge of the new management, even though he’d lost his right to keep the property.
Looking over the 9 month tenancy agreement I wasn’t surprised. A healthy 1300 was being paid per month for an evidently unhealthy property:
Further confusion for the tenants was caused by the multi-layered third-party involvement in the letting and management of the property. Included in the heady mix were: a Managing agent and separate Letting agent, all being part of the property contract as well as the original landlord, and now a fourth Estate Agent had joined the party on November 7th. Gravy-trains and jumping on are a few words that come to mind here.
During a phone conversation to the original managing agents, the private tenant who I have not named for legal reasons told me that he had asked where their relationship stood with the agents now the landlord was out of the picture, and what was the contingency plan as their property was still hazardous? They answered him with dismissive laughter.
Not only was he condescended by this, but bamboozled. What was he paying his agent fees for? What role did the ‘managing’ agents have? A good question and one that Generation Rent have been asking parliament for most of the last year.
How can a system of housing, which is relied on by ten million of us, allow for such instances of abuse and exploitation of tenants?
The current system actively nourishes such exploitation. In fact, as Founder of Renters Rights London Rosie Walker points out, an increasing majority of our law makers are also our landlords. Conflict of interests seems to be a theme here? This doesn't bode well for decision making in favour of renters.
Projections indicate a further 15 million people will occupy private tenancies within the next decade in London alone and that under the current trajectory, rents will suck up 90% of tenant’s income by 2040, with over 50% of renters already falling below the poverty line by 2030 (Joseph Rowntree Foundation).
Why then, are there almost no legal structures to change the unsustainable crash course the sector is headed toward? One simple answer is the oft bandied phrase ‘business is best’, the erstwhile ideology that served the few at the expense of the majority may have finally has it’s day; Or as one tenant put it: “there’s only so much blood you can bleed", in short, renters are running out of cash and patience, but not out of votes. Our majority is increasing favourably in that percentile. Therein is the warning for all landlord-MPs and non-landlord MPs alike. Seats are not looking so safe any more, until the rental sector is firmly on all party agendas.
The nascent amendment to the Consumer Rights Act, with Labour’s proposed 44D Bill to ban letting agency fees, must be resurrected. As must MP Sarah Teather's amendment to the application of Section 21 Notices giving landlords power to issue ‘no-fault’ evictions to tenants requesting repairs.
The tenant who I met at his property was not an exception to the rule as he himself has pointed out ‘there are plenty more properties like these’ and he is committed to supporting us to find them, and their tenants, to start a campaign of local action and reverse the injustices being wrought.
Such injustices extend to the tax payer. For it is they who are also unwittingly investing in this ‘booming rental market’ by supporting landlords with the 10% tax relief they receive, toward ‘wear and tear maintenance’ on their rental properties. It’s fair to say from the state of the majority of rental properties viewed in the Northwest that these monies seem largely diverted elsewhere.
How about the small matter of housing benefits, of which Ten Billion pounds are going out of tax payers pockets and into that of private landlords? These billions prop up the unsustainable cost of rents and benefit no one but the landlord. It is high time for change, and not the small kind.