Woody Allen once quipped:
"When I was kidnapped my parents snapped into action. They rented out my room".
Never has such a joke been so excruciatingly apt than in our current housing crisis where the enforced bedroom tax has been rained down upon some of the poorest households in our communities, and where property has become the latest greatest place for the wealthy to invest in an otherwise flailing consumer market.
The housing market, as the Manchester Advertiser likes to remind me, is 'Booming' and never has there been a better time to be a 'landlord, developer or investor'. Why then, are renters not luxuriating in the benefits of such a successful industry? Why are we not revelling in the glorious standard of rental accommodation and affordability, as the sector becomes ever more prosperous and invested in?
Perhaps the answer to this lies in the cryptic clue of the original joke quoted above- the marketeers, whether they are investors, developers, landlords, managing or letting agents-have one common denominator. They have the power of legislature behind them and are all exploiting an opportunity. While the current Government fails to provide enough housing renters remain a captive audience of 9 million, through whom landlords alone, garner 32 Billion Pounds per year.
The real trouble starts when we consider how little rights our 'audience' has. Not only are we teetering within a housing crisis that seems engineered to profit the profiteers, but by continually ensuring demand outweighs supply, our Government is complicit in this; Please note the massive under-build of the promised 200, 000 properties per year that was mentioned in the pre-election Conservative Manifesto.
Over the last month, my role as community organiser for Generation Rent Manchester, has taken me into some well-trodden territory. Into the clusters of multiple occupation residencies, family homes and student houses across the city centre, Hulme, Fallowfield, Withington, Chorlton and Whalley Range. And into the less familiar but increasingly vital territory of homelessness shelters, community centres and food banks.
During this time I've been able to hear some of the real life stories of renters who have chosen to remain anonymous for otherwise causing retaliatory eviction, or worse even being sued for speaking truth to power.
Annie's* Story: "Managing Agents have slowly drained the money and life out of our building and all of us who live in it."
We are situated in an inner city Ward, and so I always expected to have some issues with noise, and potentially some expected dilapidation as our building is a Grade II Listed Property.
When my husband and I retired and moved here, what we didn't expect was to be shelling out almost £2000 a year to our managing agents* and have them do absolutely nothing with that money. Each of the 62 apartment owners in this grand old building pay a rate of almost £150 a month, which tots up to £9,300 a month or £111,600 a year.
To give some insight into the state of the building I can tell you that one of my neighbours on the top floor had a tree growing through their ceiling, and I do have pictures to prove it but won’t release them to the press or the managing agency have offered to sue me for my troubles if I do!
Another one of my neighbours had a leak for 15 years, and this had eroded the wooden flooring creating a life-threatening hazard in the bathroom of another tenant. When the tenant -led investigation began, into the damage caused by the leak (which said tenant had been complaining about for over a decade) it was found that the structure of the floor was so weak that at any point the entire top floor was ready to cave in and collapse into the flat below- potentially killing the family on the lower floor.
We recently won a lease holder valuation tribunal against our negligent Managing Agents. But the story doesn't and should not end here.
In essence our victory was a hollow one, as the managing agents really only paid out a fraction of the compensation that ought to have come to us residents.I had a dossier of complaints over a thousand pages long that had accrued over the last decade of my residence in the building.
It still scares me how much power the agents have over us as tenants. It really is our life in their hands. We are so tired of fighting within a system that doesn't equip us with the rights we deserve.
John's Story: 'Our Landlord was Responsible... For A Litany of Crime'
We moved into our first shared property over five years ago, and there was a group of 6 of us all sharing. We lived together in 4 different houses, in Whalley Range and then Chorlton respectively.Over the 5 year period that followed and only one of these properties had an HMO licence and none had working fire alarms.
In each and every property we had to fit our own fire-alarms, bar one which already had them. But once we checked these with the Fire Service it turned out they were disconnected.
One of the properties stands out particularly in memory because it was situated on the second and third floors above an Indian restaurant in Chorlton. This property consisted of two terraced upper properties knocked into one. It had no fire-alarms and no fire-extinguishers and as I mentioned, and also no HMO licence.
Over time it became clear just how illegal the property was.
The property was let as 'furnished'. When we moved in there was no cooker, no washing machine, no curtains, missing door-frames and not enough beds. Some window panes were loose because it turned out, they’d been fitted incorrectly.The toilet leaked down into the restaurant below. One 'bedroom' had an external door that led out onto the roof. The roof had no safety barriers and there was a sheer drop of over 12 foot onto tarmac below.
There were rodent droppings in the cupboards before we even moved our stuff in. Black mould was present in all of our rooms. The windows were not double glazed and drafts kept us cold even with the heating on. Some of us cleaned the mould away, and used D.I.Y. insulation PVC to temporarily seal the windows. We even used mould-resistant paint to redecorate over the worst of the black mould. But we were all desperate for a large house and so we made do.
After we'd been in the property for only a month or two, there was a knock on the door.
We'd had fire alarms fitted by the Fire Service the week previous, and so I was expecting them to be back to check on these as I could make out men in uniforms through the window. It turned out to be three armed Police. They were looking for the property owner. This was disconcerting to say the least. It seemed our landlord was responsible for a whole litany of crimes and evading the law.
On a monthly basis bailiffs (acting on behalf of the HSBC bank) would knock on our door looking for the building owner. We had never once been introduced to our actual landlord, nor were we allowed to know his address as the transactions had all taken place through **** Letting Agency.
In the December of the same year we'd moved in our boiler broke. We had no heating and no hot water, and told **** Lettings immediately. They offered to send a repair man around. It was a week or so before Christmas, and we were keen to get someone in as soon as possible.
We ended up waiting until the middle of January for our boiler to be fixed.
When the time came for our contract to be renewed we were all complicit in our agreement we were leaving.
On trying to regain our deposits, we were told that they would be retained and we'd only be getting a small percentage back. When we called into **** Lettings to confront them about this arrangement, spurious claims of damages such as a 'missing door frame' were being taken out of our deposits, although there was no door frame in the particular room to begin with.
We queried the inventory but this was never produced. Instead the landlord who we had still not had the pleasure of meeting, had claimed damages such as cracked tiles (again these were present upon arrival).
After a battle we managed to claw back some of our deposit. If we had the choice we would never rent through a Letting Agent again. But we don't have a choice. We are captive audience!
I have shared this story because I want the truth told. There aren't a 'few' rogue landlords as the media would like us to believe- there's a majority, or at least there are in MANCHESTER!
I need a licence to drive my car, so I can be held to account and my actions regulated if I took unnecessary risks and endangered lives. Why then aren't landlords made to have a licence? They take far bigger risks with tenants lives and make a heap of money out of these same tenants whilst doing so! The Government needs to wake up and listen to us renters, because we're soon to be the majority.
Sarah's Story: "I was a pregnant single mum of three, and my landlord gave me just one day's notice to move. We need more stable long term tenure options for tenants like me, with families."
I was a single mum at the time, with three children and pregnant with the fourth. This was around 6 years ago. I rented directly from my landlord, no middle men letting agents taking extra money off me for nothing. ("Finders-fees"- how the heck are those even legal?)
I'd been in the property for six months, on a rolling contract. I was about to renew my contract when my landlord told me I had a day to shift myself. He said he had another property for me that was in better repair and only just a few streets away, but I had to have moved myself within 24 hours.
I was petrified that if I didn't do as he said my children and I would wind up homeless (I had been before) and so I moved fast, and I don't know how I managed it but I was out of there within a day. I was over 5 months pregnant at the time and all my kids were still primary school age.
During the lead up to this, I'd had workmen in and out of my house, as the landlord was having it repaired. Once I came back and there were muddy footprints on my bed. Right in the middle of my bed.
They were trying to intimidate me, as they wanted me out so they could get on with the work more easily. I look back at how desperate I was and wish I'd had the knowledge and support I have now."
These case studies are just a few of the most disturbing I've been privy to and all names are changed owing to the sensitive content disclosed. The reason we need to hear these real-life experiences of renters is to force the decision makers in this country to sit up and take notice. Isn't it time that the Private Rented Sector became a Regulated option, as well as the only option for an increasing number of us? Let the 65% of renters soon to be dominating Manchester's population decide.
Or let's ask for change now.