Saturday, 24 September 2011

Think Of A Number

Rents are rising, even in cities where there is an excess of empty flats and houses, despite interest rates kept non-existently low. I might have discovered one reason why.

A friend moved from abroad to study in a northern city. After spending some time living London, where rent is ridiculous, she had limited time for flat-hunting in this new home-town, but found a room, decent but nothing special, slightly out of the centre but close to transport links (everywhere’s close to the bus train etc, but she didn’t know that.)

Her jovial landlady/flatmate set the rent at the same level as a small one bed flat, just thirty pounds under many local two-beds. My friend had no idea. I resented what the landlady had done, especially when she moved out and let her own room to another overseas student, who also knew no better and needed a home fast, thereby covering both her entire mortgage and her rent.

I met this woman a few months ago. She’s nice and everything – really friendly and tolerant, and allows her tenants use of her household nick-nacks knowing they are unlikely to have bought them across from overseas. We were discussing rents, and she asked me how much I paid. Whilst trying hard not stir up trouble for my friend (who was sitting next to her) I answered: the same as my friend pays for her room. She was aghast. I said it’s not in the best of areas, but neither is it in the worst. It’s the going rate for such a place.

She disagreed. She said she’s paid that for a flat five years ago, which was true, but her home then was an excellent flat in a really desirable area, where rents haven’t risen much as they were stratospheric to begin with. She’d never compared the cost with other local room rates, and I think that’s how landlords set prices: think of a number, double it, add some more and see what sticks: massive profit for them, misery for tenants.

There is no excuse for rocketing rents anywhere outside of London and even there rent rises are market rather than interest rate led. When interest rates rise, there will be further misery, as tenants – already squeezed – will be expected to cushion the same landlords who haven’t lowered rents when interest rates were low.

I checked again: the only flats rented out for as much as she was asking were genuine luxury flats with champagne fountains and lifts up to the sofa, not bog-standard two beds, no matter how near a train station.

It’s wrong that there is no rent officer to intervene when landlords are greedy, ripping off tenants who don’t know any better. How this woman looked my friend in the face every morning without falling to the floor and begging for forgiveness is a mystery to me. Amazingly, they are still mates. How tolerant of my friend. How cynical of her landlady.

Monday, 19 September 2011

No Riot

I’ve written before about those horrible and invidious Condem housing benefit changes, but can’t believe it’s going ahead. I say changes: this is not a change, it is an abolition. Housing Benefit, and Local Housing Allowance, its evil twin – are going. Wiped out.

Nobody is angry. There have been no riots, no protests.

Years ago, thanks to Edwina Curry, changes were made in the allowances paid to people condemned to live temporarily in B&B accommodation. This was (and is) only ever a temporary measure, which happens when people are genuinely homeless and there is absolutely nowhere else to go.

Currie had proposed the cuts by stating that claimants were: ‘frolicking on the beaches of Brighton’ as if the state was paying for a little trip to the seaside, rather than condemning people to exist in hovels. Full English breakfast? Hardly: no cooking or washing facilities and appalling overcrowding were the norm. The system was being abused, not by claimants, but by landlords and B&B ‘farms’ who crammed people into dingy shacks and charged the state a fortune, much as certain landlords are profiteering from inflated rents. Again, the abuse was stopped not by punishing the landlords, but by penalising hapless tenants.

When actioned, nobody was sure what would happen. First all, it was imagined that there would be riots, as masses of angry people slept in the hot summer parks, and that the decision would be reversed. They didn’t and it wasn’t.

But that was nearly thirty years ago, and ask anyone old enough, they won’t remember the changes being announced perhaps, but they might recall a different world, one that seems miraculous to us now.

There were far fewer beggars, and pan-handlers, or whatever is the acceptable phrase now. Yes, I know that not all beggars are genuine, but numbers were lower. That is because there were not as many homeless people.

Imagine: no Big Issue. Fewer wraiths and shades wandering around in the twilight, shuffling for somewhere to sleep. Even Grant Shapps is aware (and it’s the only sensible thing he’s ever said in his life, ever) that the official roofless, street-living homeless figure is way below the genuine number.

I don’t predict a riot. A predict a world where there is even more overcrowding, and more people begging to make up the difference between their income and rent.

There is an equation for the amount of beggars and for want of an acceptably descriptive phrase, ranting, visibly mentally ill people per square mile that society will tolerate, before demanding that something must be done. When will we reach that limit, because these cuts are going to push things to the max.

Don’t imagine people care. They don’t care. People want to enjoy their latte without being prodded by some Herbert who asks for change, and if it happens too many times on the way to the gym, they demand action.

That’s not to mention the separated parents under the age of thirty-five who will have nowhere for their visiting kids to stay. Nice work from the self-proclaimed family party. Nice work.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

A Spanish Tale

I visited a friend in Barcelona. She lives in the old quarter, close to the shore. Her flat is amazing, with a terrace straight out of an Almodavar film, three large bedrooms, a study and high ceilings with original plaster moulding. The entrance features a formidably huge carved wooden door, with a smaller one cut into it so people can duck and enter without damaging ligaments.

Originally the flats were built around a cooling courtyard, now covered sensitively with a glass roof (I visited during the rainy season in Catalonia) and the owner had recently paid for a glass lift to be installed. We reached it via an elegant, ancient street with an equally ancient coffee house on the corner, where neighbours met for a cuppa.

The tenants are varied. My friend has two teenage sons, and her neighbour has a toddler. Another neighbour has lived there since being a dreadlocked engineering student, and is now a smartly dressed professional (what? they scrub up nicely.) Other occupants are elderly and have lived there all their lives. The stone steps are eroding with countless human footsteps

The flat is absolutely unfurnished, not even white goods, as has become the custom in unfurnished flats in Scotland. Over the years she has amassed a begged and bargained for beautiful raggle-taggle band of chairs and other belongings, all of which suit the grand and eccentric nature of the building.

The landlord has not put up the rent for two years, and it being close to the yachts, beach and shoreline development, you can imagine how desirable that flat is.

My friend recently wilted in the heat and paid to install a much-needed ceiling fan. She said that if she ever installs central heating (which she might well do) she will expect a longer rental agreement, but it seems tacitly understood that she will stay as long as she wants, be that decades or forever.

The problem is that the landlord doesn’t really ‘do’ repairs. It’s her home, and so she does all the work. Before she moved in he installed a modern bathroom and kitchen. Oh – and regular readers of this column might like to know there is utility cupboard, something I advocate in confined space, but this is an airy flat.

Even the locks are carefully crafted, adorned with decoration. The windows might leak in the winter, but they are antiques, with moulded locks and fittings, and to replace them with sealed water resistant plastic ones would be a crime and a travesty.

It’s always been an apartment block. Over the years, the flats have been reduced in size (I imagine they once had space for servants, larders and laundries as they are quite grand). Tenants have always rented homes long-term here, and the landlord inherited the freehold from his mother – it’s been passed down the generations.

Tenants wash clothes, floors and each other, die, are born and marry, love, work laugh and argue in this grand, cool and fantastic building. And they’ve been doing so, as tenants, since the early 1700’s.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Bully Boy Bailiffs

Several readers have contacted me about those new-fangled ‘eviction specialists’ and shared some of their unpleasant experiences.

By now we know that there will be no more social housing, a situation which imprisons tenants in a familiar private sector housing hell where landlords/wardens view their investment as a fiefdom or a precious heirloom, and never as a home (more importantly someone else’s home.)

Solicitors are amongst the ultimate professionals, aren’t they? They study for years incurring debt to learn the complex nature of the law and how to apply it. All that knowledge explains why they charge so much money. When dealing with legal matters, many landlords deeply resent handing over money for anything, let alone something that costs because experts train for years to protect themselves and the people hiring them.

That’s why landlords are sometimes stung after downloading and using poorly worded, dodgy documents, or worse don’t provide an agreement at all. More worryingly when confronted with problems (and there will always be problems) they are increasingly reaching for the nearest firm of eviction specialists, also known as bully boys, to harass and terrify tenants into leaving or ‘behaving’ themselves.

Ads for these gentlemen are appearing all over the place. Some are honest solicitors specialising in property services and ‘eviction specialist’ is a poorly chosen, attention-seeking term for what they do.

Others are bullies. They are largely unregulated, and offer to get rid of tenants ‘efficiently’ and ‘fast’.

One reader told me of an informal meeting with one such company. She was a newly graduated lawyer, and along with the legion of recently qualified lawyers she was unemployed. During her brief chat with the firm, which was operating at the blunt and confrontational end of the industry, she was left feeling quite disturbed: they mocked tenants, openly despised them actually and even seemed to get their thrills from intimidating people instead of using formal, appropriate legal channels.

Considering that many landlords operate on the assumption that tenants should just jump out of the property when (let’s hope metaphorically) they are shoved, and that renters genuinely have very few rights at all (apart from the right to be given notice and the subsequent legal process) this is a disturbing development. Seriously, owners can get practically get rid of tenants by saying three times: I evict you, I evict you, I evict you.

I predict a problem. I think it’s going, to get out of hand. In the near future, a tenant eviction specialist/ex-bouncer (they are often ex-bouncers) will go too far, revert to violent type and injure a tenant or worse while ‘persuading’ them to leave.

Some operators are legitimate, but you have to wonder why landlords need a gang of hired hoodlums, as opposed to using the well-established legal process, as happened to one reader, recently. Are they cheaper? Do landlords get their kicks from hanging around with rough bad boys?

Stopping this will involve strict formal regulation of a growing, emerging industry. And what are the chances of that happening?

Monday, 5 September 2011

Flat Sharing in 'Can Be OK' Shock.

Recently, I found myself sharing a home again. The flat was large and pleasant enough so I thought – oh, give it a go. I wasn’t looking forward to it entirely, especially as one of my (lovely) new flatmates described the residence forthrightly as: “We’re two blokes. It is what you would expect.” Cue feverish visions of 70’s contrived sitcom flat-share hell.

But they could use the rent money, and I was looking for a place, so why not? Ghostly memories of flat-shares past came flooding back, reminding me of why I avoid multi-occupancy wherever possible. Stories like the long, desperate queues for the bathroom, once while the horny couple (there’s one in every shared house) shared, a long, indulgent bubbly bath last thing every night.

Or the chilly, gothic, three-storey house where I went away for xmas, returning to find that in my absence, all six occupants had quarrelled terminally and disastrously, so badly they had stopped speaking to each other, even with me. And it was nothing to do with me!

I had flashbacks of sharing the nervous breakdowns of others (one co-tenant tried to take her own life with four junior Disprin) the heated recriminations which turned nasty over ‘carrot theft’ (so kill me - I used one of your carrots…)

The flatmate who one morning filled an entire kitchen with a visiting French street theatre troupe but ‘…had only slept with two of them.’ The flatmate who, for economy turned down all the heating until there were ‘icebergs dead ahead’ in the lounge, but heated her room until we melted again. The flatmate who bought a house but took the bed and the curtains from her room, leaving me to explain things to the landlord.

But my flatmates (let’s call them Alex and Bruno) are lovely guys and behaved like gentlemen throughout. The only bugbear was Bruno and the toilet. Until I arrived it looked like the bog in Trainspotting: a dark abyss, a dangerous swirling vortex of filth and gloom, which until I held my nose and applied bleach could have pulled humanity through its noxious gateway and into an unpleasant alternative universe. Forever…

But we were all polite: no bathroom hogging or food-stealing. Perhaps it was a question of respect. Nobody resented living there. Previous flatmates of mine have felt themselves out of place, and have acted imperiously, as if renting was beneath them. One even referred to us as peasants. I miss her so much.

Bruno leant me books, Alex recommended music. I am missing the music (mostly Bruno’s daily 11 am sax rehearsal) and Alex’s diligently prepared, economical and yet paradoxically luxurious packed lunches, and having technical assistance around at all hours. Most of all it was great to have someone ask: ‘ you need anything from the shop’ occasionally.

You’re going to miss me Bruno, I said, enjoying the leaving meal he’d cooked for me. No, he replied: we’ve bought a dishwasher.
He loves me really.