Sunday, 29 July 2012

Could It Be That It Was All So Simple Then?

Remember the good old days, when landlords were professionals, and tenants were secure: no computerised protocols or ‘affordability assessments.’ You found a place within your budget; prices were stable (if they went too high the rent officer would intervene) so nobody really cared if tenants were in work. Letting agents were rare.

But one reader’s situation exemplifies recent changes, notably the appalling ‘bedroom tax’:

‘I lost my job at the beginning of the year and was already renting the house I'm in now and had some money saved that would last me a year if used to top up my housing benefit (I'm in a 2 bedroom house as my son stays with me on the weekends) as they will only pay out for a one bedroom property. 6 months later and still no job so I am thinking I need to move whilst I still have some money left to do so (hiring a van etc) but as you no doubt know the big agents won't take people on benefits (I was respectable 6 months ago but not now apparently?) so I am looking at private landlords.

Thing is they seem to want a guarantor which I cannot get (although I have just found out my sister is still on the mortgage of her ex-husbands house so that may be viable), I suggested I could pay over £400 deposit to make up for it and they could get references from the larger agents I have used in the past and always been a good tenant but still waiting to hear.

Basically I am really worried as there don't seem to be any jobs and if I can't get a cheaper house at all will I be kicked out onto the streets? I seem to be being punished for something that I cannot get around or help.’

Many thousands of tenants will confront such an impossible situation over the next few weeks: no longer allowed to remain in a two bed place, no matter how cheap. If they do remain, they face financial penalties, and are already paid at starvation levels. Desperate, they turn to friends or relatives (whose own financial stability is precarious) for help or somewhere to stay. Frantically, they seek work where there is no work to be had. And are then thrown out of their houses.

This reader contacted me, without self-pity. He was truly worried he would be homeless. I suggested investigating whether his council have a scheme (some do) where accredited landlords house tenants claiming benefits, sometimes accepting any deposit in stages. Social tenants did not pay upfront deposits of perhaps six weeks rent, unlike private tenants, which is a nightmare when forcibly relocating.

I asked my correspondent to stay in touch. He did, and has some positive news. He’s still being forced out (it’s not like he’s a hogging a valuable six bed council house) but he’s found a home:

‘I approached a landlord, who is in a partnership with a group of well known solicitors in my area, with my predicament and they said they couldn't promise anything. Saw 2 houses last Friday and one was better than the other so I approached them on Monday with an offer of paying a large deposit (they only wanted £99 with a guarantor) and they could get references from all my previous landlords. they agreed.’

He makes the point that councils might temporarily cover rent on two places if claimants move into a cheaper home.

But it used to be so straightforward: no meaningless and easily sidestepped credit checks, no massive deposits, no guarantors, no vast array of referees. Although far from perfect, renting seemed better then – easier, with rents at one quarter of income, not two-thirds of earnings as is common now.

So this passes for good news these days: an impoverished man was compelled to provide his landlord with a large loan (that’s the reality of any massive deposit) in order to keep himself off the streets. The son he cares for now has no bedroom. His life was disrupted, money wasted on removal fees and other expenses.

Hooray, and pass the bubbly.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The Renting Times Are-A Changing (We Hope.)

I am trendy, it seems. I am so this season. It’s not the length of my ‘trouser’ (why is it always singular in style magazines?) No: I write about renting, which is quite the thing. I have never ever been in fashion before, and it feels good.

There is something in the air. Everybody is talking about renting (except the Condems; still rabidly anti-reform and sticking to their corrosive delusion that rents are falling.) Otherwise, charities, politicians and even tenants themselves are offering suggestions, or holding hilarious protests in the streets.

As you will be aware, there is much to discuss: rents are soaring/rocketing/escalating (or ‘responding to market forces’ if you believe the tories.) Letting agents have gone rogue en masse, charging astronomical fees with Orwellian Newspeak names and as for landlords…

Shadow Housing Minister Jack Dromey wrote an article containing some significant errors: he misunderstand the nature of protected deposits, but bless him, he means well. Why the sudden interest in tenants from Labour? After all, they oversaw the march of the zombie letting agents, and turned away during the buy-to-let boom which forced rents upwards.

Labour have suddenly begun to care about renting, tenants and abusive landlords, despite having put their fingers in their ears ignored the rented sector for years. Rogue landlords were mentioned: a minority, are bad, but the worst thing about renting is the insecurity. The private sector will house growing numbers, alls saving to buy, forced out through bankruptcy or job loss, perhaps just unable to buy full stop (nobody mentions poor pay.)

But could it be that Labour have finally grasped that many of the voters they lost are tenants? It’s like Shadow Minister Hilary Benn has just woken up. Oh, cynical me. Let’s hope some good comes of it, anyway.

Aaaaa-nway, the common enemy of tenants, landlords, and now politicians are parasitical letting agents, who must be aware that their heyday is over. Charges should be paid only by landlords, just as they are in Scotland. Imposing fees on tenants is like charging an entrance fee to a supermarket. The business must pays the costs, the user pays for the expenses incurred in paying for the service in the cost of the goods (ie rent.) All that’s being mentioned is ‘control’ or fairness when fees charged to tenants when quite simply – they shouldn’t pay fees.

Ken Livingstone also wrote on housing, mostly about the badlands of renting in London, and remembered trying to set up an equitable agency at county hall, where landlords could find tenants. Like everybody, he wants more homes built.

The main problem in London is price, as rents conspire to bankrupt everyone. I am in favour of rent controls. I think a ceiling is now required, as levels are currently set by a pulling a figure out of thin air, and doubling it. Tenants need a return to registered fair rents with increases linked to inflation and controlled by rent officers. The market won’t control prices. The market works against fairness.

I’m glad the world is finally listening. I hope things will change, and fast. But… onwards and upwards, the struggle continues: now for social housing.

Monday, 16 July 2012

It's Plain It's A Studio Flat

I’ve recently seen several articles about building new homes fit for our brave future. Apparently we must design compactly. But whether renting or buying, we must take what we are given. Descriptions use a special, secret code, which using complex computer programmes I have broken, and share with you here.

‘Studio Flat.’ Beware: it’s a cupboard. Definitely a cupboard, but somehow the following have been shoehorned in: a bath (with shower over bath) a fully fitted kitchen with all those new hi-tech appliances you’ve dreamed of, a bedroom featuring a luxurious divan, and a lounge with a sofa and other niceties like a coffee and bookshelves. Yes, they really did cram all that in, but by folding and combining: the bath folds out into a double bed, and the kitchen doubles up for a parking space, and also serves as the bedroom/sleeping space (at night).

‘One bedroom.’ Also a cupboard, but slightly larger. The selling point is that separate bedroom, but beware: it’s certainly large enough for a wardrobe, double bed, chest of drawers, bedside table and chair, but only if your name is Barbie, and you love that cute, pink, plastic furniture.

‘Two bedrooms.’ See above, but with two bedrooms. To be fair, one is larger, but the second is a hollow in the wall, with an inflatable mattress. They used to be called box rooms, and were considered big enough for boxes, or unplanned, surplus children. These days, they are ‘compact’ and rented by four Malaysian engineering students, who exist in shifts and exhale on a strict rota.

‘Three bedrooms.’ Here we are introduced to the concept of ‘The Master Bedroom’, which sounds downright kinky to me. Bedrooms are where mortals go to sleep and fart, or submit reluctantly to clumsy, half-hearted sex, but ‘master bedroom’? The very phrase implies some kind of power relationship, where punishment is assigned, and delivered. The ‘master bedroom’ (sorry - still giggling) is supposed to be larger, but is still only big enough for one double bed, and nothing else whatsoever.

‘Needs refurbishment’? It’s a cave in a valley where the glaciers have only recently retreated. There’s no electricity, space, walls, or water (actually, does an open sewer count as running water?)

‘Ideal family home?’ A sturdy compound, with all rooms separated by barbed wire fencing, or a concrete ‘peace’ wall. The basement provides for secure solitary confinement. There is large room used only on those national celebrations when the family are pretending to get on, say at Xmas, but this is fitted with a sprinkler system, to dampen dissent. UN hostage negotiators and the SAS are constantly on call. Well that’s my ideal family home.

‘City Centre pied-a-terre?’ A shoebox under an expressway.

Basement? Hello vitamin D deficiency!

Penthouse flat? A tiny awkward space at the centre of Pirenesian labyrinth of stairs, with a Jenga of beams on which to bump your aching head.

Ideal First Home? It’s free. That’s everybody’s ideal first home.

Now: go forth and house yourself, tenants. Be happy, and go gently to your ‘master bedroom.’ Architects and developers – I’ll leave you to start the improvements, shall I?

Friday, 6 July 2012

Now - Take My Letting Agent

Scotland (where I find myself living for now) has much to offer: stunning scenery, whisky, thriving culture and haggis (seriously – it’s great.) Even better than that, letting-agent charges to tenants have been outlawed since 1984. It’s quite simple: anything other than a deposit or rent in advance (what the relevant act calls ‘a premium’) is verboten. Illegal. Banned.

Except, since the date of the legislation’s enactment, agents have carried on their own sweet way, levying bizarre, random fees with imaginative names. However, if you point out that the charges, no matter what they are called, are illegal, agents sneer, and basically, extort money by insisting that knowledgeable tenants who refuse, are not granted the tenancy.

What to do? Well, here are two stories. My last agent demanded the best name for a charge I’ve ever heard: ‘a continuous affordability assessment fee.’ Not a premium - no siree bob. And they also wanted £30 for a reference for my next home, which, since I had been given notice my former place as the owners were returning from abroad, I thought was slightly…cheeky. I visited the office, and reminded (or informed) them that such fees were illegal. The receptionist denied everything, went to ask for confirmation, and returned smirking: ‘I don’t know who told you that, but that’s what we charge.’ No fee no reference? ‘That’s what we charge.’

Okay - I paid and (vowing restitution) moved out. During the now inevitable deposit tussle, they tried to retain a chunk of my money for damage caused before I had moved in, so I wrote a very stern letter. Demanding a fee without which tenants can’t secure their next home is extortion (a criminal offence) and their representative was either lying or incompetent when insisting on fees. I quoted the legislation, provided links to various legal sites, and gave them seven days to refund my charges, or be taken to court.

They sent me a cheque even faster than I had asked. I thought: myohmy - somebody doesn’t want to get sued. In their craven submission, they changed tack: fees or ‘premiums’ are not as they had previously maintained legal, but ‘a grey area’ (they aren’t) however they would pay up to ‘stay on good terms.’

I would have taken them to the small claims court: it’s easier than most people imagine, something my newest letting agent will soon discover, having just refused to refund charges purported to cover: ‘guided viewing, reference checks, a welcome pack, and notifying utility companies of change of tenant.’ Brilliant. Seriously: very imaginatve.

Utilities? I did that. Welcome pack? A wad of photocopies, but they even messed that up with an inventory I successfully contested (with photo evidence). My favourite is the ‘guided viewing.’ Have you heard of a non-guided viewing? Also, they say this fee would not have restricted my being able to secure the property. So I paid voluntarily? I could have moved in without stumping up? If only they’d said at the time…

I am wondering if the agent is desperately out of her depth, ignorant or just fancies seeing the inside of a court (my next task is completing the forms.) Shelter have been running a campaign to publicise the illegality of these fees. I shall keep you posted.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Design and Decency

I’m trying to be patient. I am trying to remain calm, but I just can’t (I can’t!) I keep screaming at random passers by. Here’s why.

I once watched a documentary on archaeology, which excavated a Georgian house in Manchester. An enlightened landlord had built what was, for the times, an decent, urban ‘worker’s cottage.’ Sadly his benevolent intentions were subverted by the greed of subsequent landlords, who squeezed generations into every room of what was intended to house one family.

We live in more enlightened times. We care a lot. Nowadays overcrowding, lack of privacy and dwindling personal space is absolutely never tolerated. Is it? It’s just that, this latest housing benefit proposal, which seems to expect claimants under the age of twenty-five to move back in with their parents is cruel, flawed and unworkable.

First all, we have to accept that adulthood begins for real at eighteen: you can drink, vote, and marry without consent (all the biggies.) So why have the Condems chanced upon twenty-five as a good age to force adult claimants to move back in with their parents? They might have left to study and been working for several years. Except…

Except the spare-room tax on council houses obliges their empty-nest parents to relocate. Or mum and dad might have died, gone into a care home (with the age of parenthood increasing, this is situation will increase) or just not want their prodigal child moping around.

British houses are tiny. Many teenagers share bedrooms that are smaller than that permitted for prison cells, and yet this hulking great twenty-four year old must return, pay to move, carrying the possession they’ve amassed in perhaps nine years of independence and cram everything into their tiny bedroom. Unless a half-sibling lives there now.

The mass building of dovecots led to cities packed not with spacious family homes, but one and two bed flats. So where are the homes suitable for families of three generations, maybe more? Those returnees might well have kids. They might be married. They might be ill, and their parents might not be able or willing to act as carers.

It used to be that overcrowding was universally accepted as a terrible thing, because it’s humiliating, and shatters dignity and privacy. Overcrowding thwarts ambition: where are students supposed to study in peace when they have Gove-only-knows how many family members stacked up in the lounge?

Leaving home is a valuable rite of passage as well as, simply, a necessity. And guess what, historically, it always was: young people left home just as they do now to work, then on farms or in service. If things went wrong they ended up not with their welcoming families, but in workhouses, begging or as one of the multitude of urban prostitutes.

If tenants are penalised financially for remaining in council houses deemed too big, then how are their children supposed to move back in? Unless that is, those free-market Georgian and Victorian slumlords are seen as trail blazing social-policy gurus. One family in every room, workhouses, begging: that can’t happen here. Can it?