Monday, 31 December 2012

Hooray! Another Awards Ceremony!

It’s the season of award ceremonies. Soon, confused nominees and winners will grin and gaze upon mystifying shiny thingamyjigs before weeping. I want to belong. I’ve borrowed a lovely dress and tiara (I looked somewhat incongruous in Wetherspoons) and am nominating a few of my favourite things. Best pie (my friend Austin’s macaroni offering is a cert to win) best sarcastic remark, and finally, finest acrobatic drunken stumbling and just (just) about regaining one’s balance (which I will not win owing to a sloppy dismount.)

Okay. You got me. You know me too well. Dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel created and endowed a prize for peace, please let me explain the inaugural Rentergirl Awards for heroic letting-agent endeavours/shenanigans.

Selecting winners was difficult. Competition was fierce. The field was so comprehensively, inventively and shamelessly vile I was at times left gasping in awe. The winners needed much more than simply charge fees so creatively expressed and yet so baffling they flummox even Sir Stephen Hawking. No. That’s ordinary business. The winners all went that bit further.

First: the Scottish agent currently claiming to be ‘Licensed by ARLA.’ How reassuring. The office windows contain several posters of dentists, doctors and lawyers, all captioned: ‘You wouldn’t use an unlicensed Doctor.’ And they’re right. Pretend doctors might kill, or cut off the wrong leg, but if convicted could be imprisoned, and bad genuine doctors are banned from practising, because they must indeed be licensed.

Except… except… ARLA doesn’t licence letting agents (I checked.) There is a voluntary code of conduct, meaning errant letting agents face lingering frowns and being tutted at sternly from a distance. Nobody I know has heard of a letting agent being ‘struck off’ by their own trade body, rendering this ‘licensing’ utterly meaningless.

Now for a group award to all the agents who compel new tenants to sign up for and accept their agents designated energy supplier or even contents insurance (companies all ‘chosen’ after agents have accepted a backhander.) This is restrictive and contravenes consumer choice, but probably unenforceable. And yet still they try.

The prize in this category is no shiny-baubly-gewgah. Winners must watch those amusing and highly entertaining comparison website ads! For all of next year! And nothing else! You’re all welcome. Those are tears of gratitude and joy, aren’t they?

Next: a special prize to the letting agent who charged my friend for returning his own money. Respect!

Here’s what happened: he gave notice, and when settling up, the agent invoiced for the wrong amount. My busy friend (he was moving, remember) asked for a refund, but the agency came right back with small print. They would deduct a fee even if it was their mistake. Which it was. Un-effing-believable. The small claims court awaits.

Now to the letting agent who charged several different tenants for the same damage, apparently over a period of years. They passed off estimated costs (think of a number/double it) as actual costs paid to repair the vandalism (their words.)

Only they had met their match. Somebody knew the contractor concerned, who was suspicious at being asked to provide yet another estimate. The tenant contacted the agent and landlord (who had no idea this was going on.) The tenant has yet to tell me how this ended, so maybe it ended with rueful tears, forgive-us flowers and a heartfelt apology delivered by winged, rainbow coloured mini-ponies.

Now, I’d like to thank the following (sniff!) for helping the last few years *cracks up* with advice, comments *just openly sobbing now* and generally being brilliant *explosively blows nose*

So thanks to: Shelter Scotland for their excellent reclaim your fees campaign (and Shelter England), The Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Also Nearly Legal, Ben Reeves-Lewis and Jules Birch for wisdom, insight and humour in the face of what is going to be a very, very, very grim year.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

The Tenants Are Revolting

2012 has been a very, very dark, difficult and oppressive year for tenants. Mercifully, through the gloom of rocketing rents, benefit cuts, bedroom tax, arrogant scamming agents and an increasingly blasé and entitled landlord class, one shard of light pierced the darkness. Tenants everywhere are getting organised, efficiently and loudly.

“What do we want?”
“Longer secure tenancies and no above inflation rent rises (or no rises at all) and also landlord referencing.”

No, it’s not a catchy slogan, but it is heartfelt, and certain heroes are fighting hard.

First up – here’s (ahem…) a massive shout out for Edinburgh Private Tenants Group. Heroes - total legends for protesting in a humorous way, and for getting money back from the bad guys (too many bad guys to mention here, before you ask.) They, along with Shelter Scotland (and me!) have been highlighting that despite Scottish letting agents having been banned since 1984, some still charge stupid, made-up fees. Agents beware: a group of loud protestors might arrive outside your office to highlight the illegality of trying to con £500 for a ‘check-out’ fee out of impoverished.

Blackpool has a tenant’s group, as does Leeds. Londoners are blessed with Hackney Renters and Housing for the 99%. Both did sterling work highlighting the many problems of London tenants who endure a new kind of hell. Even Mark Carney, new head of The Bank of England might be onside, since he requires £250k to find a decent home, what with rents rising.

Aaanyway: here’s a festive, heart-warming and inspiring festive tale about what can be achieved when tenants are united.

It was a snowy winter during World War 1. In the chaos, some profiteering, opportunistic landlords tried to increase rents. Initially, tenants agreed to pay the usual cost but no extras, and landlords retaliated by callously given them notice. The famously, wondrously, empowered women of Glasgow organised the fight back, surrounding courts or blocking roads to stop oncoming bailiffs. The bad guys lost. Tenants won a rent freeze lasting for the duration of the war and six months afterwards.

For 2013, I predict righteous and rising tenant anger finding eloquent - possibly dramatic - expression. Rent strikes are on the cards I think, with rents devouring up to two thirds of income. There is no justification for raising prices other than sheer greed. Rent strikes could be dangerous, and might cause problems for benefit claimants, but it’s one way of making the point. Careful now.

I hope more renters adopt the EPTAG method: targeting specific cowboy operations, organising boycotts of especially shameless letting agents and, less radically, contacting councils over rogue landlords (most tenants simply move on: another hidden misery.)

I wonder if, one day, when I write a blog post and the usual random idiot comments: ‘Stop complaining - renting isn’t all that bad’ that they might be telling the truth, as if all these actions, interventions protests etc are successful, renting might safe, secure, long-term and fair. Thanks to tenant groups this might no longer a dream, but a reality.

Glasgow Rents strikes.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Feeling Validated

Renting is in the news, at long last. According to the latest census results, home-ownership is in decline, and renters are increasing (figures don’t seem to include how many owners possess more than one home ie buy-to let, but we’ll ignore that, shall we?)

Do I feel validated? Or peeved about the people who commented ‘why not buy a flat/it’s not that bad’? I’m trying to be generous, but some of the news agencies now so very angry (or at least vocal) about the existence and state of renting have been whining about house prices falling as if that’s a bad thing.

Now, somebody in Parliament reads rentergirl regularly. Unless Camoron is reading this blog before sloping of to howl at the moon and drink the blood of helpless kittens, I’m thinking it’s Labour enjoying my lyrical insights hereabouts.

And recently, Labour issued a document – having realised that there are votes to grab, with renters growing in number and anger mounting. One policy solution is predictably safe: longer tenancies, therefore mirroring Shelter’s recently proposed Stable Renting Contract and my own much re-stated hatred of Assured Short Term Tenancies (Accursed Short-Term Travesties.)

Labour knows of the evil done by spiralling rents, so I’m suggesting two reasons for their recent embracing of no-higher-than-inflation rent rises: it’s popular with tenants (less so with profiteering landlords). It will also save billions (and I mean billions) in the housing benefits paid over to scrounging, sponging, shirking landlords (sorry, but they reap the rewards of housing benefit/LHA, not tenants, and that’s the language used on claimants.) Rents must rise no more than inflation. All very well and good, but what if inflation rises again (which will happen at some point.)

In stressing the harm caused by insecurity, Labour repeatedly use a phrase that makes me scream: ‘hard working families.’ What about singles/childless couples… etc? I’ve written before about the effect of transience and insecurity on communities, schools and health. So longer tenancies are official policy, which is good, but moving every six months is detrimental to everyone affected, even (or especially?) those without paid work.

There was no mention of restraining feral letting-agents, although the heroic Jeremy Corbyn MP tried his luck with an early day motion. Sad thing is, this is the one thing popular with both landlords and tenants (everyone hates letting agents and they don’t care) but it’s doomed, unless the Libdems agree. Nobody in power seems to have grasped that letting agents are the prime movers for private rented profiteering. It’s not even landlords: letting agents place an inherent above inflation rent rise in many contracts.

So we all agree. Renting must change, and soon. If we all shout together, will parliament hear us? Follow the Scottish model, and ban letting agents from charging tenants: landlords can pay instead.

If you do this, we will love you forever. We will wash your car. We’ll even let the odd little expenses thing slip by. We might even vote for you.

And finally, to MP’s, commentators, pressure groups and think-tanks. Sorry. I can’t resist it.


(I did though. I really did.)

Monday, 10 December 2012

You Are The Landlord

Here is my tribute to ‘You Are The Ref’ a popular cartoon strip in Shoot magazine, I think, where a dilemma about the national obsession with the professional game involving twenty-two overpaid grown men kicking a plastic globe around on some grass is discussed and resolved.

So, let’s play ‘You Are The Rentier’ (my campaign to render landlady/lord obsolete continues.) Pretend you own property (pretend? Dream…) and wish to rent it out. Now let’s try and resolve some recurring and topical issues with the tolerance, wisdom and practicality you wish was used by real life rentiers.

Some decisions are easy for me. Prospective tenants are smokers? Sorry, but no. I hate smoking: it stinks and the place will need redecorating far sooner than for non-smoking occupants. Do you trust people to smoke outside, all the time? So that’s a no.

Next, some excellent tenants have asked if it’s okay for them to have a pet. Here, I am torn: I’m thinking yes, albeit it with a proviso making tenants responsible for repairing, or paying for the inevitable puppy/kitten door scratching. And while I would expect to do post occupancy clean, I’d want the carpets cleaned (I love puppies and kittens, but they can be ‘messy.’) I would ban those poor hairless hand-bag dogettes, just because I hate them. See – power corrupts.

Children? No problem. Children to be actively welcomed and encouraged: in a house it’s also reasonable for the tenant to fit safety gates and other child-protection type things. And yes, they might scribble on the walls, but it’s paint isn’t it.

Would I house an unemployed renter? Yes. Some of this is about ability to pay, and there is a whole LHA minefield, but yes. I know, some mortgage providers ban claimants including the publicly owned RBS. Expect a court challenge on that – moves are afoot.

Tenants with bad credit rating? CR checks are next to useless for assessing the potential reliability of tenants, or their ability to pay. As the wise Sir Ben Reeves Lewis has said, Siralan ‘You’re Fired’ Sugar is a rehabilitated multiple bankrupt. There are many reasons why a tenant might even not have paid a former landlord, so I’d want more information, but that’s another yes.

I wouldn’t ask for a massive deposit: what’s the point? In the event of a default, a huge, albeit protected deposit just delays the inevitable. And if tenants want to decorate, I’d discuss this prior to them moving in, but a coat of emulsion would be fine – horrible wallpaper a no-no. I’d place some hooks on the wall, and like my own Landgirl, and allow personalisation of what is the place they are paying to call home.

Life is messy and people are complicated. I once interviewed an award-winning landlady who was proud of her record with arrears: she had never evicted anyone, having elected insted to stay in contact with errant tenants, made no threats and never tried to kick down a door or employ heavies to menace renters. She always got her money in the end.

Finally: that was never an offside free penalty tackle kick. Or something. Was it?

Monday, 3 December 2012

The Fear

I started blogging when I lived in Dovecot Towers, a new but accursed, prematurely decrepit and chaotic apartment block which now seems like a bastion of sanity and comfort.

I remember the trials of life in that building: there was a murder, after all, and I witnessed the aftermath of a man taking his own life. There were drug dealers, prostitutes, burglaries and assaults. There were evictions, repossessions, thefts and frostiness and distance replaced neighbourliness, not to mention that the building was falling down.

But nothing is as fearful as reading my own statcounter – the tool allowing me to view what search terms used to find me.

And it’s horrible. Every other question shows real fear, with the words ‘I’m afraid of…’ followed by a varying and increasing list of terrifying eventualities and dreadful possibilities. Flatmates, are (as I wrote previously: see links) increasing menacing, especially when they are unavoidable, and claimants (remember, most housing benefit claimants are in work) are paid only enough to share.

Then comes landlord terror, refined and honed, adding phrases like: my landlord is visiting unannounced, scared my landlord will evict me, I can’t pay my rent, they won’t renew my lease, won’t let me stay. Then there’s I am afraid of benefit cuts, I am afraid to move, afraid to go home, afraid of the future.

Letting agents? I am afraid if I ask for repairs, then they will give me notice, scared they will keep my deposit. Scared they will discover I lost my job…scared they will blame me for the stain on the carpet… scared they will find my cat.

Benefit cuts and rising rents mean tenants have not choice but leaving their home (rising rents in the South, or benefit cuts everywhere) and they have need a payday loan with crippling interest to cover another deposit, while they wait for the other one to be returned after the now traditional dispute about what is reasonable wear and tear and what is vandalism.

When did renting start resembling a horror film? Why are tenants living in constant fear? There is mounting insecurity, a feeling that nobody is on their (our) side, and that we have nowhere to go if things go wrong, and had better move as demanded without a murmur.

Research by the World Health Organisation on sound intrusion has shown the detrimental impact of stress on well-being, happiness and health. Perhaps I am over-interpreting data, but any fool knows that feeling constantly undermined and insecure, being afraid all the time makes people ill, since it has a deleterious effect on the immune system (it’s one possible explanation for the premature death of those classed as financially poor.)

I’d love to see a study of the health of long-term, perhaps lifelong tenants, with regard to mortality rates and longevity, as I am certain it wouldn’t be a pretty picture (evidence required, obviously, but that’s my hypo-deductive hunch…)

But the most regularly occurring and consequently, the most upsetting, worrying and sinister search-term, is rarely refined, or re-defined – it’s simply: ‘Really scared of my landlord.’

Another popular term, meanwhile is this heart-warming gem: ‘Tenants are scum.’