Monday, 25 March 2013

Let Us Stay

Much of my stuff is still boxed up – books, CD’s (yeah, digital music makes this whole lot easier.) I don’t suspect that my rentier, aka Landgirl (as she styles herself) will chuck me out onto the streets soon without warning, but the well-founded insecurity of all long-term renters.

The excellent Edinburgh Private Tenants Action Group have started a campaign for long-term tenancies. I know, I know: I’ve written about this before. Assured (Accursed) Short-term Tenancies (Travesties) mean that tenants have four months grace, after which they can be give two months notice for no clear reason.

EPTAG say: ‘At the moment security of tenure in the private rented sector is very poor, and many tenants don’t feel secure enough to even complain about repairs. The root of many problems for private tenants is in the lack of security, and that is why it is essential to get this changed.’

The ever present threat of being shown the door is a stick to disempower tenants, who have surprisingly few rights. Legal protection can be weak, and with newly enacted Legal Aid cuts, missing in action.

I feel weak repeating this, but renting affects someone’s life, and any rentiers who intend to sell should make this plain. The expectation should prevail that people can stay put for at least five years (on this at least Shelter and I can agree.) Letting for longer periods (that is, decades rather than months) is beneficial to all, rentiers and tenants like, with guaranteed rents paid for guaranteed homes. Simple isn’t it?

No. Rentiers like tenants to stay spooked and unnerved. Bad management mantras seem to include treat ‘em mean to keep ‘em keen (and many people hit this blog after googling their concerns about tenancy agreements being renewed.)

It’s out of step with an increased fondness, indeed fervour, for long-term contracts with everything else; utilities, phones - even gym membership (which are hard to cancel if you are forced to move way.) That’s not to mention school lists, social circles, good neighbours…

Shelter have also highlighted the desirability, or need for longer tenancies in their proposal for stable renting contract. The horror of short term living is widely known, and the only people with any interest in keeping up the practice are (here we go again, once more with feeling…) letting-agents, who coin it in by charging fees, fees and more fees.

Tenants meanwhile live like mice, scurrying around, afraid to ask for repairs, scared to refuse unreasonable visits, unable to decorate. It’s impossible to plan, to budget, to live. The six months cycle; move in, worry, receive notice, then move.

Oh – by the way, Shelter have identified the most common cause of homelessness. It’s the loss of a private rented home, with the accompanying five horsemen of renting apocalypse: retained deposit, no guarantor, failing those new fangled computer ‘affordability assessments,’ or just not enough houses of reasonable prices with a reasonable rentier.

Tenants cling by their fingertips to the speeding rental merry-go-round, but vulnerable people are being thrown off.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Bad and Dangerous To Know

Nuts. Bananas. Crackers. So many terms for insanity relate to food.

I’ve had a really interesting, and genuinely disturbing email from a reader, who was renting a house which required a series of minor repairs.

Both my correspondent and myself are aware of the stigma of mental health problems, and are mindful of the need for appropriate language. So it is not lightly that I describe her landlady as mad. This renter shared some relevant communication with me, which is persuasive that her rentier was a damaged woman who had lost her reason and was incapable of a rational response to the duties of letting property.

Some messages were, to say the least, bizarre. And yet there she was: controlling her tenant’s home, over(lord)landlady of their destiny, mistress of their lives, and herself in need of help. Indeed, she admitted as much, meeting their request for repairs with details of her life, her problems, and her fluctuating sanity.

What must do tenants when faced with an implacable rentier displaying a tenuous grip on reality, who has inherited property which they rent out? I am sure this is more common than people imagine. Indeed, the most aggressive landlord I ever encountered appeared to have delusional mental health problems including, I suspected a gambling addiction, accompanied by letting agents who facilitated his behaviour as opposed to advising against it, censuring or even preventing his actions.

Rentiers with severe mental health problems are unlikely to be working, and therefore rely on their rented property for their only income. And they might be depressed, incommunicado, or even psychotic, whilst failing to respond to, or refusing treatment. This is terrible, but if a rentier is maintaining a semblance of coping to outsiders and carers, what must tenants do? If they are really scared, they can call the police, but where else can they turn?

I was once a neighbourhood adviser for a council in London, and landlords going awol was not uncommon. One chronic alcoholic charged rent bills inclusive, but he never paid. Fortunately, we could cover costs while registering bills as a charge on the property, recouped when sold (the police, meanwhile, dealt with the violent fall out of his return.)

Again, I am mindful of the fact that mentally ill people are more likely to harm themselves than others, but I also know of a tenant threatened with a carving knife by his landlady’s partner, when the couple lived in the flat below.

I also lived briefly as a lodger where the resident rentier was a depressive alcoholic. She would drink three bottles of wine per day, at least, and her behaviour was paranoid and irrational. She soon threw me out on the streets without notice (fortunately I had somewhere to go.)

Tenants will do as my correspondent and myself both did: they will move. There should perhaps ways of warning other tenants, for their own sake and also the rentier, who will wonder at the high turnover of occupants. Problematic to organise without the possibility of anonymous denunciations. Any ideas?

Monday, 11 March 2013

Putting Down Roots

I been collecting plants again – snatching security from the jaws of precariarity. Nothing major: just a few ferns in pots. My botany is a big two fingers at one single fact: I will never own a home of my own home.

Does it matter? Yes, to me it does. Ownership is about being firmly rooted in a neighbourhood: of knowing the people next door, and being on chatting terms. So sad to realise life is tenuous, and security so precarious.

It might sound boring but I will never be able to think: this heating is costly and inefficient - I’m sick of being cold so I’ll get new heating installed, maybe even take advantage of government efficiency or green energy schemes. There’s nothing to do but find another blanket and snuggle up.

Having little or no security affects my daily life. I don’t get to choose a cooker, washer or fridge, or rip out the shabby cabinets, or update a shoddy floor. Carpets would be great right now in the draught, but I won’t be paying for any. What’s the point when I could be given two months notice?

Recently I watched a friend clear out her beloved garden, having been given notice for no clear reason. There were well-tended pots of vegetables, and a partially rotted compost heap to relocate (she’d asked for both permission and reassurance she’d be there to benefit.) It was heartbreaking.

I’ve been collecting house-plants after years ago being forced to abandon my prized, beautiful botanic collection. When you never know if, or how long you can stay, and plants will be lost when friends don’t them tend them as you would, or die in storage, it’s a big leap of faith.

Some landlords are restrictive, and that horrible situation of being ‘inspected’ every six months (when did that become the norm?) means that tenants exist on a knife edge. Yes, we know that in theory you could have painted the walls fluorescent green and grow a lawn in the lounge – as long as tenants leave the place as they found it, then there’s nothing that rentiers can do. Except – they would. Inspections are a nervous time, and they shouldn’t be.

Certain rentiers and their agents ensure that the place we pay to live in never feels like home, with no prospect of decorating, or even changing energy supplier (see posts where that is arguable not lawful, but when your lord/lady and master can evict you on an airy caprice, what choice is there?)

Then there’s the furniture thing. We don’t have a culture of unfurnished places, mainly due to insecurity – when tenancies last just six months, who would ever buy freezer? But in my humble opinion, and I know controversial opinion, the PRS would be much better if we could move in with our own trappings – a sofa and a bed. Some people don’t want to stay long term, but most do.

Worse of all there’s no knowing how long I can stay. I can still be given notice on a whim. Planting a garden and buying plants - literally putting down roots - is a one massive leap in the dark.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Newsflash - Lodging Still Bad.

One fine day I walked outside and experienced a newfound appreciation for all humanity – indeed a love of life. What a beautiful day, I thought. Hello trees! Hello sun and flowers and birds! Feeling ever so happy, I then had a sobering thought – best not get complacent.

And so, in order to bring myself plummeting back to earth, I did what I usually do in these situations – I checked my search terms list, wherein I saw pure evil.

Oh yes, actual evil was planned there, and full-on, major, big time prejudice. Pettiness of every kind, and power games, along with what might be described as preludes to bullying. Exhaustive rules so intricate and comprehensive that even angels would break them.

What do people type in to find this blog that sends the foul stench of sulphur rising from keyboard as it reacts to their devilish demands? These are the queries from owner-occupiers wishing to rent out a spare room. That’s all. They want to know ‘what they can get away with.’ And they don’t like ‘cripples.’

They want to make sure their cascade of varying prejudices are allowed to pass without censure or recrimination. They do not wish to rent rooms to ‘queers’ (not used in the modern reclaim-the-word sense, I suspect.’) Oh – and ‘blacks’ are not wanted either.

Some are questions about rules: is there a legal requirement to let lodgers use the kitchen, washing machine, how long can they have in the bathroom, and must they have a key? Does anyone honestly imagine renting a room for money and banning their lodger from the shower?

This is getting serious as working poor and claimants are forced to share when nobody really wants to share by choice. This might explain the pettiness of such questions as ‘must I let my lodger have overnight guests?’ Might seem awkward, but you have to say – yes you should.

Amazingly, another questioned: ‘lodgers – curfew?’

I admit these horrible queries were collected over some time, and yes – some resident landlords want to do the right thing. My own brief experience of checking out life as a lodger ended when the owner made it quite plain they expected me to vacate during all public/bank holidays, including summer, xmas and new year. Where did they think I would go?

As we now know, the private sector has all the smaller flats, but more two bed flats were built than one-room. When owners feel the pinch by having their hours cut, or even just want to make some money to save for perhaps a holiday, that spare room becomes a money making machine. And you have to pity the poor lodger whose rentier owner has googled: ‘Must I tell my lodger the truth about long he can stay?’

These new resident rentiers upstage even old style music-hall boarding-house battle-axes for greed and hostility. Worse, they will get away with their deliberate racism, pettiness, snarking and general intolerance. How? When meeting an ‘undesirable’ they will simply say the room is gone, or issue legitimate notice on a whim.

Easy. All too easy.