Tuesday, 29 May 2012

News About A Broad From Abroad.

Some time ago, I wrote about a friend – the tenant of a rip-off landlady, who overcharged and ‘included’ the council tax that students do not pay, aware my friend was from overseas. Here’s what happened next.

After moving out, my friend searched for a reasonably priced flat available for roughly six months. There wasn’t much around, but finally she found a place suiting her budget and desired location. Having met the landlord a few times, she noticed that he seemed jumpy about how she would afford the rent, asking for bank statements, and requiring several interviews. He asked a lot of questions and needed unsettling levels of reassurance.

He clearly liked the fact that my friend comes from a far-off land, and revealed what (with hindsight) now seems a sinister reason for being pleased his previous tenant had left, saying: ‘…she wouldn’t let me in the flat.’

Now her landlord has been calling round. A lot (and I mean a lot.) He gives advance notice; is affable and polite but spends hours completing simple tasks, like moving a mat (!) She is starting to worry, and has asked him to knock first rather than marching straight in at the pre-arranged time (he has his own key.) She is also realising why the previous tenant ‘wouldn’t let him in.’

The rent is reasonable, the place is nice enough. But the landlord is making more and more excuses to come round – usually to collect his post, which he doesn’t want forwarded (always a bad sign.) I shared my suspicions: she’s innocently but illegally subletting a Housing Association flat. At worst, her landlord might be claiming Housing Benefit from her address: that’s why rent is ‘bills inclusive’ including council tax, and why he is so keen on overseas tenants.

There’s been a lot of coverage about social housing and unauthorised subletting. Offenders are destined to feel heavy Condem wrath (more so than rip-off letting agents and the rare but appalling rogue landlords.) Meanwhile, my friend finds herself in an extremely dubious situation, as no matter what she’s signed, she has no legal right to remain. If the Housing Association get wise to her landlord, I suspect she’ll be evicted (but when her visa expires she’ll be leaving anyhow.)

Just another colourful aspect of the rich and boundless tapestry that underpinning the wonderful world of renting, says you. But while it’s unlikely that my friend will be unceremoniously turfed out, what happens to the next tenant?

I also understand why her landlord wants to hold onto ‘his’ flat. Council or housing association properties are scarce and once in, beneficiaries fight to stay. Unfortunately, the resultant subletting distorts waiting lists, as landlords choose tenants on the basis of those best able to stay incognito rather than by need and vulnerability.

My friend is on extremely shaky ground, but so is her landlord, should he be discovered. He’s still coming round all the time, by the way, and my friend now has a justifiably dim view of renting in the UK, but she’s hardly alone with that. Big stories about rogue landlords make the news, but it’s low level misery like this that is so debilitating.


Monday, 21 May 2012

Dignified and Indignities

To continue last week’s theme of interactivity and participation (moi? Playing buzzword bingo?) here’s another amazing, outrageous and very telling reader’s story. Our hero returned after six years in Australia, with a spotless (if foreign) credit history, impressive bank statements, and more than enough savings to pay six months rent upfront (ie enough to give the landlord a nice interest free loan.)

He returned to his home-town seeking a place to live, and approached local letting agencies, who could scarcely conceal their contempt. You see, he didn’t have a job – well not yet, but was certain he would find work quite soon.

"Jesus!” He says. “When did landlords get so choosy all of a sudden? Last time I rented it was: I'd like the place. Certainly, do you have the rent and deposit? Yes I do, here it is. Thank you, just sign this, and here's your keys."

It was suggested that he might find a guarantor, but he hasn’t stayed in close touch with anyone for the past six years, and those he does, he wouldn't want to ask. “A bit humiliating.” Is how he described it.

I’ll let him summarise the situation:

"Right. Because I don't have a job, no landlord will want to let to me. If I can pay six months in advance, plus all the fees and deposits, then I might get a place, but I'd need a UK credit check and a guarantor on top, and even then I'd probably get turfed out after six months if I'm not working? I don't have a UK credit history. You say that if I can get a guarantor, I might be in with a chance I'm forty-five years old! Who can I ask? I can show you my bank statements, and ten years of landlord references.”

With ill-disguised disdain, the agents then suggested he might be better off looking for a shared house (he isn’t aware of benefit changes, but he’ll have too much in savings to claim in any case) and might be unemployed while he looks for the work he is confident of finding.

“Within forty-eight hours of landing at Heathrow, and forty-eight minutes of arriving in Hometown, I feel a bit wobbly on my feet. Cash-rich, but unable to proffer to the Landlord Gods a cast-iron 100% guaranteed guarantee, or be granted one in return, professional but jobless, credit-rich but UK credit history poor, I was sent shuffling off to the bottom of the pile.”

Now, he is a bit out of touch, and perhaps a tad unprepared for the economic downturn in the UK – maybe he won’t find work immediately. But he’s not looking for a palace, just a flat, and can’t find anyone prepared to take him on. I suggested that he places an ad explaining his situation, appealing for a reasonable landlord, or ask if there is a ‘hard to let’ flat where he could stay for now.

Meanwhile, another reader emailed to say they’d been asked recently for a guarantor to underwrite their guarantor. I am assuming - indeed hoping - that this was a joke.

In any case, to both of you: please let me know what happens next.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

How Did We Get From There To Here?

I truly appreciate readers who generously share their own stories (even anonymously – I understand why.) I’ve always requested that anyone offloading their woes should please tell me the ending (which will hopefully be happy.) Some of your stories are really upsetting, and so I hate it when I don’t know what happened next.

Recently, somebody did remember to contact me with a positive tail end to their tale. She’d been living as a lodger, and as is befitting the lack of rights these benighted creatures endure, had been given summary notice. What would she do? Where would she go?

I ended the post ‘The poor lodger who emailed me seemed really distressed. I hope her landlord changes his mind about clicking his fingers and throwing her out.’

Recently she got back in touch and shared her news. That I consider this a positive outcome is grim testimony to the complex, endless hoops through which we renters must jump, the indignities we suffer, and also – how the financial crisis hurts ‘little people.’
Facing eviction, jobless and unlikely to find anywhere else easily, she looked online, and was lucky (or so it seems for now.) She is illicitly subletting a bedroom in a employee flat (the official occupant moved to the living room). If the authorities discover her, they’ll both be thrown out, but for now, it’s a welcome, much needed sanctuary while she looks for a new job, and then a new home.

The landlord of her former home, where she was a lodger, didn’t like the fact that she beat him at his own game and left before he wanted her to go, as she had found somewhere else:

‘My landlord kept calling me - number withheld - and threatened me with solicitors, for daring to leave him without notice. My plan had gone perfectly, and he was left with an empty room for the whole of March. I never heard from no solicitor. Well, he'd struggle without a forwarding address. The greedy little IDIOT.’

Well he did try and get her out to suit his own timetable; she left first and he still has the audacity to feel aggrieved. She continues: ‘I read those other stories on your blog, and I think: What IS this country coming to?!’

Reading about tenants huddled in sheds, freezers and garages, or even surreptitiously subletting a bedroom while the landlord/co-tenant sleeps in what should be the living room, as their own rent is unsustainably high and otherwise they’d be forced to move out themselves, makes me wonder what kind of nightmare we are sleepwalking towards.

With Labour craven and still on their seemingly endless policy review, and while their best alternative to the looming ever present condem hatchet is mirroring and shadowing ie more of same but with caring face, here’s an idea: cap all rents. Regulate the private rented sector. Fight retaliatory evictions. Empower tenants – enforce their rights, foster long-term renting. Seriously: it’s a vote winner.

Many correspondents have nowhere else to turn in what are harsh times for renters, so please see advice sites on side-panel if you are in trouble and don’t know where to go for help with housing.



Tuesday, 8 May 2012

We Need To Talk About Housing Benefit

Judging by headlines in the right wing press, you’d think Housing Benefit claimants are so carefree and loaded that they set flaming tenners loose in the wind – just to see them fly! Such misinformation means we need to have a conversation. We need to talk about Housing Benefit: what it is, who it’s for and where it really goes.

Yes, we do. Housing Benefit has been cut (no – not ‘capped’ it’s actually a cut in disguise) and undermined by the new accepted dictum that claimants are scroungers, when they are you, me, and everyone you know. HB claimants are more often than not in part time work. Official government stats support the view that it keeps people with precarious lives and few options in housing.

But let’s look at what this is again. We have created a system where rents are so ridiculously and unsustainably high, that they need state subsidy for tenants to afford them. Most claimants are employed. This again raises the spectre of low wages, which in turn means that the state is propping up the profits of companies who are cynically raking in profits while paying low wages (the minimum wage, and even the so-called living wage are both too low for long term survival, to rent, let alone buy a home.)

I have little sympathy for profiteering buy-to-let landlords who are cranking up the rent when interest rates are still so low. Yes, mortgages are hard to come by, but as I have said many times before: profit was once, and should be again, made by accruing equity long-term rather than screwing and squeezing renters, who must beg the state for help.

This is the problem with the housing Benefit issue: the money goes not to claimants, but to bail out and landlords. The money is paid to the person who owns the place and rents it out. They charge what they want, and where demand is high and supply low, they even accept sealed bids on rented properties; the highest bidder wins.

We really need are rent caps, powerful rent officers, and more social housing. All are achievable. It’s funny isn’t: bailing out banks was never seen as state aid to ‘spongers’ (well, not by the scroungers themselves) but an entire section of society is victim to unregulated rent rises. Instead of rent caps, ministers limit the amount paid to claimants. This makes no sense at all.

This is true cruelty: housing benefit cuts reverse the binoculars and place the problem of that escalating benefits bills not on landlord greed, pension concerns, or even (shhh…) capitalism’s nastier inevitabilities, but on the poor blighters living in hovels where rents are being ramped up every six months due to lack of supply in some places, and elsewhere pure blinding greed.

I’ve been saying this for ages, and I’m getting the feeling nobody is listening, and that nobody in power (Condems are Labour) care about the stinking, fetid, despicable stench of a mess that is the private rental sector.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Accursed Short-Term Travesties

Renting is certainly in the news, what with some tenants in London seemingly being shipped out to areas where there are empty houses but no jobs. Elsewhere, Shelter launched a campaign about rogue landlords – a nightmare, but a minority.

It makes me want to scream. Here’s what really makes renting a thoroughly miserable experience for the vast majority: those damned, made specially in hell to torment us, Assured (accursed) short- term Travesties (tenancies.) AST’s cause the worst part of renting, the overwhelming, crippling uncertainty endured by every tenant.

Here’s another story emailed by a reader. He’s freelance, occasionally ‘between jobs’ (ie unemployed) and partially disabled (not enough for ESA). He managed to find a room in shared house, and was happy until out of the blue, a Notice To Quite arrived. No reason was given, despite requests. That’s perfectly legal: the contract was rolling, and landlords can issue notice without explanation.

But here’s the problem: how’s he going to find a home? His previous guarantor was his co-tenant’s mother: both are moving abroad, so that’s no longer an option. And so I ask this question: where do people go, when they have nowhere to go?

Housing Association? He’s on several lists, but all are long enough to reach the moon, and he’s hardly a priority. Furthermore, he has no furniture, which is an issue with no Budgeting Loans in the near future (and you can’t get everything on freecycle).

His plan? He’s been advised to wait until the actual day of his notice, and declare himself homeless, for all the good that will do. If he’s lucky he will be given a room in a B&B (which if in work, he’ll have to pay for…)

The assumption that long-term rental agreements, or a culture of longevity are bad, persists, even when the landlords treat the homes they condescend to let as fiefdoms and issue retaliatory evictions for imagined slights. Neither of the two main political parties (Condems and Labour) care about renting, and both decry regulation of agents and landlords, let alone much needed rent controls.

The first four months of a tenancy are a heavenly holiday, because residents have security. After that luxury, they must be ready to move on a whim, with just two months grace. My correspondent said: ‘I loved that flat. It was just right for me. I could afford to live there, and with Housing Benefit cuts, I could even stay when I had no work and needed to claim.’

Landlords must treat the homes they let out as businesses. Rented houses should come with a commitment to rent them for years, maybe decades. There must be a mechanism for proving that a house ‘needed for a relative’ (a common excuse for repossession and retaliatory evictions) really is assigned to a relation. The presumption should be that tenants will stay for as long they want, not for as long as the landlords deigns to see fit.

Final word then, to my correspondent. ‘I really wanted to stay. Now I’ve got nowhere.’ He is not alone in his predicament.