Monday, 29 April 2013

Flatmate Fail

With many people too poor to buy and forced to share, flatmate interviews are increasingly problematic. The worst kind of attitude is blinkered and restricted, but of a discreet kind – ‘we won’t know who we want to move in until we meet them’ hides a multitude of prejudice.

Yes, it’s best to be clear from the very start about quirks, rules and standards when sharing. But when people are desperate for a home, and finding an affordable room in a to rent can be rife with anxiety. You’ll live with these people, and will see them every day, encountering their absolute best and also their very worst. Everyone will try and behave, but the mask, eventually will slip.

So here’s how to utterly screw up such an interview or panel, without even trying too hard, and screw it up so badly that residents and so prospective housemates run screaming out of their own house clutching a crucifix (please note – that would be a bad thing.)

1. Be a claimant, and admit it. Give up now. Just sound the interview over klaxon, whereby the prospective tenants drops through the trapdoor – straight onto workfare, no matter how affable or employable. They assume you will hang around, scrounging and weeping.

2. Do as my friend did, and dispute the need to not eat meat in a vegan house – mind you according to her they were rude and self-righteous (not every vegan is so afflicted, I am aware).

3. The desperate ‘older’ sharer, who kept aggressively mentioning her age then repeating – is that a problem? It was, and that’s both wrong and horrible, but common.

4. Being male when women were wanted and vice versa, and the email is sent by an applicant bearings a unisex name. Not much you can do about that, but wastes everyone’s time.

5. ‘Joshing’ with female potential sharers about them doing all the housework. And saying ‘only joking’ when you clearly aren’t joking as evidenced by your ‘comedy’ tie with a naked woman on it.

6. Prospective new tenant arrives and the flat is filthy – or maybe it’s best to establish the nature of how they will live early on. Having said that, the tenant who inspected the flat and ran his finger over the mantle piece with some disdain was rejected.

7. Applicant/supplicant waits outside and overhears tumultuous row between tenants, but enters flat and wades right in. Yes, they did get the room after everyone saw the funny side, but stayed briefly due to... tumultuous rows.

8. Arrive late, smelling of booze, in state of ‘wide-eyed disorientation’ and ask repeatedly what the resident’s favourite club is, and how often they have parties – do the neighbours call the police when they do, and who does all the cooking.

9. Notice the pet cat, and scream, loudly.

10. The flatmate (male) who sat sipping tea whilst farting openly and without inhibition did not get the room, although the tenants did enquire politely if he might have hearing problems, along with other health issues.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Two Bedroom Blues

When I lived in Dovecot Towers, all I could see for miles over the horizon was block after block - after never ending block - of near identical low-rise newbuilds, rigidly alike, featuring a maximum of one or two bedrooms.

They were tiny, well insulated for warmth although not for sound intrusion and solidly aimed at buy-to-let purchasers. When they were rented out, they condensed the nature of what makes an acceptable tenants – no claimants or freelancers, and everyone needed guarantors. They were aimed at a mythical clientele, namely ‘young professionals’ saving-up to own.

Meanwhile, as tenants in social housing are learning, social housing providers commissioned homes with at least two beds, and hardly any one beds. This was deliberate. A change in demographics emerged suddenly. The need for more one bed flats was caused by couples separating and staying alone, singletons by choice, divorced dads who leave the family home, empty-nesters, and childless couples.

Now social-security cuts have ruined any hope of safety (say it loud: once again, benefits subsidise low wages, landlord’s income and corporate profits not the idle feckless lives of scroungers, and there aren’t enough jobs to go round.)

Local Housing Allowance (formerly housing benefits) is set at an artificially low level when paid to for single renters who want, or need to live in a one bed flat. The bedroom tax penalises everyone with so-called extra rooms, even when the rent in a one bed private sector home is more than a three-bed social home.

Lives are different now – people live as individuals, and the old culture of lodging or boarding houses with curfews, restrictions on bathrooms use, and communally cooked meals would be extremely unpopular and unworkable today. Then imagine sharing for the rest of your life, in an overcrowded HMO where everyone works different shifts, with clashing life schedules. Some occupants might have mental health problems, while others might simply be unsuited to mixing with human beings at close quarters. That’s why many people – yes, even claimants – want to live alone.

Is a small one bedroom flat much to expect? But then, come to think of it – is a spare room too much to ask?

People need an extra room, for many reasons, simple and complex. For storage – not just dialysis machines or carer’s paraphernalia, but just a room to keep stuff in, when flats are small. They are useful for guests, for family, for offices used for home-working or homework, and were considered desirable and easy to provide when flats were built. Some people – just, you know – want a spare room, and there might be nothing smaller than a two bed in their home city.

The solution? Build generous one bed flats with space, light and cupboards, ideally a separate lounge (at least a utility cupboard so occupants can’t hear the washing machine.) With somewhere to dry laundry.

One sector has built what the other sector needs – while the people who need the one-bed homes can’t afford them. Landlord greed for high rents and benefit restrictions, not need, decree how people must live. Madness. Uneconomical, wrong-headed, vindictive madness.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Still Here 6 Years Later

The idea of writing a blog about the tenuous and precarious nature of renting was suggested by my friend Danny. I’d been living a nomadic life after flat-hunting following the usual housing disasters, and found myself hiding in a room while a rentier (who had previously rummaged through my belongings and locked me out all night) screamed at me like a banshee to get out of her house.

I moved on from hostel to sofa-surfing, then a bright, shiny newbuild. Dovecot Towers (as I soon christened it) was rickety, and eventually broke. My landlord went bankrupt, amongst adjacent, life-changing catastrophes. A neighbour took his own life, I learned of a murder in the block (not to mention burglary, drug-dealers and brothels, all the fault of illegal sub-letting.)

I moved on again, finding Nice Heights – a lovely flat with an amazingly kind and reasonable owner. Then, moving to another city and after more hostels, moved to other places, one with where the rain seeped through the window frames, another where the owner was damaged, but surrounded by thuggish acolytes. I travelled in Europe and researched renting life – it’s mostly better, you’ll be amazed to hear.

I wrote about the design of buildings intended for renting out, then moved on to the horrendous nature of the private rented sector, and became increasingly aware of the unregulated nature of letting agents and owners, who despite their incessant bleating and whining as they insist tenants hold all the cards, manage to do more or less as they please. This must change.

Rentergirl is always written from direct experience or contacts. I’ve seen boom and bust, and watched renting a home move from basic right to a privilege refused to all but saints, and denied to mere mortals with typically messy lives.

I imagined the blog would last a while, but then I won a few awards, was sought out by the media for comment, and began to write for The Guardian. Such is the advantage of living in ‘interesting’ or utterly chaotic, times, with the property crash and a growing awareness of the abuses and impermanence of life as one of generation rent.

I have never run out of ideas, scandals or subjects to write about, and as we move towards a world of restrictions like Local Housing Allowance, the Bedroom Tax, and the rumblings of the buy-to-let zombie walking again, there will be plenty to document in the future.

And you know, one day I hope that when some stupid commenter writes ‘Well, move then – find another place’ as if nobody has said that before and I’d never considered that option, I can… well, just move, albeit without fear or obstruction, into a well-constructed, well-insulated, properly maintained flat, with plentiful storage. The owner/rentier will be diligent, motivated, well-financed (also, sane…) and I will live free from insecurity, harassment, bullying, without mind-games inducing me to go, no threat of summary, illegal or retaliatory eviction. You never know – one day, I might own a home.

I can only dream. But please, indulge me and allow me some brief happiness, as dreams are all I have, and even these fleeting dreams are better than reality.

Thanks to everyone who comments on, and supports rentergirl.
Examples of the early years.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Small Victories

We need some good news, I think. Many tenants too scared to fight back when treated badly by rentiers. Here are some battles – all small, none involving the overturn and reform of the entire heinous private rental system – but significant for the victors.

Some friends were living in an overpriced city centre dovecot. The neighbours suffered frequent burglaries, while the flat itself is nothing special. Even so the letting-agent explained the rent was to be significantly increased. My friends said ‘no.’ Just like that.

The rent was already inflated, the area had worsened, and the flat was far from swish. Realising something many tenants don’t, they calculated correctly that the landlord would be charged for finding new tenants, and the general fees that entails, as well as the likelihood of a ‘void’ that is – a gap in occupation with no rent coming in, more costly than achieving the rent increase. The rentier did his sums and relented.

Here’s another little win. The landlord agreed a tenant could have a cat, but then called round, claiming to know nothing of the kitten – with evidence of permission lost in an unrecorded phone conversation. So she fought her corner. Maybe he could give her notice and go to the expense and trouble of court case, with his words against hers. But he didn’t. He knew it wasn’t worth the bother. He hadn’t undergone a sudden rush of kindness in his business dealings, but was simply being practical. If the cat caused any damage, the deposit would cover it. So why make a fuss?

Next – the rentier reminded their tenant they have a rolling contract, and casually mentioned they might soon be replaced with new tenants for no clear reason. The landlady was probably trying to unsettle the renters, explaining how she’d rather have a couple move in, since for some bizarre reason she was certain couples are more likely to pay the rent – even though the current tenant was never late paying.

Panicked, the friend prepared to leave, but when the owner played mind-games, such as insinuating she might stay if no better tenants turned up, so the renter said - okay – I’m staying. If you want me out, take me to court, issue proper legal notice, and pay the costs of voids and letting agent fees. The rentier caved, instantly.

So many tenant are pole-axed with fear and struck silent by threats, however subtle, that they give in at once and pay increases or leave. It’s true that few people know their rights, but renting a house is not like driving a car – you do not pass a test, and landlords are supposedly obliged to act lawfully, if not compassionately.

These ‘small’ victories (if not being subtly bullied out of your home can be considered small) might be less common with the end of legal aid in England and Wales for housing matters. People will be unable to check their rights, and might do what so many do; move on quietly, as opposed to causing a ‘fuss’ because renters fear a bad reference more than anything.

Hardly an angry mob brandishing pitchforks and flaming torches surrounding the headquarters of The National Landlords Association. But it's a start, nonetheless.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Good Old Days?

In olden times it used to be all fields around here and all the soldiers on the front had the bananas but we never ate real eggs until we were 83.

Ah the good old days. When things were better than good - so good in fact they were perfect. Except they weren’t perfect, but in some ways there were better. If you see what I mean.

Can you imagine the past as far off country where things are done differently? Such as buying TV licenses. Yep – when landlords rented furnished homes, they provided a television, and would buy and pay for the licence. I know! They did though. Really. It seems unbelievable but this happened.

They also used to pay the council tax – or rates as they were called. Rates were viewed, it seems, as a tax on the property, which landlords should cover. There could be problems if they didn’t stump up mind, and tenants were occasionally faced with bailiffs who could execute the aptly named ‘distress warrants’ or ‘levy distress’ that is, enter homes and seize personal possessions.

They also used to give rent free time if tenants decorated – nothing special, just a coat of emulsion. It was expected, that tenants painted and in return got a weeks rent free, but rents were cheaper – or at least, around or even under 25% of your income. Ah – memories…

Being a rentier changed radically somewhere along the line. Tenants had previously security of tenure, and stayed longer. Rentiers complain that the market was ‘stagnant’ – but I disagree, and suspect that rentiers wanted the freedom to turf people out on a whim. They got their wish.

Tenants meanwhile tip toe around home and daily life on egg-shells instead of benefiting from safety, rights, TV licenses and having their council tax paid. Today’s ‘council-charge,’ like the old rates covers bin collection and sewage etc. It’s an bill cost - not exactly a utility, but it does relate to the property.

The problem is that it’s levied on the property’s value, and tenants have no control over that. If their rentier owns a highly valued building – tenants must pay higher council tax.

Landlord’s used to behave as if their tenants were customers, not eradicate them as you would vermin or as idiot servants paying for the pension rentiers ‘deserve’.

Nowadays rentiers have new habits, like leaving their broken crockery in situ for us to treasure. I am a realist, not being pointlessly nostalgic and nor do I have any misplaced yearning for how things were. The past was never perfect, and Rachman walked amongst us. We did have a sense that we paid for a service, while rentiers covered their own costs and did not foist charges onto tenants. After ll they owned the house that rates were based upon.

We didn’t pay council tax. We didn’t have to scrub the place before and after occupation, we had rent books, tellies, TV licenses and we could stay for ages. The days of wine, roses and rent books. Heady times. Heady times, indeed.