Monday, 24 June 2013

Visiting Evil Upon Them.

It’s nice to have visitors, isn’t it? Tea and biscuits, friendly chat etc. One common form of visitor is totally unwelcome - even dreaded, presents of biscuits or not. No, not burglars, or termites, but letting agents, on inspections.

This is a relatively new occurrence. It used to be that tenants found a home, moved in, and unless there were problems, might not see the rentier (never, ever a letting agent) until they moved out. Not anymore. Now tenants are plagued by regular ‘checks,’ every six months at least, often as frequently as three months, even monthly. Perhaps agents want to be seen ‘doing something…anything’ to justify their inflated and bizarre fees.

Landgirl divested herself of agents, but I have fond memories of them arriving, doing their level best to look official, professional, and frankly, relevant, standing awkwardly, asking about repairs. On one occasion, they simply admired my plants before leaving asap.

I’ve suffered from the other side of this high and heavy handed practice. In a previous home, I found a note on the floor close to the communal back door (they couldn’t be bothered to climb stairs and post it to me.) Eventually, visits increased in regularity, but no repairs were done, no matter how many times I raised the problems. Finally, I withdrew consent, and said enough was enough. They stopped.

I wonder when frequent ‘inspections’ can be considered harassment, even with correct notice? I know of people, in dispute with rentiers and agents, who have been met with weekly, even daily ‘inspections.’ One was told it was because the owner was worried he’d sold the fridge on ebay.

The most annoying phrase related to this is: ‘Your presence is not required while the inspection is in progress.’ Erm, I think you’ll find it is. How would rentiers and agents like strangers wandering around, opening cupboards (this happened to me, I checked like a spy with thin sellotape on the bottom of a door), rifling through drawers, looking at the post on the doormat?

Sometimes inspectors comment on the tidiness of the place, which is none of their business – it’s the state of the property when tenants leave that matters. Even if renters are staging a minor dirty protest, providing they clean up afterwards, there’s little owners can do, although they would probably issue notice, because that’s always possible.

I’ve heard of owners arriving at weekends, wishing to inspect on the ‘wrong’ day and hammering on the front door demanding entry, of sending round clueless, nosy friends in their place, arriving with a posse, even taking photos of both the home and the renter – legally suspect, and also intimidating. Some of this behaviour is caused by owners failure to understand that they no longer have the right to saunter in and (land)lord it over their tenants.

Since owners must be notified of their landlord’s name and address, why not ‘notify’ them you intend to inspect their home, during the day, when they are out, and turn up with a few mates and a camera. Not nice. So don’t do it to renters.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Notice of Danger

Tenants live in constant fear. They do not sleep, and cannot eat. The event they dread could happen at any time, and might destroy their lives, launch them into homelessness, propelling them towards debt, unemployment and relationship breakdown.

And what is this dreadful disaster? Fire? Locusts? Flatmates who are dyed in the wool Barry Manilow fans? (NB – this happened to me – the horror…) Do they cower from those villainous, semi-mystical, usually mythical bete-noires, the rogue landlords? Do they dread famine, Michael Gove, or death? Homes sucked into a hellhole, like in Poltergeist?

None of the above.

Tenants are scared of receiving notice - of being asked politely, lawfully and reasonably to leave their home within the correct legal framework. For tenants, it’s the most common way of finding themselves homeless, desperate, pleading for help, and sleeping on sofas – if they are lucky. This, lamentably, is a fact.

It’s one of the reasons I am irked by the otherwise amazing Shelter’s ‘stamp out rogue landlords’ campaign. The threat of living in a shed is horrible, wrong and the vile landlords who do this should be imprisoned. But the simple fact of lawful, legal, rightful notice is an every day problem, and causes widespread harm.

When notice is issued without warning, or when tenancies are not renewed, it’s usually about money – mainly when letting-leaches whisper into a rentier’s ear, giving them promises of inflated profits, heedless of the cost of seeking new tenants, since agents coin it in from sundry, random fees.

There are also silly ideas about squatters’ rights. In truth, squatters have no rights, but certain novice, ignorant rentiers insist that unless tenants are moved on regularly, they will have permanent leave to remain. It’s about wielding power.

Sometimes it’s just disorganisation, with owners thinking about selling up, issuing a notice to quit, then just – you know, changing their minds, heedless of the effect this has on tenants’ lives, or security.

Sometimes the reason is tenants asking for repairs – retaliatory eviction, deliberately problematic, in cases. Timing seems spiteful, with tenants moved on with no care for school terms, no concern for times of the year when moving is a problem – I shall mention again, that in France, nobody can be evicted in Winter, even when arrears are severe.

A former neighbour was expected to move out on January 1, and the rentier would not budge. January itself is quiet when house-hunting, but this meant the entire, notoriously slow, month of December was spent frantically seeking somewhere to go. The rentier was dismissive, and simply referred repeatedly to ‘her rights.’ She wanted more money. The flat was unlet for months. The tenant endured a nerve-wracking, miserable xmas.

Tenants slip between homes, desperate to cope with news that is always delivered at the wrong time, such as when hours have been cut, money is tight or when renters are ill, rendering new owners/agents unlikely to house them. Rogue landlords are appalling, but blasé, deluded avaricious owners who give notice on a whim cause more problems.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Be Nice When Interviewing

Tenants increasingly share homes, some forever, as rents rise, benefits slashed and with little looming hope of plentiful new homes any time soon. So you need to ensure that you are compatible with your new family – for that is what they are. There is no point embarking on a new life as a vegan housemate lost like some slaughtered lamb in a household full of rabid carnivores, or a silent, yoga-postured, meditating aesthete where competitive partying is the way of life – indeed, the law.

I wrote about how the incoming newbie tenant can screw up an interview, so now it’s the housemates turn. How do you behave when looking to fill your desirable vacant room? Some things are best sorted out first. A friend visited prospective new home, and found it to be filthy, with several un-emptied bins (‘…we couldn’t be bothered to empty it,’ they offered, with truth in jest.) But, as she reasoned, at least she was forewarned, choosing not move in.

If you’re sneery, arrogant and hostile, then in turns extremely patronising, looking down on the applicant’s musical choices, their job, their hobbies, you will get what you deserve that way – a like minded flatmate, that is - a total arsehole, just like you.

But then, some other housemates interviewed a newbie, sitting in stony silence, as he rattled on of his love for clubbing and gay bars, his new boyfriend, banging house, his questions about their preferences all greeted with astonishment. If you are pious, christian abstainers, why not make this abundantly clear in the ad to save everyone’s time?

There are other faux-pas, such as taking notes, on a clipboard – shared with fellow interviewers while giggling loudly – then saying ‘…don’t worry – we’re always like this, don’t mind us.’

The fact remains that this is happening to everyone – even to older tenants, because of rising rents and benefit cuts is another occasion for humiliating applicants. One correspondent was met with sniggers, ‘notes’ being taken and shared, and the question ‘…exactly how old are you?’ snorted by chortling twenty-somethings. One of those things that they will remember with horror, when as adults, they fall from the housing ladder through poverty, divorce, bad health or terrible luck, when the words ‘Exactly how old are you…’ won’t seem so funny.

The nicest story was the happy house, where prospective new co-tenants were met with coffee, smiles and homemade cake, shown around, asked gentle questions to ascertain how they’d fit in, and made to feel welcome, not as if they were being held in custody suspected of murder.

Best of all, was the friend merrily sipping tea and chatting with potential flatmates, eventually told they were waiting for one other resident to appear.

Finally he arrived, and was introduced to her with the words: ‘…meet Herpes Dave.’ She was half-way into asking ‘But why is he called…?’


Monday, 3 June 2013

Labour - Please Wake Up To Housing

And the winner of the ‘No Shit Sherlock’ award goes to… (shuffles with silver envelope… serious face for annoying pause…) The Labour Party!

Hooray! It’s richly deserved, and they’ve worked hard to grasp the facts, but they won the prize for the following remark:

‘Labour has come to a settled view that it was a mistake in the mid-80s to switch from directly subsidising social rents and building homes to giving tenants the money to pay higher rents.’

I know! Bless their little cotton socks. Aw.

Here’s the situation. The Labour government started the appalling process of cutting rent paid to claimants when they introduced Local Housing Allowance. Someone in their ranks – an idiot SPAD recently graduated from McKinsey I expect - spotted that the benefit bill was rising, and even though most of that comes from pensions, chanced upon rising housing benefit.

So they had fantastic idea: imposing a ceiling on housing benefit, to persuade//cajole/force on pain of being homeless, so tenants would choose cheaper homes. There is so much wrong with that stupid idea, born as it was during the buy-to-let boom which was intentionally ramping up rents as if this was a good thing.

In some circles, rent paid to claimants as Local Housing Allowance is referred to as ‘Landlord Benefit’ because it’s paid to rentiers, not tenants. It’s like another way for the state to cover adequate to downright generous income those no longer working.

That’s why the (Labour supported) Benefit Cap is so misguided. People live where the jobs are, jobs which might be insecure, part time and low paid, and workers claim benefits, which cover the cost of their rent, to allow them to work. The money they receive does not go on hats, or champagne.

It is another form of state subsidy to the rich and to business – in the form of letting agents. The people who suffer are tenants, fighting at the bottom of the market to find a place they can afford, without paying stupidly high fares.

So build more homes. In London/The South/Everywhere, on brownfield sites. Build homes people need – one bed homes with plentiful storage and space to dry laundry, and family homes. Provide proper sound insulation, and separate rooms, to get round notions of ‘spare room’ so that tenants can have some safe space for people, like children of broken relationships, to stay, which is hard in the mania for open-plan. Somewhere to stow a bike safely, no communal post rooms, and not three floors squeezed in where there should be only two.

The need for these provisions explains why tenants cling desperately to rooms deemed ‘extra’ for bedroom tax valuation.

We might also need overcome a distaste verging on horror for high-rise housing, and learn again to build higher, ending short term economies, like saving on bricks by building small roomed dwellings.

Rents will be cheaper, people will have actual choice, and private landlords will profit less when the benefit bill no longer swallowed up by benefits covering stupid high rents. Labour it's great that you're awake, but now you need to listen.