Sunday, 30 March 2014

Is It Really So Bad?

Most recent studies about renting indicate that mostly – all is well. Tenants are happy. Renters stay as long as they choose then move on because they’ve found somewhere better or cheaper.

This blog is anecdotal (or more accurately: auto-ethnographic) but it’s still highly persuasive. Because of my past experiences and those of the people who contact me I know that many tenants endure a terrible time.

Accordingly, the statement ‘Oh come on – it’s not really that bad is?’ makes my blood boil.

The argument is that renting in the UK’s PRS can’t be so horrible, because otherwise, renters would move or buy somewhere, wouldn’t they?

These same idiots then add their own selective anecdotes – or rather urban myths: ‘Oh, my friends have lived in the same beautiful rented home for years/have an amazing to the point of angelic landlord/ pay peanuts to live in a mansion.’ So clearly I am making all this stuff up.

Well, no. Like nonagenarians who smoke eighty cigarettes per day, an idyllic renting life says nothing about those stuck living in a rented nightmare. The two situations of perfection and horror are not mutually exclusive; the perfection scenario is a statistical outrider.

Those surveys which purportedly revealed the blissful happiness of tenants are mostly discredited because of inadvertent bias, in that they seek to satisfy a desired outcome which influences how they were framed, the questions asked or chosen interviewees.

However, more recent surveys by serious official organisations reveal the many problems faced by tenants. At the bleaker end of renting there are some terrible conditions – from mould, damp, severe to minor disrepair such as broken heaters, leaking roofs, smashed windows and no insulation. In many places, this is everyday normality.

In renting purgatory, life is forever tenuous and insecure. Tenants exist with no idea of when they will be forced to move on with just two months notice since no-fault evictions are the reality.

There are also what I term ‘just in case notices.’ Letting agents issue notice to quit but try their luck when asking for a rent rise whilst advertising the property (which remember is the occupant’s home). If nobody bites, then they’ve covered all bases; if the renter refuses the increase, they could stay... or they could be forced to go. It’s horribly undermining.

We have revenge evictions, where even the most polite and diplomatic request for vital repairs is met with a notice to quit and no work done.

Then there’s wrecked furniture, broken locks, shoddy fittings and white goods, wrecked relics placed on the inventory, vermin and flooded ceilings. There are tenants who know if they attempt their own temporary or permanent fix, they could (and yes - oh ye cynics – this happens) face deposit deductions for mobilising their own vital remedial work.

Yes, the minority are ecstatically happy, the middle rump are in a sort of Stockholm syndrome of gratitude for even borderline contentment and the remainder live in sheds and hovels.

So yes – renting really is that bad. We should all be appalled.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Tenants Will Come To A Party.

Now is the time for all good parties to come to the aid of the tenant.

Does anybody out there care? Politicians must wake up to renters, because right now, across the board there is too much empty, extended, obfuscatory rhetoric with several ‘consultation processes’ in progress but no actual help. Tellingly, this year’s budget helped older, richer voters. There’s the clue – voters: people who vote. The consensus is that renters don’t vote and so do not count.

This renders tenants invisible; it’s as if we don’t exist. Some renters move so frequently that the simple act of maintaining their place on the electoral register is a challenge.

The Tories and their Libdem servants legislate for and represent landlords (here the aristocratic term is, I think for once, worth using) but then many MP’s of all parties are rentiers. I doubt they will abandon self-interest and enact laws to end revenge evictions (where tenants are given notice for requesting vital repairs, no matter how necessary.)

Most importantly, we won’t be entitled to longer tenancies; consequently, our insecurity endures.

Tenants are varied. We come from all classes, ages and lifestyles. We’re not simply young people waiting to buy. We are divorced dads who did not stay in the family home. We are single people. We move on short term contracts to wherever the work is. Bankruptcy in the recession caused some owners to lose their house; they now rent homes in penury.

Elsewhere tenants are ‘forced landlords’ unable sell their house, who rent for the freedom to move without a chain. Renters include those in sheltered housing, impoverished bedsit dwellers and those forced out of social housing into the costly, problematic PRS because of the bedroom tax.

My own former landlord was a tenant simultaneously, since he rented his flat to me so that he could complete a work project in a peaceful, rented haven beside the seaside.

Tenants might be students, who could be rich or very poor: from those whose parents buy a home to let to their children and friends for the duration of their studies, to those in rat infested hovels.

Some renters are rich. Really rich. They rent while in the process of moving, having sold their mansions. Others are starving and rent out sheds from those rare but attention-grabbing rogues.

Tenants are old, young, middle-aged and many have children. All have one thing in common – they are shocked by the lack of rights (including price controls) and by being treated as if we don’t matter.

Labour did mention rents in their budget response, so I wonder if they’re slowly noticing the many people housed in the private sector and that potentially we hold real power? The Tories do not care. They believe we do not vote.

Somebody should campaign to encourage renters to join the electoral register and then to vote, speak to us nicely and address our needs. Perhaps then tenants could come to the aid of a political party, by voting for whoever helps them.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Affordable Rent?

Such a good idea, those affordable home things, mentioned so frequently by politicians and campaigners. They're brilliant. They're brilliant because, well it's obvious isn't it? People can afford to pay them. Can't they?

But here’s the problem. Define affordable. What I can afford to pay is very different to what a Russian oligarch can find behind the sofa or on the table by the door. Rich people can afford to pay a lot. Poor people; not so much.

Affordable rent certainly isn't 80% of market rents. This is the new bar introduced by the Tory's very own village idiot in residence Grant Shapps (he makes stupid people feel ever so clever.) It's just that when market rents in London are rising so fast and so high I need oxygen to look them up, the whole phrase is meaningless and pointless (just like Shapps, actually.)

Social housing used to be well-built, secure (until the bedroom tax, tenants could stay forever) and within reach of everyone. Now there are moves to force social housing providers to charge 80% of market rents for housing association homes. Claimants who rent soon find out that under local housing allowance (paid, let's not forget to those on low, not just no pay) 'affordable' is dictated by whimsical notions of local average rents, which can be one price on one side of the road; different on the other.

LHA sets a limit on how much rent is covered by benefits, and the level is very low - so much so that properties priced within the limits are sometimes in great demand. This exemplifies the law of unintended consequences.

Which means that if you rent, and lose your job, your hours are cut or you fall ill after having lived in a 'nice' area - close to where children go to school, near jobs and transport links, you could be penalised. Councils cling to their Discretionary Housing Payment budgets like your granny did her pension purse, so claim it but don’t expect too much. If you don't earn more money or find a job, you will have to move. Which, as I repeatedly argue here is never easy: vans, fees, storage, fares... it all adds up.

Which means that affordable means whatever owners can get away with, or the sum that agents cajole them into demanding. For many people, boom times, recovery or resurgence are far away. Life is precarious and insecure with zero hours contracts, extended probationary periods and the tenant threatened with redundancy.

Affordable for those with several low-paid jobs, corralled into dubious self-employment, with the threat of universal credit (if it ever comes in) makes life unbearably tenuous for everyone. Affordable must be reset. It must mean a proportion of average pay, and pay is falling in real terms. Because maybe then, those huddled in fear at the bottom could afford to live in nicer places.

Affordability will change drastically if you lose your job. But if rents start to become more realistic, then life will settle down, tenants will enjoy security; they will be less likely to move, meaning no voids for owners. True affordability leads to stability, and in housing stability equals happiness.

Monday, 10 March 2014

All Aboard The Clipboard.

When letting agents inspect rented homes (which they do - quite a lot) they are known to arrive with a clipboard, laptop, tablet or even an old-school documentation facilitation device (ie a paper notebook and a pen.)

Next, they tetchily peruse the rented property by lifting up carpets, opening cupboards, peering under beds, even - in extremes - rifling through drawers. With practiced disdain they record what they see. If they don't see faults, they are openly disappointed, although it’s the state of the place when tenants leave that matters, even if it's a pigsty there and then.

I've often wondered what would happen if prospective renters pulled the same stunt during their first look. What if potential new occupants viewed a property with a stern, inquiring air, then showily noted all the problems, before asserting: '...I would move in, but I'm going to need that heater mending,' (after insisting the central heating is switched on so they can check.)

Or 'You will - of course - be removing those old, half-empty tins of paint from the one cupboard, I assume?'

Or 'I'd like you to draught-proof the front-door and letterbox.'

All perfectly reasonable requests.

In London, which is unique (a different planet, not just a different country where housing is concerned) this would have an instantaneous and disastrous impact. The viewing would end. All hope would be lost, since renters must be permanently prostrate with gratitude for so much as the chance to bid in an overheated renting auction.

But might help.

Tenants could thoroughly quiz the agent. Questions might be extremely intrusive; as intrusive, in fact as those posed by the agents as part of the moving in process: 'Do you plan to marry or have children?' apart from all the usual credit reference assurances. They would point out that the carpet needs replacing, or that the bath is chipped (so that the agent can't then try to claim the cost of an entire new bath from the tenants, as happened to me once.)

Incoming renters could insist the property is properly cleaned before they sign any agreements, then both parties could liaise on the inventory to the satisfaction of both. Tenants currently view rambling shared houses and dark, dusty flats during a resentful, obfuscatory, whistle-stop tour. They could well point out snags, only to be stonewalled by an agent amazed at such effrontery, such as when the stench of damp and visible water stains indicated a torrential leak from the flat above. The agent denied it. The vast, spreading plantation of mushrooms suggested otherwise.

Certain nay-sayers around these parts post comments saying: 'Why did you move in, if it's so terrible?' whenever I write about shoddy properties. They don't realise how hard it is to notice, let alone raise concerns when being hastily frog-marched round a flat with a strident agent in denial, who subsequently refuses to acknowledge problems, and then encourages owners to issue retaliatory notice when the tenant demands that catastrophic flaws are rectified.

But if that gaping hole in the bathroom floor had been ostentatiously recorded on a clipboard...Okay. I give in. The tenant still wouldn’t get the tenancy would they? They would be decreed ‘awkward.’ Still, it’s a lovely thought.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Renting Is A Feminist Issue.

Feminist website Vagenda recently discussed condensation in housing, which got me thinking about the affects of rented housing specific to women; if there are any…
Of course there are.

Firstly, women still earn less than men, have worse access to certain well-paid employment, are more likely to have part-time, insecure jobs, and suffered most when local government jobs were cut. This makes women much less able to withstand rent rises, or to access rented housing when prices, are soaring ever skywards.

The obvious difficulty is the danger of viewing properties alone. Try not to do this: invite someone along, phone before you enter the flat then check in and out. May I remind you of a friend shown round a flat by a landlord: 'This is the lounge, the kitchen - here's the bathroom.' Before he paused to add, with noted relish: '...and this will be our room.' She was out of there like a sprinter.

Let's also remember the landlord convicted of setting up hidden webcams in his female tenants' bedrooms. Of the landlord who abused his previously homeless young female tenants by demanding sexual services to let them remain. This is grim reading, isn't it? Historically, things have always been bad. One older tenant told me of being refused a rented flat with the words: 'Silly girl - you won't stay - you'll be married and out of here soon. Stay with your parents until then.'

Or the landlord not so long ago who specified female tenants in his ads, provided single beds, and was outraged when they requested proper, adult, double beds because '...he thought they were nice girls.' Of leering landlords who turn up grinning and gurning with a bottle of booze because '...we liked to party.' (My response? 'Party is NOT a verb but you are wanker.')

Of being roundly admonished during the dreaded inspection for being an 'incomplete women' or ruder words to that effect for not diligently polishing floors with the enthusiasm of Stepford Wives. Or chided for not being 'modern girls' by failing to perform repairs themselves, or told boyfriends should mend the leaks. Or being called bitches for standing up, calmly, knowledgeably and correctly for renting rights.

Renters encounter all the prejudices: racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia. Some tenants can tick 'all of the above'. Let's remember again and shudder once more the swine-ish landlord, who, discovering his tenants were lesbians, leered and asked 'to watch.'

Or of the woman of Nigerian extraction who chose to see entertainment when her landlord SHOUTED AND ENUNCIATED CLEARLY because her tenant was (eek!) a 'foreign, coloured girl' (despite being second generation, and born in Romford.) But then, at least she got to rent the place - many agents wouldn't have let her get that far.

Of course, this is 'everyday sexism.' It happens everywhere, all the time. But when I knew my friend lived in fear because her creepy landlord let himself in to her flat while she was in the shower, it's too close. It's raw. It's personal. How do we stop this?