When it comes to rental nightmares, I thought I’d seen it all. I’ve been the victim of a holding deposit scam, lived in a dilapidated garret, with a filthy shared bathroom, above a pub. I’ve been electrocuted, thrown across the room by an unearthed hob as I was making pasta in a place I rented above a betting shop. I’ve paid my rent, monthly in cash, to dodgy letting agents and taken threatening calls from angry landlords.
My personal low came with a leak that went on for 10 months. I didn’t think Chinese water torture sounded all that bad, until I experienced it myself. The drip, drip, drip from our bedroom ceiling, along with the resultant damp and peeling, mouldy wallpaper, proved an ideal breeding ground for moths, which feasted hungrily on everything from carpets to my mother’s wedding dress. And it continued to rain on us, despite repeated calls to our landlord, begging for help. But none of this comes close to what I see when I visit Georges Almond in Manchester.
Almond, a 23-year-old youth worker from Prestwich, shows me around the house he shared with friends in Rusholme. They had been desperate to move quickly last September and, he says, “The estate agent had warned us that the house wasn’t ‘up to spec’. We just thought that meant it was a bit shabby. It turned out to be a very damp and mouldy property that had been painted to hide the worst patches. The spores came out as autumn turned to winter and our landlord, who was hard to get hold of, kept failing in his promises of mould paint, dehumidifiers and building work to fix it.”
I’m not exaggerating when I say they are some of the worst living conditions I have ever seen. It’s slum-like. Nor am I surprised that Almond’s flatmate, Ben, believes he became ill because of the mould. But things were to go from bad to worse: the tenants received a letter from a property manager saying that the house had fallen into receivership.
“I showed the letter to the landlord and he said to carry on paying him, that he didn’t know anything about it. Like a sucker, I did.” Eventually it became clear that they were meant to be paying a property manager via another company. “By this point the mould was awful, we all got a bit ill. Ben had a leak in his ceiling, our cooker didn’t work.” The tenants ended up withholding rent and were subject to legal threats. But, Almond says, they faced a closed door at every turn. Legal aid had been axed, and Citizens Advice has been cut back by 75% in Manchester. Eventually he came across a pressure group called Generation Rent.
A national campaign to improve private rental conditions, Generation Rent is made up of much smaller, regional groups, reflecting its roots – in a number of local authority-backed tenants’ groups. Its name reflects a phrase we often hear bandied about, the assumption being that the private rental market is mainly made up of students, recent graduates or young workers, many of whom will never be able to afford to buy their own home. But there are now large numbers of adults of all ages in the UK with no hope of getting on the housing ladder, and the problem is only getting worse.
Thanks to rising house prices, stagnant wages and social inequality, private renters make up an increasing slice of the British population. According to the English housing survey, there are 11 million private renters in England alone, including an estimated 2 million children. A Family Resources survey estimates that there are 5.1 million households in privately rented properties across the UK, and private landlords own one in five homes in Britain. Government figures suggest that by 2032 this will rise to one in three. At a time when nearly one in four MPs are private landlords and the Daily Mail gives away buy-to-let properties as competition prizes, it’s perhaps not surprising that affordable housing doesn’t seem high on the government’s agenda.
“Generation rent” is not just a media buzzword: nearly half of 25- to 34-year-olds rent their home, a percentage that has doubled in a decade, and recent figures project that by 2025 a quarter of all households will privately rent, with the biggest increase among those aged between 20 and 39. But the number of renting families with children has also increased, tripling in 10 years to almost 1.5 million. Throw in shoddy living conditions (according to the latest English housing survey, three out of 10 houses fail to meet the government’s decent homes standard), dodgy letting agents and poor regulation, and the future looks pretty bleak.
For me, the worst thing about our leaking ceiling was the sensation of powerlessness that it provoked. Despite not having fixed the problem, the landlords hit us with a rent increase of £400 a month. I contacted Shelter for advice, read up on my rights and set up a twitter account called @rentnightmares to gather the stories of other tenants, yet still the situation seemed hopeless. Rather than take to the streets, I wanted to curl up in a ball and cry. I knew there must be others who felt the same, but where was the anger? Where was the protest movement?
The past five years have seen a huge upsurge in social housing activism, much of it headline-grabbing and centred on London. There were the Focus E15 mothers fighting eviction in Newham, the occupation of the Aylesbury estate, and the New Era estate tenants who, joined by Russell Brand, fought off the threat of eviction. There are the tenants of Cressingham Gardens, who are campaigning against demolition, and those from the Sweets Way estate fighting eviction and social cleansing on the part of Barnet council. Then there are the campaigns against gentrification, such as Reclaim Brixton, or the activists who played “housing crisis” Monopoly outside an estate agent’s in Islington.
But what about the private rental sector? We occasionally hear stories of deposit scams or unfair evictions, but where is the fightback? The problem is, of course, that private renters are often individuals, and they feel powerless, as I did. Which is where an organisation such as Generation Rent comes in.
“We’re trying to create local groups to get renters to hold landlords to account,” says communications officer Dan Wilson Craw, who got involved after suffering his own unaffordable rent increase. “We’ve set up some Generation Rent groups ourselves, in Manchester and Liverpool, and we’ve got affiliated groups in Oxford, Bristol and Cardiff.” Problems vary from area to area, he explains. “In Manchester there are a lot of people living with poor conditions. London is much more to do with affordability. We get a sense that there are a lot of people who put up with terrible housing arrangements who think, ‘Oh well, it’s just the market.’ We are fighting to overturn those myths.”
Pollyanna Steiner, the Generation Rent community organiser for Manchester, says things are getting worse. Since she started working with Generation Rent a decade ago, back when it was the National Private Tenants Organisation, homelessness in the city has increased by 79%, in large part due to evictions by private landlords. She is seeing higher levels of deprivation, too. “I’ve seen a shift unlike any other – from students, families and older ‘baby boomers’ all being relatively happy to be renting, circa 2005, to a pervasive culture of fear, of trying to make ends meet, whether it’s to save enough for the rent deposit and agency fees, or to make last year’s stagnant wages stretch to cover this year’s rent rises.” She describes a postgraduate student who relied on food banks so she could cover her rent, and a mother who was afraid to complain to her landlord about the black mould in her damp home that was making her baby ill.
“When I speak to renters who have become housing campaigners,” Steiner says, “they all have one thing in common: they’re tired of waiting for the government to act; tired of being abused by unscrupulous agents; tired of paying for substandard housing and living in the shadow of imminent homelessness if they were to lose their job or their rents were increased.”
It was Steiner who provided legal advice for Georges Almond and his flatmates, and encouraged them to mount a fightback. Almond went from house to house in the area, talking to people about their rental issues and discussing possible courses of action. “Everyone’s got a problem with their landlords round here,” he says. “The nice community spirit has completely evaporated.”
As a result of these conversations, Almond and his flatmates turned their dilapidated house into an art gallery, or a “pop-up community art project about the housing crisis and the importance of home”. They called it the Langdale Gallery, after the street it was on, and its main aim was to get local people talking about the problems with rented accommodation in the area, and to make them more aware of their rights. It was a mixture of locally-contributed art in all mediums and satirical exhibits based on the property’s many shortcomings (one installation is simply a label reading “Mouldy Wallpaper”, stuck below a patch of mould). The project’s success has inspired Almond to undertake more activism now that he has moved out of the house – to which, still, nothing has been done. All but one of his former housemates have also since moved on.
Almond is keen to emphasise the positive community work that has taken place as a result of his experience, and doesn’t want to be seen as a moaner – an attitude that he admits is part of the problem. “The situation in this country is so bad precisely because of that stiff-upper-lip mentality.” he says. “Far better to complain and be thought of as stupid or prissy… As part of the outreach for the Langdale Gallery, I met a family in dire straits as a result of dodgy landlords and damp. I figured it was probably better for someone like me, who could just go and live with Mum and Dad if it all fell apart, to make a noise on behalf of people who couldn’t, because if they spoke up they’d be subject to a revenge eviction. The fight came to my door, in a way.”
The same is true of Jessica McLean, a 46-year-old, self-employed, single mother of two from Easton in Bristol, who is fighting an eviction notice she claims is motivated by her requests for repairs and an admission on the part of the landlord’s private agency that they seek to increase the rent by 20-25% for a new tenant. I find her through Acorn, a community union and network that has launched a campaign, involving more than 12,000 people, against the housing problems facing renters. Success stories include the picketing of a chain of restaurants owned by a landlord who refused to deal with damp, securing repairs and devising an ethical lettings charter that has been backed by the city council. Along with McLean, Acorn has launched a petition to her landlord that has garnered more than 6,000 signatures (though the landlord refused to take personal delivery of it when they brought it to her private mansion).
“Two years ago, after our landlords asked us to leave, as they were selling their property, my two children [Amelie, 12, and Dylan, seven] and I moved into what I was assured would be a long, secure let. The house was in a terrible condition but, thinking we were secure there, I worked for many days cleaning and decorating, then I totally overhauled the rubbish-filled garden. I fixed the fences, repaired the decking, laid a lawn, put up a shed to replace the rotten, rat-infested one, planted apple trees and flowers for the bees.”
She claims that, having repeatedly asked the landlords to deal with the persistent mould in the house (the roof in the third bedroom needed fixing: McLean has slept in the living room since they moved in), she was shocked to be told they were putting up the rent. She says she insisted that the disrepair be handled first, and was handed an invalid eviction notice, followed – on complaint – by a valid one telling them to vacate by 3 July. They did not move out. After their county court possession hearing in early August, Jess and her children were given 42 days to vacate the property, during which time she is hoping to bid for a council house.
“I’m a single mother on a low income,” she says. “Last year I was diagnosed with breast cancer, then I had a failed reconstruction operation that ended in a full mastectomy. They know all this. I have massively improved their property, I have always paid the rent. I have been a very good tenant.” She is most concerned about the effect of the upheaval on her children. “I don’t want them to be put in a temporary home or a hostel, which is more than likely going to happen.”
McLean isn’t the only tenant to have complaints about this landlord’s company. Anny Cullum, a 23-year-old bar worker, is also a member of Acorn and was there with McLean to deliver the petition. She details a litany of shoddy repairs to the property she rented, including a ceiling that she says was patched up with painted-over sheets of A4 paper. She describes more difficulties when she wanted to move out: she claims the landlords withheld the deposit on account of pre-existing damage and such spurious reasons as the lack of a working light bulb in her bedroom. She says that when the landlords backtracked on allowing a new tenant to move in, the remaining flatmates were left covering the rent while their friend was forced to live in a van. “One of them’s a chef and the other one works in a warehouse. They’ve got jobs, but they’re not particularly well off. One’s on a zero hours contract,” Cullum says.
She eventually managed to get her deposit back, thanks to Acorn. She initially felt “powerless”, she says, but door knocking locally has taught her she isn’t alone. “Everyone thought the incidents with their landlords were quite extraordinary. People feeling trapped in really grim housing because they haven’t got the money to move. Everyone thought they were a one-off case, then you realise it’s a problem across the board.”
Cullum believes this is why private renting activism is still relatively rare. “If you’re in a social housing property, you’re probably surrounded by people who have the same landlord or manager, so the target for any activism is quite clear. With private rented housing, landlords might have 16 houses dotted around all over the place. Something like Acorn provides a platform for people to meet and work together.”
Stories such as McLean’s and Cullum’s illustrate the power imbalance when it comes to landlord-tenant disputes. For every vocal activist, there’s another tenant who is wary of speaking out for fear of repercussions. And with good reason. Rosie Walker, a 37-year-old researcher, hit headlines last year when she was sent an eviction notice after asking for a chest of drawers to be repaired.
As a result of her experience, Walker is now writing a book – working title The Rent Trap – due out next year. After her renting nightmare, she became involved in renters’ groups, in Hackney, then in Waltham Forest. “They’re grouped around London boroughs because local councils are supposed to be the bodies that intervene when landlords are breaking the rules, but councils are desperately underfunded,” she says. Another challenge is getting renters to recognise that they have legal or political status. “It usually takes a no-fault eviction, or sudden rent increase, to make a renter realise how bad things are. I get emails all the time that say, ‘But surely that’s not legal?’ and you have to say, ‘Yes, I’m afraid it is.’”
Walker puts me in touch with Eleonora Schinella, 29, who set up a similar group, Islington Private Tenants, in my own London borough. Schinella’s story is peculiar, by her own admission. Having seen her landlord – the infamous Caledonian Road landlord Andrew Panayi – on a BBC documentary, discussing his practices quite openly, she set up an anonymous Twitter account to enable his tenants to discuss their rights.
“There were quite a lot of properties that had very poor lighting, very poor aeration, overcrowding,” she says. “The flat I lived in was visited by environmental health and deemed not fire safe. I had water through my light fittings.”
The Twitter feed, she says, “lasted for about three glorious weeks, and then everyone who followed the account who had a recognisable name got an eviction notice, me included”.
Schinella, who moved in with her boyfriend, is understandably nervous about going on the record, but is keen to spread the message to fellow tenants about the importance of knowing your rights. People will often also blame themselves, she adds. “I want to make people realise that you have to make yourself heard rather than carry the stigma and hide. A lot of people feel stupid about having got themselves into a certain situation.”
Despite recent changes to the law banning revenge evictions, Schinella says that “the threat alone is sometimes enough to silence a tenant. We see that being used again and again.”
Organising a fightback can be a challenge. “Often we’ve had people who are very supportive, but then they’ve moved away because they were evicted or their rent got too high or their living conditions were just too poor,” Schinella says. Finding the energy can be difficult, too. “You’re spending so much of your time trying to work in order to pay rent that you don’t have the time even to build links in your community. You end up disenfranchised, and you don’t feel that it’s going to make a difference. This is why private renters have very, very low rates of voting or being on the electoral roll.”
But she is optimistic that change will come. “Renters must demand more. They can’t just evict millions of us. I’m still hopeful.”
Though the situation remains grim, the activists I speak to are all keen to highlight the positive steps that have been taken, such as the reduction of tax breaks for buy-to-let landlords and, more importantly, the changes to Section 21 of the housing act that essentially outlaw revenge evictions. Generation Rent has just had its funding cut and is at risk of closure, but Wilson Craw is trying to raise £60,000 by the end of August to keep the campaign going. He is encouraged by the legislation change, but says it’s worth noting the limitations. “For it to work depends on local councils being responsive to complaints by tenants. Authorities need much better incentives and information to target criminal landlords than they currently enjoy.”
There is much, much more to be done, the activists say. Not least the biggest challenge of all: changing the way we view property in this country. “We’ve become more atomised as a society and people just want their house prices to rise,” Almond says. “We need a cultural shift away from that. A house is now an investment rather than a home.” He is hopeful that eventually this will change. “Housing is a human right that people have to fight for, not only for themselves but for their neighbours. We’re in it together.”
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