February 13, 2013
Private tenants fight back
Whether or not the bedroom tax pushes people out of social housing into the private rented sector, with house prices far out of the reach of most would be first time buyers, it’s inevitable that private landlords will continue to play a key role in the housing market. Although the sector is regulated, there seems to be plenty scope for rogue landlords to make tenants’ lives an absolute misery. It’s no surprise then that private tenants are starting to organise themselves.
RACHMANISM made it into the English dictionary at one point as a perfect word for rogue landlords. Notorious Peter Rachman went on record as someone who preyed on tenants, especially immigrants, in Notting Hill in the 1950s and 60s. Similar behaviour has since been associated with some violence, extortion and anything else unsavoury about an unregulated private letting market.
You might find it hard to believe, but in elegant Edinburgh’s underbelly there is at least one 2013 Rachman-like landlord, alive and kicking, literally.
This bully terrifies tenants with threats and intimidation of every kind. Shotgun and death threats, doors kicked in, illegal entry, unlawful eviction and theft are just some of the authenticated stories (recorded on tape) from private tenants that are enough to make a secure home-owner’s hair stand on end. Not the norm, happily, nevertheless the worst end of what some say has been a landlords’ and letting agents’ market for too long. It’s an industry that a Member of the Scottish Parliament Marco Biagi says needs more ‘balance’.
Liz Ely sums up some of the other pressures private tenants face: “I’m on a low income so the idea of buying my own home is very unlikely,” says this 26-year-old charity worker. I don’t mind renting, but I would like security where I live, somewhere affordable that I can really make my home instead of living with the constant pressure of short-term lets. There are people who own multiple properties, don’t work, and make money from tenants on housing benefit or low-paid workers. Some don’t maintain their properties well and take a fairly cynical attitude towards tenants too, hiking rents continuously and insisting on short-term lets. To me these are the real scroungers. Landlords and letting agents need to be regulated, like everybody else.”
A ROBIN HOOD band of brave private tenants have come together to support people like Liz. They are working hard to bring about more realistic regulation. Edinburgh Private Tenant Action Group (EPTAG) is a mixed group of all ages and backgrounds that has already helped to achieve a tightening of legislation around unlawful deposits, a successful campaign that boosted both membership and street cred amongst their peers. Members are articulate, assertive, organised, determined and just a tad radical.
Known to have picketed letting agents as sheriffs and detectives bearing witty billboards, conduct street surveys, door-knock and telephone campaigns and agitate online, they have vision and drive, with both shorter and long-term goals. They are a credible example of how well organised community groups can initiate meaningful change to legislation for what is perceived by many to be a predatory culture. Their successes are real, and growing.
The group is currently actively campaigning to address fuel poverty, what is ‘heating or eating’ for some, fighting the prohibitive costs of home heating with well-researched plans for energy cooperatives that anyone could join. Their website claims that private tenants are the most likely sector of society to experience “extreme fuel poverty” (defined as spending over 20% of income on energy). They note that winter deaths in Scotland shoot up to over 2,000 per year for the over 65s.
A lot more people would rent if their rights as tenants were more secure. EPTAG member and composer Dmytro Morykit lives in a spacious Victorian flat with a floor-length window view of a stunning park. A former home-owner, Dymtro says: “When I owned a property, 15 years ago, it was such a stressful experience when it came to selling during a downturn that I decided to take a break. Now I’m not convinced it will be good to buy for some time. However the letting culture is predatory more often than not. The industry badly needs regulating.” Another tenant who didn’t want to be named said: “Due to insecurity of tenure and fear of rent increases, among other things, tenants have very little bargaining power when it comes to improving their own standard of living.
An angry backlash
SOME landlords and a lot of letting agents are not happy with the tightening up of fees reinforced by the Government in November last year. On top of the only permissible charges of rent and deposits, additional charges for reference checks, credit checks and inventory fees have always been unlawful. They are increasingly challenged in the small claims court, an action that EPTAG encourages.
In a recent newspaper report, one firm of letting agents claimed that the changes had forced rent increases on landlords to claw back losses. They said rents were spiralling. Blatantly not true, says poet and activist Hazel Cameron: “These charges have always been illegal and the government only clarified this. There are few costs associated with doing a credit or reference check and certainly not in the hundreds of pounds charged by agents, this was a scam to rob vulnerable people. Putting rents up will not ensure that rents will be paid, people can only pay what is affordable and the rents currently charged are far too high and unaffordable.
“Letting agents will have to wake up to basic economics, and those who do not will go out of business. It’s about priorities, to live a nice lifestyle on the back of renting out houses, is not the same as the basic need to have a roof over your head.”
Pushing in Parliament for regulatory reform is MSP Marco Biagi (SNP) a member of the Cross Party committee on Housing and a strong supporter of EPTAG. He says: “Experience from other countries in Europe shows that healthy and functioning private rented sectors are possible on scales even larger than our own, and that they are compatible with fundamentally much more equitable societies than our own as well.
He notes that the recession has deepened ‘the underlying trend for a decade’ – that more and more people are renting. He quotes the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s ‘authoritative estimate that the number of people under 30 across the UK renting from private landlords will almost triple by 2020 to 3.7 million.”
For EPTAG strengthened enforcement is now the next step and, despite their inexperience, an increasing number of university students liaise with the group as they pursue their right to reclaim illegal fees. One young couple has just won a mediated settlement for under £80 and a reprimand from court advisors for initiating such a small claim. Some advice is available via advisory services like Shelter, Citizens Advice Bureau and the council’s Advice Shop. Edinburgh University Students’ Association The Advice Place is also well-known for its support. EPTAG plans to strengthen the services with better advice in the future on how to use the courts.
The hospitality city
EDINBURGH’s fame as a city of hospitality is being damaged by a letting market that sometimes preys on international students, relying on their ignorance about protocol and expectations. An established scholar in her field and with adjunct faculty appointments in universities in New York and Colorado, American PhD scholarship student in ethical decision-making and interpreting , Robyn Dean highlights their vulnerability: “Things are done so differently here,” she says. “Moving to and living in another country, you want to be respectful for how things are done; you trust that people will behave in upstanding ways. But when it becomes clear that on the contrary charges that are required of you are actually illegal, you have to stand up for yourself.” Robyn is currently preparing a legal case to regain illegally charged fees.
Liz Ely says: “EPTAG is a position to make a real difference. I want to be part of building a country where private tenants are able to feel secure in affordable housing. The fact that we won the campaign on letting agency fees was a real victory, and I think we will be able to have many more in the future as MSPs realise that this is an urgent issue for a large number of people.”
The Scottish Government has recently (January 16th) published a consultation ‘Better Dispute Resolution in Housing’ with a view to setting up a new Housing Panel. Responses are invited with the consultation is due to close on April 9th. You can find the publication here: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2013/01/6589 and responses can be returned to: HousingPanelConsultation@scotland.gsi.gov.uk