by Penny Anderson
Renting privately in the UK is horrible. With minimal security and prices racing skywards, tenants cope with amateur landlords who avoid repairs, and unregulated letting agents charging fees from a menu of creative excuses (I was billed for a “continuous affordability assessment”.)
Tenants who complain risk being given notice, an act known as retaliatory eviction. Assured shorthold tenancies lasting just six months are customary, so all it takes is two months written notice (no reason required) and “difficult” tenants are out. No wonder they feel powerless.
This can’t continue. “Generation rent” has fewer rights than many European renters (astonishingly, tenants in California enjoy rent controls and better protection from capricious evictions.) More people are renting, and for longer (perhaps a lifetime) but despite some bluster and outbreaks of stern harrumphing, there seems little political will for reform.
Recently, however, I’ve heard distant rumblings of discontent turn into articulate sounds of fury. Marginalised tenants are mobilising, using social networks to meet up, organise protests, name and shame, or inform others of their rights. With cuts in legal aid and the Citizens Advice bureaux at breaking point, some groups are stepping in to offer basic advice.
Earlier this year, tenants in Edinburgh met to discuss the wrongdoings of landlord Mark Fortune (convicted of a tenant-related breach of the peace). Now known officially as the Edinburgh Private Tenants Action Group (EPTAG), they’ve already targeted an especially vexatious letting agent who charges new tenants a non-refundable “cleaning fee” (all such premiums have been illegal in Scotland since 1984).
Spokesman John Black is aware of increasing tenant anger. EPTAG has already contacted the Scottish parliament, but is working towards official consultant group status. They make their point with humour. At their next action against another notoriously shameless letting agent, demonstrators will appear dressed as sheriffs, reasoning that the errant agent is a cowboy.
Then there are the @CallyCows, London tenants using Twitter to expose the misdeeds of their nightmarish landlord. This emerging group mentions a litany of debilitating transgressions, including not registering deposits. Oh, and building and renting flats without planning permission.
I would add that the overall situation is tense and combustible. All political parties seem hopelessly reliant on the poorly regulated private sector, but when tenants are victims of mercifully rare “rogue landlords” they may be illegally evicted before any help arrives. The police have been known to assist in illegal evictions, since they do not understand it to be a criminal offence. No wonder tenants are fuming.
Thankfully, the National Private Tenants Organisation (NPTO) has branches in Blackpool, London and Scarborough, with more to come. Its spokesman, Kevin Allen, says: “People are angrier. The demographics are changing, with younger tenants, annoyed by specific issues like retaliatory evictions.” He’s noticed the rise in middle-class, furious (and litigious) “forced tenants” saving to buy and appalled by lax tenants rights and worsening housing conditions.
The NPTO campaigns for official recognition and several moderate but popular (some would say vital) reforms, including longer tenancies, rent controls (geographically linked to median incomes) and licensing of landlords and letting agents.
Its angrier cousin is Housing For the 99% referencing the “99%” movement. On 27 June this year it picketed the headquarters of the National Landlords Association, protesting against high rents and poor conditions. Expect action soon against Association of Residential Letting Agents (ARLA), the letting agents organisation that is celebrating rent rises of potentially 11% in London.
The message to landlords, letting agents and politicians is that tenants are furious. After struggling to be heard, campaigners are increasingly organised and connected. Early actions were peaceful, with groups demanding a say in any consultation process. The only question is: why has it taken so long?
Source : guardian