This post first appeared on VICE UK
Last Friday, at 9:30 PM, around 60 British members of parliament made their way to vote on a Private Members' Bill that could have made life for the UK's private renters that little bit less awful. The topic was "revenge evictions"—a feature of housing law that allows private landlords to kick out tenants who complain about a problem with their home. Basically, there is no law about what landlords can and cannot evict you for, meaning they can get rid of you for absolutely any reason they feel like.
It's a part of the housing crisis that is rarely raised, but shockingly common. According to research by the housing charity Shelter, there were over 200,000 revenge evictions last year alone. In London, 14 percent of families renting privately have suffered from a retaliatory eviction in the past 12 months.
The bill being debated seemed hard to object to. It had cross-party support, the backing of major campaign groups (like Generation Rent) and the interests of nine million renters at stake. It may not have been particularly ambitious in scope—rather than stopping revenge evictions altogether it suggested extending the period a landlord could evict a tenant after receiving a complaint from two months to six—but it seemed like progress.
And yet, three hours after the debate started, thanks to the efforts of two backbench Tory MPs—Christopher Chope and Philip Davies—the bill was quashed. For hours, the two men filibustered the session, flooding the chamber with pointless information from the Conservatives' 1987 manifesto until time ran out and the bill was killed.
For those who've suffered from revenge evictions, this was particularly hard to swallow. Last Friday, Rosie Walker—a 37-year-old researcher who help set up Hackney Renters—sat glued to her television, watching BBC Parliament in the vague hope that the watered-down bill might pass, representing something of a victory for the months of campaigning she and others had done.
"It was devastating," she told me. "This was a bill that had cross-party support; even Tory MPs were in favour of it. It's disgusting that two men acting alone could do something so blatantly undemocratic."
Rosie was evicted from her flat in Clapton in 2011 when she asked her landlord to repair a broken chest of drawers. Her story is a vivid reminder of what was at stake when the bill was being debated.
"I sent the landlord a polite reminder to fix the property, and a week later he responded by evicting the entire house," she told me. "According to the council, the landlord described me as a problem tenant because I was 'a woman who answers back.' The whole thing caused incredible levels of stress. I was in between jobs at the time so I couldn't find anywhere else to rent, and became homeless. I had to put my stuff in storage and stay at a friend's house, where I lived for a year."
A quick background check on the two men behind Rosie's anger tells you everything you need to know. Philip Davies is an MP for Shipley—a suburban town near Bradford—whose record includes voting against gay marriage and for the scrapping of Mare Nostrum, an Italian rescue operation that provided a lifeline for thousands of refugees. He's also a private landlord; less prolific than some of his colleagues, but with enough of his finger in the property pie to create what looks like a serious conflict of interest.
His colleague, Christopher Chope, is an MP for Christchurch. Among the main things he stands for are scrapping the minimum wage and reinstating the death penalty. His Parliamentary expenses, revealed back in 2009, total over $200,000 and include one $1,380 claim on repairing a sofa. His sole objection held up the bill to officially pardon gay computer scientist Alan Turing—the guy who helped crack the Nazi enigma code and then committed suicide after being prosecuted for his sexuality by the British state.
In short, they're two stand-up guys.
Most people who've rented privately will able to sympathise with Rosie's situation. Whether it's a new-build rabbit hutch with a barcode facade or an ex-local authority building snapped up and run down by a buy-to-let landlord, private renting can be a miserable and precarious experience. In a poll published by YouGov last week, almost half the renters surveyed said they had lived in places with damp or mould in the last 12 months.
In the past, stories like Rosie's would have been hard to find. After the Second World War, and under the 1977 Rent Act, strict limits were introduced on what a tenant could and couldn't be evicted for. It didn't mean living in the lap of luxury, but it did mean freedom from the kind of reprisals that are so common today.
However, all the moderate safeguards that did exist were swept aside in the late 1980s as the country went through massive social and economic change. Rent controls were removed and the balance of power between tenant and landlord shifted so that evictions without justification became possible.
The UK remains unusual in this regard: there are few other countries in Europe that allow landlords to operate with such impunity. In Germany, depending on the length of an occupancy, landlords are required to give nine months' warning if they want to evict. And there has to be a reason.
Rebecca Wilson, a 24-year-old living in London, was also watching the debate on Friday afternoon from her desk in London. Having experienced two different retaliatory evictions in the past four years—both for complaining about the state of her accommodation—she was rooting for the vote to pass.
"I've not been that angry about anything political for as long as I can remember," she told me. "It's just another prime example that the great majority of our politicians are motivated by greed."
The first of Rebecca's evictions happened in Wimbledon back in 2010 after the landlord complained about her and her housemates "causing too much fuss." The house, Rebecca says, was almost uninhabitable: There were leaks in the bathroom, mould on the walls, damp was coming through the ceiling, and there were plants growing inside electrical equipment.
"At the end of the tenancy, having given us no indication that we were going to be asked to leave, he just kicked us out because we'd been making complaints," she said.
Rebecca thought her luck had changed when she moved into the bottom floor of a three-story townhouse in Tooting. But things got even worse. The tenants in the flat above had complained for months about poor drainage in the bathroom without any help. One day, with the pipes totally blocked and a huge backlog of water trying to escape, the pipes burst and Rebecca's housemate's ceiling half-collapsed. With the electrics wet from the flood, everyone was forced to leave.
"We spoke to the landlord the next day, but he said it wasn't his responsibility," she told me. "When I threatened to get the council involved he became aggressive. Two weeks later the entire building got a letter telling us we had to be out within a month."
The more you dig, the more shocking these evictions become. In May, an IT worker from Kent was evicted after asking his landlord for hot water. Only last week an estate agent in Stoke Newington threatened to evict tenants who complained about paying a $1,973 agency fee for a minor change to the tenancy contract. Somebody I spoke to while researching this piece told me about a friend who'd been thrown out after refusing her landlord's sexual advances.
And it's not just the people getting evicted who are suffering. According to the same research by Shelter, one in eight tenants have not asked their landlords to repair their property for fear of eviction. When I asked Rebecca whether she would think twice about complaining again her answer was clear: "The other day my washing machine button broke. When I realized I was going to have to complain about it to my landlord I started having a kind of panic attack—I could feel my heart rate going up," she told me.
As the housing crisis becomes ever more acute, more and more renters like Rosie will turn their experiences into a political struggle. Local housing groups will become harder to ignore and it's reasonable to expect that two MPs won't be able to face down nine million private renters forever.
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