Leo, who rents a two-bed flat in Lancaster, was pretty happy with his living situation. The flat had a spare room for him to work from, and was a convenient distance from the city centre. Earlier on in the year, the landlord had put the house up for sale, but eventually decided to keep it on the rental market, providing that Leo and his partner were willing to continue their rolling tenancy agreement for a long-term period.
“We were really, really happy with that arrangement,” Leo tells me over the phone. “Then a few days ago, an email came from the estate agent saying we had to leave within three months. Which came as a bit of a shock.”
Renters have been uniquely hit during this coronavirus outbreak. While the government has introduced measures to help landlords with mortgage relief, no support has been given to renters, meaning that tenants must rely on the generosity of their landlords and letting agents if coronavirus affects their financial situation. Generosity is hardly a famous characteristic of landlords, and this period has perhaps unsurprisingly seen questionable behaviour on display as renters lose their incomes and struggle to pay rent.
Leo found this out the hard way when he was served a Section 21 eviction order by his estate agents during the lockdown, after being told his landlords needed to have the property returned. Although the government has tried to dissuade landlords from evicting tenants during coronavirus, the “ban” on asking tenants to leave is technically only a delay of the proceedings and does not ban Section 21 or 8 eviction notices, nor eviction proceedings (the legal proceedings that take place if a tenant has refused to leave). The new coronavirus legislation merely extends the notice period for both.
In response, Leo asked his landlord for a rent reduction, but this was denied. “Not only did [the landlord] just say no,” says Leo, “but via the agent, they sent this quite dramatic email saying, 'We have children and will you think about the consequences for us, we can't afford this reduction under the current circumstances'. Asking us for solidarity essentially, when at no point have they asked whether we had lost our jobs or income.”
Leo doesn’t have much sympathy from the landlord. “Even though I know that rationally, I can't know what's going on with them, anyone who can afford to have a house that they own that they don't live in right now – I just feel like I can't feel sorry for them,” he says. “Even though what they're doing is perfectly legal, the government still says, 'Don't do it'. I just think they're being irresponsible.”
Even if you’re able to remain as a tenant in a rented property during the pandemic, issues with landlords and letting agents can still arise. Spencer, who lives in a two-bed flat in east London, says his estate agents have continued to hold viewings for a recently empty room in his house, despite clear government guidelines advising against entering properties in person, unless for a “serious and urgent issue.”
“[The letting agents] are still showing the room to new potential tenants, letting strangers into our house,” Spencer tells me. “I emotionally expressed concern for my health and others in the flat. I asked if money was more valuable than me and my health and they repeatedly said I am living in a dreamland.”
Spencer says that there were no new viewings this weekend, but when he expressed his concerns, the letting agents were allegedly unsympathetic, and suggested that he should pay the rent for the second room if it was such an issue.
“I felt annoyed by the fact that they would bring people around and break government protocol,” explains Spencer. “Overall it has been upsetting, and I feel as though my privacy has been invaded.”
Some tenants have had such difficulty with letting agents and landlords that their struggles have made headlines. This is what happened to Jordan Osserman, after he and other tenants in his block of flats in east London were denied a rent relief by their letting agents, who told them to use money saved from holidays and lunches to pay their rent. Some residents then discovered that their corporate landlords were a set of companies majority-owned by billionaire property developer John Christodoulou. The story was later covered in the Guardian.
Osserman tells me that the tenants first came together after an issue with the building's postbox system. Due to some frustrations around missing post and other unsolved problems in the block, they formed a WhatsApp group.
“Then, COVID hit,” Osserman tells me over the phone. “A number of tenants in the WhatsApp group had said they had lost income, they were struggling to pay their rent, and a number of people had been writing letters to the letting agency individually, saying, ‘Are you going to do anything about this?’”
The letting agents told individual tenants that there would be no rent changes. The tenants then decided to organise together and reached out to the letting agents as a collective, asking for a 20-percent rent reduction while the pandemic was ongoing. In the end, 105 tenants signed the letter, many of whom live in flats majority-owned by Christodoulou. Residents then sent a follow-up letter after taking advice from the London Renters’ Union.
While there is no suggestion that Christodoulou was personally aware of the communications, the tenants then received a response from the agents, dismissing the request.
“That's when we received the letter which said the money that you've saved on your lunches and your holidays should be able to pay for the rent,” says Osserman. This letter read that their request was "unreasonable" and "unrealistic."
“It was just completely out of touch," explains Osserman. "Everyone was dumbfounded by how cruel it was."
While mortgage holidays have been introduced for homeowners, and Rishi Sunak promises help for freelancers and small businesses, renters in fragile financial situations seem to have fallen off the radar, despite there being around 4.6 million people renting privately in the UK. Without some form of legislation to protect renters – for example, rent control or rent holidays – many will be thrown into difficult situations, and perhaps even kicked out of their homes.
Osserman and ten other tenants are currently being threatened with legal action. The collective is deciding how best to proceed. Their fight against their landlords won’t be easy – another company owned by Christodoulou was previously reported to have spent over £70,000 in legal fees to prevent tenants in a different building from forming a recognised residents' association.
“It should be obvious to landlords and this point that it's better to get some money from your tenants and reach some amicable solution than deal with them just not being able to pay at all,” says Osserman. “That was the position we've tried to take. But [the letting agents] have been so outright obnoxious and cruel that people are no longer feeling like they're willing to be reasonable.”