Life For Rent

Life For Rent: My Housemate Keeps Going Out and Violating Lockdown

Plus: what to do if your landlord insists on putting your house up for rent right now.
20 April 2020, 4:56am
Housing coronavirus advice

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

I live in a two-person house and my best friend moved out in January. I have a fairly good relationship with my landlord. She wanted to get the right person in but was also under pressure financially to get someone in.

This new housemate moved in just before the lockdown measures, but she doesn't give a shit about them. She's helped her parents move to a new house in Wales, goes round to her siblings' houses, and goes to the park to drink and meet people. I've talked to her about it and tried to explain that it wasn't just her life she was risking, but everyone she's met and everyone they meet. She seemed to take it on board but has slipped back to meeting people. She even invited her brother and a friend round today.

I'll talk to her again, but I just don't think it will work. She even knows someone who has died of COVID-19 and it apparently hasn't changed her behaviour. I'm at a loss of what to do. I was feeling fairly safe and secure as I can work from home, I've batch cooked meals, and limit my time outdoors. But none of that means anything if she's not doing the same. If I talk to her again and she continues as she's doing, what can I actually do?!

Oh reader, I wish I could give you a hug. One of the cruellest things about this virus – beyond the obvious fact that it is senselessly cutting short the lives of thousands – is that it attacks our ability to connect.

That’s the pandemic paradox: we are all alone, together. Isolation is no longer the Joy Division song you listen to as you pound the pavement on the way home from another frustrating day at a job you hate. It’s parliamentary policy to stop us infecting one another with a viral disease we can barely comprehend.

And yet, we are more connected – not physically, but spiritually, psychologically, epidemiologically, however you want to look at it – than ever. My safety, your safety, your nan’s safety, your asthmatic mate’s safety, your bus driver’s safety depends on us all following the rules and staying away from other people.

The more we stay apart, the sooner we can come back together. It’s a real headfuck, isn’t it? One that your flatmate seems to be struggling with more than you. You get it, reader. You’re making sacrifices short term; you don’t like it but you know it’s “the right thing to do”.

This person, this stranger you barely know but have been thrown into an intimate living situation with – because rent is expensive, landlords are mercenary and tenants two a dozen – is compromising you and risking us all. It’s thoughtless, it’s weak, it’s frustrating. Do you want to scream? Do you feel like you’re banging your head against an invisible wall whenever you leave the sanctuary of your bedroom? Do you feel like you’re being gaslit? Made to feel like you’re overreacting or being a stick in the mud (“like come on man, a little beer on a park bench during a pandemic never hurt nobody”)?

I’ve checked with the advisors at Shelter. They told me: “Unfortunately, despite the obvious dangers in her irresponsible behaviour, legally there’s not much you can do to influence what your housemate does.” In terms of housing law, there’s nothing explicit that protects you.

Look, I’m no psychologist but I’ve noticed that the people who aren’t taking this seriously are, generally speaking, not OK. They’re afraid of being alone because they’re anxious or unhappy. Then they fire off a quick text to see if anyone, maybe, secretly fancies bending the rules – just a bit.

Your flatmate knows someone who died and she’s still being reckless. Could it be that she’s afraid and – rather than sit with that upsetting thought – she’s pretending life as we knew it PC (Pre-COVID) still exists? It doesn’t. But could it be that she is not OK?

Dig deep, find your inner strength and talk to her again. Ask her with as much compassion as you can possibly muster how she is and really mean it. You might get somewhere.

If not, Shelter advises that “you could try speaking to your landlord because they do have the power to take legal action against your housemate if necessary. It may also help if your housemate hears from another source that she’s putting herself and others at risk.” I would caution that your flatmate will know you dobbed her in and this could impact your relationship. But then again, her behaviour right now is trashing that anyway.

I live in a flat with three housemates. Our lease is up at the end of April and two flatmates want to move out and go back to their parents to save money, understandably. As we are under lockdown, I am not sure how we are going to find new flatmates during COVID-19. Our landlord has agreed to a rent reduction until we are able to find new housemates, but on the condition that he can also put the house up for rent. How do we find housemates when we can’t be in contact with anyone?

Why. Are. Landlords. Like. This. I’m sorry, pal. From our exchanges on Instagram, I know that you’re stressed about this. I would be, too.

Week in, week out, I speak to well-paid lobbyists who argue against regulation of the private rented sector on behalf of landlords and letting agents. Sometimes I debate them on TV or radio. They always say: “It’s just the behaviour of a minority tarnishing the industry, the majority of landlords are responsible.” I listen. I try to remain objective. But then I remember my DMs, my email inbox and those of Shelter or Citizens Advice and the outpouring of messages from terrified tenants who are terrified of standing up for themselves in case they lose their home.

The good news is that, despite your landlord’s shady behaviour and pressure tactics, you have more power than you think.

“It’s important to say that the government is telling people wherever possible to ‘delay moving to a new home while emergency measures are in place to fight coronavirus’,” Shelter tells me. “If moving is unavoidable for contractual reasons, everyone involved should make sure they follow the official guidance.”

It couldn’t be clearer. People shouldn’t be moving right now and they certainly shouldn’t be viewing potential homes in person. Your hands are tied. This is probably the only time in your life when “Boris Johnson said so” is a phrase you’re going to want to invoke in your favour.

Sadly, properties are still being advertised online and landlords are still trying to twist their tenants’ arms. I’m sorry that you’re dealing with this on top of everything else. I’m an optimist by nature, but it’s impossible to understate how shit all of this is. It would be amazing to be able to tell you that this is all going to be absolutely fine no matter what happens, but honestly I’m just not sure it will be – not for a while, anyway.

Your landlord knows this too. They know the economy is tanking (it’s too soon to say how badly). They’re worried that you might not be able to pay your rent and all too aware that, right now, there’s nothing they can do about it because the government has banned them from evicting you. They’re annoyed because they want tenants who are paying full whack so they can cover their buy-to-let mortgage (and/or the cost of their retirement villa in Spain).

Shelter agrees with me. “Your landlord,” they say, “is probably keen to restore rents to their previous levels as soon as possible.” Which is why they’re keen to advertise the property. I know from your most recent message that they’ve now suggested video viewings, even though you’ve said you want to stay.

May I suggest this: ask them to hold on just a little longer. Explain, firmly but kindly, that you want to remain in the property and find a new tenant yourself because they need to be the right fit. Appeal to their common sense and suggest that you might not be able to find the most sensible or solvent replacement flatmate if you’re scrabbling around interviewing people in the middle of a pandemic. But, at the same time, appear diligent and promise that you are looking.

It’s easy to invoke intergenerational warfare in these situations. In my experience, that achieves nothing – it only makes things worse. George Orwell once wrote: “Every revolutionary opinion draws part of its strength from a secret conviction that nothing can be changed.” If we tell people that they are powerless, they believe it. If we cry that the odds are stacked against the many in favour of the few, it starts to sink in.

Housing is about human relationships. That’s why it’s such a thorny area of politics, policy and legislation. We forget too easily that many landlords don’t have an income without their tenants. So you’re in a stronger position than you think. You have more power than you realise, especially right now with everyone is facing uncertainty. Your landlord won’t replace you easily. Their best bet is to hold tight and stick with you – good tenants who pay their rent. On some level, they know this. Any agent worth their salt would tell them the same right now.

Plus, if the landlord wants you to leave so they can let the property to someone else, they’d have to evict you using a formal procedure involving court action. But the government has currently suspended evictions until the end of June and this could be extended by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.

It’s actually in your landlord’s interest to work with you. Now, all you need to do is make it seem like letting you sort this out was their idea. Imagine you're trying to get your dad to do something he doesn’t want to do, draft an email, hit send, sit back and think of England.

Good luck. Godspeed. And, if things worsen, remember that you can contact Shelter directly for emergency help.

@victoria_spratt