For many under-thirties, the concept of home ownership is essentially a big depressing joke. While, for our parents' generation, it might have felt more like a natural progression, for us, it's something kitschy from the past, like marrying for life, or the Cadbury's white chocolate Flake.
Last year, a study by the think-tank Resolution Foundation concluded that up to 40 percent of millennials (those born between 1980 and 1996) faced renting for their whole lives, while in February of this year the Guardian reported on research by the group Civitas, which found that "the proportion of people aged 20 to 34 who live with their parents has risen from 19.48 percent in 1997, equating to 2.4 million people, to 25.91 percent in 2017, equating to 3.4 million".
Obviously, if you can't live with parents and you don't own a home, that leaves you at the mercy of the rental market – which is to say: you are a juicy money-earning steak, and landlords are the lions circling you. Many millennials, especially those living in cities, are stuck in a cycle of paying half their monthly earnings in extortionate rent, often to live in repurposed laundry rooms that estate agents tell us are "actually a reasonable size for the area!"
In this economy, dodgy landlords are rife. You can check off their most common offences – not refunding deposits, refusing to fix appliances, admin fees – like an extremely bleak game of bingo, where the prize is a single room in Brockley that you're not allowed to decorate.
However, hope that shitty landlords can be reckoned with has come about recently. Last week, you may have seen a tweet about Sophie Flinders, Charlie Hind, Isaac Parker, Ben Leonard, and Paige Murphy, a group of housemates in Leeds who took their landlord to court and won, with the help of council representatives and their city's fledgling branch of ACORN, the renters' union. Truly overjoyed by their show of sticking it to the scourge of our generation, I reached out to Ben who explained the situation and provided some advice about how renters in similar positions can do the same thing they did.
VICE: Hey Ben. What were the problems you had with your landlord and the accommodation they were renting to you?
Ben Leonard: The landlord had failed to acquire a House in Multiple Occupation (HMO) License, which any rented property in England and Wales with five or more unrelated occupants – in which some or all tenants share a toilet, bathroom or kitchen facilities – is required to have. An HMO license is granted if a property is suitable for the number of occupants, in terms of size and facilities; has safety certificates for gas and electrical appliances; is fire-safe; and is managed by someone considered to be "fit and proper".
As landlord disputes go, this was nowhere near as bad as some of the horror stories you see online and in the media. However, it is representative of the broken market of private rented accommodation – a system that is completely failing people up and down the country. A quick glance at any Facebook page of a branch of ACORN, the private tenants' union, will show you case after case of landlords forcing tenants to live in houses unfit for human habitation, not meeting regulations and harassing and illegally evicting people.
Did you go through any other processes with the landlord before you eventually decided to take them to court? Was going to court a last resort?
We weren’t aware that our house was being unlawfully let until a housing officer from the council came round to inform us and explain what procedures were available to us.
What legal advice did you seek out before making the decision to take your landlord to court? How easy was this to do?
As a group of young people, getting proper legal advice was beyond our budget, and access to justice was just another issue our case has raised. Luckily we had a sympathetic housing officer at Leeds City Council who was unbelievably helpful in guiding us through the process. It was tricky gathering all the evidence and statements, and ensuring they were properly formatted, but with the assistance of the housing officer and the people at the First-tier Tribunal (Property Chamber) it was manageable.
What was the court case itself actually like?
To his credit, the landlord admitted fault and pleaded guilty, so the court case was pretty pain-free. We were at the Magistrate's Court for just over an hour, with most of the time taken up with the judge calculating how much rent was to be reimbursed.
What were you awarded by the court?
We were awarded our rent for the year, minus bills and a 30 percent reduction due to the landlord’s financial situation.
Congrats! What have you learned from the process? What advice would you give to other people looking to do something similar?
First of all, everybody in a shared house of five or more people should check their landlord has a HMO license. You can do this by checking your council’s public HMO register. It takes a matter of minutes and it could be that your landlord is not playing by the rules, no matter how nice they are. If you find that your house doesn’t have the necessary license, contact your council’s housing officers for advice on how to proceed, and apply for a Rent Repayment Order through your region’s First-tier Tribunal (Property Chamber), who can also offer advice and support.
My number one piece of advice to private renters in any situation is to join ACORN, a community-based, housing-focused union with branches in South Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Brighton, Manchester, Sheffield and Newcastle. If your area doesn’t have a branch, contact ACORN, as it may be that one is in the process of getting set up, as is the case here in Leeds. They also offer clear and useful guidance and support to people interested in establishing a branch in their area.
While our case was fairly undramatic, thousands of people across the country are getting ripped off, harassed and mistreated by dodgy landlords. The best way to beat them is through our collective strength and solidarity.
Right on. Thanks Ben!