Life

My Landlord Wants to Charge My Pet Rent

Plus: what to do when a property guardianship turfs you out.
09 July 2020, 11:22am
Can a Landlord Charge Rent for Your Pet?
A housing advice column for all your renting problems from VICE UK columnist Vicky Spratt. Got a burning question? Email lifeforrent@vice.com.

Our current letting agent is part of a big regeneration project in Liverpool and they've been advertising how “pet-friendly” they are, which was our major issue in finding any kind of property to rent. We're currently on contract until later in the year and have paid the government-mandated five weeks’ rent as deposit, and not the additional pet fee they wanted to charge us. However, we have now been told to pay £15 a month, starting from our rolling contract for our pet as “pet rent” – which is just ridiculous.

I don’t plan to send my pet out to get involved in capitalist life to pay for his rent, obviously. Is there anything we can do about this? We've got some other renters who are also very pissed off about the extra £15 on top of the high rent. We'd moved here with the fantasy of not having to move for a while after moving four times within a year. The landlord keeps squashing this idea by changing all of their initial promises.

Reader, you don’t specify what sort of pet you have? Cat? Dog? Iguana? A parrot that knows all the words to “Toxic” by Britney Spears and shouts at people you don’t like? Specifics of the species aside, pets are great, aren’t they? Particularly dogs. Dogs are great. We embarrass them by talking about them on Instagram like they’re our children, we give them social media accounts all of their own and project all of our neuroses onto them and, still, they put up with us. Dogs forever. Cats are cool, too.

Landlords, however, don’t like animals. You, I’m sorry to say, are encountering the dreaded “pet premium”, a tax levied on people who don’t own their own homes but still want to experience the unbridled joy of the unconditional love you can only get from an animal that doesn’t speak human and so, can’t ever tell you you’re wrong.

As things stand, some landlords deny tenants the right to keep an animal. Sadly, this is their right. They take your money, they decide how long you’ll be allowed to stay and whether or not you’re allowed a pet. As a renter, much of your life is just not your own. It’s wild, particularly as studies have shown that having a pet can improve your mental health dramatically – even alleviating conditions like PTSD.

Politicians know this sucks. In 2018, Labour proposed a “default right” to pets for renters. Earlier this year, the Conservatives nicked this concept (sorry, I mean miraculously had the same idea and definitely didn’t pass it off as their own) and declared that everyone “should be able to enjoy the happiness that a pet can bring to their lives”. However, they didn’t make any binding changes that would compel landlords to accept our animal friends.

So, where does this leave you? Now, you’re quite right that sending your pet out to make a living and earn his own keep like a Victorian child is a really bad idea. You could take a more 2020 approach and pivot to pet influencing which, from what I can see, looks both easy and lucrative. But followers are hard to grow these days. In the short-term, what to do about this pet tax?

Shelter housing advisor Andy Parnell says: “It sounds as though your rolling contract and the rent increase you’ve been asked for will only apply when your original fixed term comes to an end later this year.” This is good news for you, but only if you have an assured shorthold tenancy (which most private renters do) because, he explains, it means “you don’t automatically have to pay this extra rent once your fixed term ends – even if the agent asks for it. This is because most of the original rules of your tenancy, including rent payments, still apply.”

So – as ever – the devil is in the detail. Check your contract and make sure there is no “rent review” clause that says your rent will increase at the end of the initial fixed term. If there isn’t one, your original rent stands… for the time being.

If I’ve learned anything in this life, it’s that if something seems too good to be true, it usually is. I’m afraid there is a caveat here.

If the agent wants to hike your rent, there is a process for them to do this. “Assuming they don’t give you a new contract with the higher rent (which you don’t have to sign even if they do), they have to serve you with a Section 13 notice,” Parnell explains. “This will give you at least a month’s notice before the rent increases. If you think the new rent is unfair, you can challenge it via a property tribunal. If you don’t challenge it, the new rent will take effect when the notice expires.”

That pet influencer pivot is starting to look appealing, isn’t it?

As ever, I must warn you of the eviction risk you face. Evictions have been temporarily suspended during lockdown, but they’re due to resume at the end of August. Whenever a tenant has a disagreement with their landlord they run the risk of being served with a Section 21 notice, which allows the property owner to evict them without having to give a reason. Yeah, you read that right.

So, whatever you do, keep it clean, keep it polite and, no matter how tempted you are, do not stoop to their level. Keep the receipts and get everything in writing.

You can read more about rent increases, including what your rights and options are, on Shelter’s website.

I'm writing half with a problem, half with a story that I thought might be interesting to you. I'm a property guardian in Newham, east London so realise I don't have much in the way of rights, but the council and our property guardianship company have recently given us notice to leave.

We have lived in a former local authority house for the past year and a half. Quite a few properties in the area have been given to guardians under the usual arrangements, for us to essentially be caretakers before demolition and construction of new properties. However, we've now been asked to leave so that the council can take ownership of the property back, to house people affected by the coronavirus crisis. I'm unsure whether this would be as “emergency housing”, or whether the property would become normal local authority housing.

I understand that the people who need this housing are probably in more dire straits than me – if I'm being honest, it's inconvenient but I can move elsewhere. The issue is, though, that we were offered a new property under the same terms, meaning that there were already properties available, but that it is easier, quicker or cheaper to take properties that we have entirely renovated, out of our own pockets, than to bring essentially abandoned houses back up to standard.

I know property guardians hardly cut much of a sympathetic figure, but we feel that the council is benefiting from our ownership, in ways that are not in the spirit of the usual arrangements for being a guardian.

There is a special place reserved in Dante’s Inferno for property guardianships. In fact, when he penned the words “abandon hope all ye who enter here”, I’m pretty sure he had just crossed the threshold of an abandoned Police station in Greenwich, where rooms were being rented out to young creatives for £600 a month.

Your situation is awful, yes. This is the deal you do with the devil when you become a guardian, I am afraid. You say the behaviour of the council and the guardian company is not “in the spirit of the usual arrangements for being a guardian” but I am not sure you’re correct, pal. I don’t mean to be harsh, I just think people need to go into guardianships with their eyes open.

It is incredibly common for local authorities to enlist property guardians as a way of a) keeping empty buildings occupied and b) making a bit of money out of them. In 2019, I submitted a series of Freedom of Information requests which revealed that some councils are making hundreds of thousands of pounds a year from doing this. They are benefitting from you, you’re quite right.

I call this the hidden housing crisis. Why? Because, in the eyes of the law, guardians like you are basically invisible and that’s why this is a scandal. As you rightly point out, you basically have no rights. I’ve spent more time than I care to remember in property guardianships. One, in particular, was an incredibly damp flat just off Morning Lane in Hackney where the inhabitants had repainted, fixed the bathroom and made the place look almost fit for human habitation with their own cash. Like you, they did all of the renovations, only to be turfed out when the council needed the flat back for a family. In the end, this was for the best because every time I stayed there, I really thought I was developing consumption

But, obviously, the whole industry needs to take a long, hard look at itself. When it comes to guardianships, the property owner can take your home back at any time. That’s their prerogative.

How can this be? Well, guardianships are questionable legally and ethically. Generally, guardians have licenses not tenancy agreements. So, where does this leave you? Because this is about you. You need to check your license agreement. It will list all of your rights or, rather, lack thereof. Check that it’s actually a license agreement and that they haven’t accidentally given you a tenancy agreement. This has been heard of and it would improve things for you drastically if they’re that daft.

Assuming it’s a license agreement, though, see how much notice they are required to give you and whether it says anything about any work you have done to the property. The biggest problem that guardians face is that they have licenses (which are common for temporary accommodation) and not tenancy agreements, this is why the protections for you are so sparse.

However, Shelter’s Andy Parnell notes that “some property guardians are entitled to a court order before they have to leave, and right now courts aren’t processing eviction possession orders until at least the 23rd of August, which may mean that you have extra time in the property.”

On the work you’ve done to the property, Parnell says: “If it was part of your contractual obligations, it would be reasonable for the rent to be set at a reduced rate to reflect the time and money you’ve invested.” But, as I expect will be the case, “if you’ve done work voluntarily to make the property more comfortable to live in, the guardianship company doesn’t have to consider the improvements you’ve made”.

The good news is that there are currently several legal experts trying to make the case that guardians should have tenants’ rights because you are, after all, basically the same but this isn’t always recognised or enforced. And, as you might expect, property guardian companies have been lobbying hard against any regulation of their license to print money for substandard, unregulated properties at the expense of people who become guardians because they can’t afford market rents.

I’m really sorry, property guardianships are the absolute worst. I’m sure that the people who will be housed in your soon to be former home are really desperate because, in case you hadn’t noticed, we don’t have enough social housing and we’re in the middle of a global pandemic which means lots of people are struggling to pay their rent. Not to mention the fact that homeless people who were temporarily housed in hotels during lockdown are now being moved on. This doesn’t make what’s happening to you right in any way – it’s not – but it is the unavoidable wider context.

I’m glad you’ve raised this. You’re able to articulate the inequity of your situation and hold property guardian companies and the councils who do deals with them to account. This is powerful in and of itself. But, the idea you seem to hold that guardianships are a pastoral retreat from the cutthroat capitalism of the housing market is misguided. Quite the contrary, I’d say they’re a prime example of it. In exchange for slightly cheaper than usual rent, you lost all of your rights and improved a property for someone else with your own money. You can’t deny that it’s a great business model.

Not all property guardians are VICE-reading millennials. I’ve met NHS workers and teachers, single men in their 40s and older people with severe mental health issues who all rely on this form of housing. You’re lucky in that you say you can move somewhere else, that isn’t the case for too many of the guardians I’ve spoken to recently.

If you want to know more about your rights as a property guardian, you can get in touch with Shelter’s specialist housing advisers for free and expert help.

@victoria_spratt