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Life For Rent: How Do I Get My Landlord to Fix Things?

Plus: what to do when a damp and mould problem is seriously affecting your health.

by Vicky Spratt
24 October 2019, 12:09pm

Apologies for writing in for the second time in my life (are you allowed to write into advice columns multiple times?). My shower has now been broken for several weeks, and is currently being held together with an earring – I cannot explain, it's a whole thing – and my estate agent/landlord is refusing to do anything.

Every time I contact my agent about it, she says she is "chasing" it without any explanation of who or what she is chasing. My housemate and I have lived here just over a year. Every time something has broken we've had to DIY it ourselves because help has never materialised – this has included a broken boiler, showerhead, and disrupted water supply – but we don't know how to fix this.

We also had a vermin problem last winter, which turned out to be the result of the wall behind the kitchen cabinets actually being pieces of wood held together with cable ties, rather than, like... a wall. It took us months to convince them to finish building the kitchen wall, just to give you some idea of the level of incompetence we're dealing with.

I'd complain to the agency, but it turns out the agency is managed by my landlord. She told me that the shower is "incredibly expensive”, she can't understand how it's broken and we should just take baths instead. I told her I'd pay for repairs and deduct the cost from next month's rent, but she told me I couldn't and hung up.

Do I go ahead and get a plumber in – I know I legally can, but can they Section 21 me in retribution? I feel like I should report the agency so no one else has to deal with this but I don't even know where to start.

Hello again! You are, of course, dear reader, more than welcome to write to me as many times as you like. I am here for all your housing needs.

You say you can’t explain this earring/shower situation but I can’t lie, I’m intrigued. We’ve never met but something tells me you were in Brownies, then the Girl Guides and that you probably took the Duke of Edinburgh Award all the way to the top.

Okay. Let’s get down to it. Your basic amenities don’t work. You’ve had rats and mice. Your kitchen cabinets aren’t properly installed. And what was that? It turns out that your shoddy, negligent and incapable landlord happens to have skin in the game because they also manage your lettings agency?

I’d say I am shocked, but I’d be lying. This doesn’t surprise me at all. The terrible service you’ve received can be explained by the fact that you have a rogue landlord. They know you have no recourse because the buck stops with them. It’s shameful.

You might be surprised to learn that I am not actually a pitchforks at dawn kinda girl when it comes to landlords. I think some of them are good. They provide a service and they take that seriously. Yours, however, gives the entire sector a bad name.

The good news, though, is that there are things you can do. If your landlord is refusing to do urgent repairs, Shelter’s website says that you can actually do minor repairs yourself and deduct the costs from your rent. Tread carefully, though. You’ll need to document everything, keep your landlord updated in writing and, if it all goes wrong, you could be liable for any repairs. And, as you quite rightly note, none of this will stop your landlord issuing a Section 21 eviction notice. As you’re dealing with someone who sounds pretty unscrupulous, I would urge caution.

Shelter also warns against tinkering with gas appliances. “It’s illegal unless you are qualified. Always put your safety and that of others first.” So, if you’ve got a gas hob, a broken boiler or, oh I don’t know, a retro gas fire beware and resist doing any DIY.

If you continue to get nowhere, I’d suggest you try and find somewhere else to live if that’s an option. You could, and perhaps should, contact your local council’s environmental health or private renting team. You can also complain about a letting agent to their professional body, like the National Landlords Association or the Residential Landlords Association, or to a letting agency redress scheme.

Shelter’s advisor also recommends this course of action because “it may encourage the letting agent/landlord to do the work” but, once again, “it could also increase your risk of revenge eviction.”

I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record but, until we see the end of Section 21 no-fault evictions, anyone who complains about conditions runs the risk of a revenge eviction. I wish I could be the bearer of better news.

I have been living in a property for six months. There have been issues with damp since I moved in, including slugs that are attracted to the moisture. It’s causing me health problems, but I can’t get my landlord to do anything about it. I am also pregnant and have lupus, which I contacted environmental health at my local council about, yet I’m still getting no help. They aren’t putting any pressure on my landlord to fix this in a timely manner.

I have been to the doctors three times over the past month about respiratory problems. My lupus means these respiratory issues are a real cause for concern and are exasperating my health problems. I have a persistent cough and am gradually becoming more and more short of breath when walking. This week I ended up in A&E due to chest pain and shortness of breath.

The mould comes back when I clean it and it’s now black in appearance. It’s spread onto my furniture. I have nowhere else to go, and my tenancy agreement doesn’t end until 2020. My chest pain and shortness of breath get much worse at night when I’m in my room for an extended period. Now I must wear a surgical mask when I am in my room to try and mitigate the effects, which helps slightly, but not completely.

I have exhausted every avenue to get this situation resolved, and at this stage feel I am at risk of becoming homeless because it is not safe for me to stay here. I feel the housing issue is affecting not just my health, but the health of my child. Every time I end up in hospital, I am concerned I will lose my child. Please help.

Oh my love. What a mess. What a total bloody mess. Your story reads like dystopian millennial fiction. But, if we know anything these days it’s that reality is so often stranger than invention. I am so, so sorry you’re going through this.

Performing the Sisyphean task of scrubbing mould away only to watch the spores reappear because of structural damp is enough to drive anyone round the bend. And, as the nights draw in, the days shorten and the temperature drops, the last thing anyone needs is to be going home to a dank, slug-infested home.

To top it all off, you’re pregnant with your first child. This is such a crucial time for you – your body is changing, your life is about to change forever and you ought to feel safe and protected. Instead, you fear for your health and that of your baby. You need where you live to be a sanctuary, a place you can seek refuge from the outside world and not a treacherous torture chamber that you have to steel yourself to endure.

Before I get to the specifics of what you can do, I’m going to say to you what I would say to one of my dearest friends. I know it all feels at once hopeless and overwhelming right now. I know you’re exhausted, you feel that your back is up against the wall, that you have no power. I know you can’t see a way out. I know that relentless positive thinking a la The Secret or the loathsome motivational inspiration tiles that people share on Instagram makes you feel as though your bones are about to burst out of your skin. Things are not OK. Your situation is dire. But, it can be better. It will be better.

The private rented sector in England has more than doubled in size since 2002 and now consists of more than 4.5 million households. The people who make up these figures are – like you – just trying to live their lives. When you’re renting, life happens in the same way that it would if you were a homeowner – you just have less control over your surroundings.

According to a Shelter report, more than a quarter of homes in the private rented sector did not meet the government’s Decent Homes Standard in 2015. Things ought to have improved because of the new Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act but, sadly, stories like yours suggest there’s still a very long way to go.

Mould is no joke. It can be incredibly dangerous. And, as I’ve written here before bad housing makes us sick. We know that poor housing causes mental health issues, but that’s not all. A cutting-edge study from the University of Essex recently found that renters have higher levels of a biological marker known as C-reactive protein (CRP) than homeowners. CRP is found at higher levels in blood in response to stress, injury and infection and it can be an indicator of heart disease or chronic inflammatory conditions such as IBS or arthritis.

You need to GTFO, but perhaps you can’t afford to right now. So, I asked one of Shelter’s expert lawyers for some advice. They agreed that, if you can find a way, “the quickest remedy for this situation would probably be to try to end your tenancy early and find another place to rent in the area you need to be in.”

It sounds as though you’re locked into a fixed-term private tenancy for another five months but Shelter’s expert notes that “sometimes it is possible to end a fixed-term tenancy early if there is a break clause, or with your landlord’s agreement.”

So, even though it’s probably the last thing you feel like doing right now swallow your feelings, hold your head high, approach your landlord and implore them to let you go.

Shelter’s expert also says: “If you have a problem with damp and mould that is causing serious health problems now, it’s also possible to take legal action against your landlord if they won’t do repairs. A solicitor can help you apply to the court for an urgent injunction to make the landlord carry out repairs and claim compensation. A letter from a solicitor threatening court action may encourage your landlord to release you from your contract early.”

However, I understand that this option could be costly and you’re running out of time. In fact, you needed this resolved yesterday. Try your best with your landlord – appeal to their humanity. At the same time, go back to your council with a doctor’s note and ask, once again, for help. You’ve been living in the area for over six months, so your local council will be able to investigate your situation.

Shelter’s expert added: “If the council think the poor conditions in your home and the effect on your health make you legally homeless-at-home, they will advise you and could even help you to find another place to rent. You will need strong medical evidence from your doctor.”

@Victoria_Spratt

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