Life

Life For Rent: My Creepy Neighbour Keeps Sexually Harassing Me

Plus: my landlord wants to introduce a six-month break clause into our new contract. Is that legal?
23 July 2020, 11:05am
Life For Rent column Vicky Spratt housing advice
A housing advice column for all your renting problems from VICE UK columnist Vicky Spratt. Got a burning question? Email lifeforrent@vice.com.

My neighbour in our flat building makes me uncomfortable. He follows me outside and makes sexually suggestive comments. They’re not explicit – they’re enough for me to feel horrible and upset but not enough for me to say “this is wrong”. Think the level to leave me questioning my sensitivity and sanity. My husband thinks it’s a poor joke but not sexual harassment.

Our front doors are next to each other. He has a habit of hearing me leave and following me outside. Today, when I bumped into him I informed him we will be having a bed delivered, so sorry if there’s noise in the corridor. He said “oh what will you be getting up to then?” When I didn’t respond, he said it twice more. It made me really uncomfortable as I was on my own.

He will follow me outside when I am alone and target me with these comments. He never says these to my husband or if I’m with my husband. On another occasion he made an antisemitic “joke” to my husband. I have Jewish family – this made me very uncomfortable.

I would complain to the building as it’s a leasehold, but he’s a homeowner and I’m a renter. What are my rights here as a tenant? I don’t want to risk a revenge eviction or anything for causing my landlord issues. We have no proof of these events. We’ve lived happily here for five years, but I feel like a prisoner in my own home over the past 18 months he’s been here.

Oh mate, I’m so sorry. I hope you’re reading this comfortably, because you’re being sexually harrassed and subject to antisemitism by a man who is targeting you when your husband isn’t around. (What the hell did he say about your dog? Ugh.)

Your neighbour knows what he’s doing. He is gaslighting you. He is pitching his salty comments and racist remarks at just the right note – like a dogwhistle he knows will ring louder for you than for your husband, making you want to run. But you can’t, because this happening on the doorstep of your home.

His behaviour is intended to make you feel uncomfortable, to distress you, to make you feel unsafe. This is so he can feel big, safe and strong because, in truth, he is none of these things. It’s a disgusting tale as old as time, so let’s start writing it a very 21st century ending right now.

Firstly, allow me to be blunt: I really don’t know what the point of a husband is if it’s not to love and support you unconditionally, to always have your back and be on your side no matter what. Make sure you’re getting this. Life is hard and the person you share a bed with needs to be your life raft.

Secondly, you ask: “Where is the law on this?” Honestly? It falls embarrassingly short. The government’s website has some guidance about how to deal with neighbour issues, but it’s mostly saying “sort it out between yourselves”, which requires you to confront someone who is abusing and intimidating you.

Sexual harassment is discrimination, as is any form of racism or religiously-motivated hate speech. Plain and simple. So you could contact the police or your council’s antisocial behaviour team, because harassment is generally considered to be a form of antisocial behaviour.

Beyond that, I’m afraid there is no specific housing legislation that can offer a quick fix. Your neighbour owns his home and you’re right in thinking that he’s in a stronger position. You’re right to be wary of eviction because, as discussed below, landlords’ right to evict people willy-nilly and play god with their lives is still enshrined in law.

Shelter housing advisor Andy Parnell says it’s “a good idea to talk to your landlord before you do anything. Hopefully this will get them on side, and they may be able to help – or at least reassure you that you can take action against your neighbour without risk of losing your home”.

He, a man after my own heart, also says you need to start keeping receipts. “It’s worth keeping a record of what’s happened. I imagine this will be an unpleasant process, but recording what’s happening, what time and the date in a diary could be useful evidence if you need it later on.”

I wish I could offer you more. I wish I could take you out of this situation. I wish misogyny was a hate crime already. I am so, so sorry you’re going through this. Please do not question yourself one more time. You know what you saw. You know what you heard. You know who you are. You haven’t done anything – ANYTHING – wrong.

My flatmate and I want to renew our current contract, but the landlord now wishes to add a six-month break clause, subject to confirmation that me and my flatmate haven’t been furloughed during lockdown.

None of us have been made furlough, although it seems really out of place to me and I therefore wanted to check the legality of that change. During lockdown, our landlord have offered us a payment plan if we were in difficulty which we declined and continued paying rent as usual.

What does a six-month break clause mean in terms of tenants’ rights? Are they allowed to simply add that to our current contract and what would happen if we refuse to sign it?

One of the traps that private renters fall into is trying to apply the principles of normal human interactions to their housing situation. You know: common sense, logic, fairness, compassion.

The problem with the private rented sector in this country as we know it is that it is a largely deregulated free market in which landlords are seen as investors and not housing providers. For a landlord, a house or a flat is a side hustle, a pension pot. For their tenant, it is a home.

Unfortunately, this isn’t just your regular Twitter landlord-bashing. A survey of 8,000 landlords conducted by the British government revealed that most of them see their properties primarily as an investment, for extra income or for their pension. More than this, just 4 percent said that their role as a landlord was a full-time business and, wait for it, only 13 percent actually saw themselves as a residential landlord.

And, my friend, therein lies your problem. It’s not your fault. You’re caught between a rock – the fact that the government sold off loads of social housing – and a hard place – a buy-to-let landlord who is only worried about making sure you can put money in their pocket each month. That’s why they’re asking you for proof of income and asking for a break clause. It will give them leeway if your income suddenly falls or they suddenly need to sell up.

In terms of the technicalities, a break clause is literally just a bit in a contract that allows the tenant or the landlord to end the tenancy early by giving notice. In your case, after six months, instead of the year or two that is the usual length of a tenancy agreement.

Andy Parnell says that “the terms of your rental agreement will define how a break clause can be used”, so, yes, you really need to check the small print of your new agreement. He adds that you need to pay particular attention because “break clauses which only allow the landlord – but not the tenant – to end the tenancy might be considered unfair and unusable”. If that’s what’s being put to you, make sure to challenge it.

Can your landlord can just add a break clause to your current contract? Unfortunately, yes. “The landlord can simply re-date and amend your original contract to include a break clause and offer this as a renewal agreement,” Andy says, “[but] you’re not obliged to sign it if you don’t agree with the new terms. If you’re an assured shorthold tenant, you’ll still have the right to stay in the property even after the fixed term ends.”

So what now? Do you wage war via email and then hide behind your sofa? No. I’m a firm believer in the idea that you catch more flies with honey. Be as charming as you possibly can be to your landlord, do it through gritted teeth, burn sage afterwards but, whatever you do, keep it amicable. Don’t do this for me or because it’ll give you the moral high ground. Do it because your landlord could technically still evict you completely legally using a Section 21 ‘no fault’ eviction once your fixed term ends and the government’s current coronavirus eviction suspension for renters ends on 23rd August.

When Buffy Summers said “the hardest thing in this world is to live in it”, she was, I’m pretty sure, talking about navigating her relationship with a landlord during a global pandemic. If you need more advice, give Shelter’s expert housing advisers a shout.

@Victoria_Spratt