With homeownership out of the question for an increasing number of young people, most of us are resigning ourselves to the fact that we may end up in a rental for the rest of our lives. But that doesn’t mean that renting has to be hellish.
Life For Rent is a new housing advice column from VICE. Housing journalist and campaigner Vicky Spratt is here to answer your questions about dodgy landlords, evil estate agents and terrible flatmates. Got a burning query? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I live in the studio flat beneath my landlord's family home. It’s a Victorian terraced house and I love it. However, there is no sound insulation and the noise from a full home above is often astonishingly loud. This is a huge problem because I often work at home. Although they have made some considerate adjustments and I hate having to mention it because they've always been upset when I do, I recently had to bring it up again.
They wrote to me to renew my tenancy and, in replying, I made a brief comment about the impact of noise on my work. Within a day they revoked their offer and gave me two months’ notice to leave because I'd apparently complained too much.
This is such a difficult situation because, although legally it is above board (believe me I checked), morally it stinks. Without properly insulating a separate property you rent out for a lot of money each month, how can you expect total silence from the person living in that property? More to the point, how on earth do tenants protect themselves from these kinds of flighty, knee-jerk, revenge-like decisions from landlords?
You’re absolutely right. This is about more than you. This is about living in a home that is not really your own and all that it does to you – physically and emotionally. Humans crave stability. We’re creatures of habit and, for as long as we’ve existed, we’ve built shelters to protect us from the elements and set about making them our own.
Politicians know this. That’s why, for a brief moment, they put policies in place in the later half of the 20th century to fulfill this primal urge and built social housing at scale for the first time in history. Homeownership was on the up and Thatcher’s dream of making Britain a “property-owning democracy” seemed like it might become a reality.
Then, in the immortal words of Pulp, something changed. In the late 80s and 90s, much of that hard-won social housing was sold off and the private rented market was deregulated in favour of landlords. Now our generation – born in the late 80s – has a homeownership rate of just 25 percent, compared to 33 percent for those born in the early 80s. Those born in the late 70s are at 43 percent (lucky them).
As the pool of people who can’t afford a home of their own grows and grows, increasing numbers are – like you – faced with looming instability. It’s very hard to accomplish anything else when you’re constantly having to think about where you will live next, who with and how much it will cost.
The frustration, disbelief and anger you’re feeling right now is universal. We sign contracts. We pay deposits. We hand over huge chunks of cash every single month. And, in return, we have no choice but to swallow the fact that landlords can kick us out at, well, pretty much any time because of Section 21 of the 1988 Housing Act – the mechanism by which a landlord gives notice that they intend to take back possession of their property. This, as I’ve mentioned before in this column, was supposed to be sorted out by Parliament. Then prorogation happened.
But you haven’t even been served a Section 21 notice. You've just been told your contract won't be renewed and asked to leave because you complained about the noise from above, making your home impossible to live and work in. Unfortunately, the people living above happen to be your landlords so your complaint has gone down particularly badly.
Having consulted housing specialists at Shelter and Citizens Advice, I can let you know that even though you've signed a standard Assured Shorthold Tenancy, it is actually void because your landlord is what's known as a "live in landlord". This means that you are actually an occupier and not a tenant.
However, the experts say it's not worth you pointing this out to your landlord as, if they realise, it could actually mean you have fewer protections than you do right now. Nonetheless, you’ve done nothing wrong. You were being completely reasonable when you asked them if they could possibly, please be a bit quieter. And, yet, here you are. You’re being turfed out and, I’m afraid, you’re quite right – it is totally legal. (I’ve seen your contract.)
How, you ask, can your landlord rent out their basement without properly insulating it and then be surprised that it’s loud? The honest answer is that they just can. They shouldn’t be allowed to, but they are.
As I see it, there is a much bigger issue here. There’s a problem with the psychology of being a landlord. Many landlords don’t understand that they are providing a service – like the farmers who produce our food or the doctors who care for our health. They think they’re somehow doing us a favour when they rent out their spare properties. If we complain too much, they decide it’s too much hassle and opt to turf us out so they can move the next poor fool in and repeat this cycle ad infinitum, never once stopping to think “oh hey, maybe I’m the problem”.
How can tenants protect themselves from this pernicious behaviour? The short answer is, they can’t. Revenge evictions are already illegal, but they still happen. Until we have a properly regulated and professionalised private rental sector, I fear nothing will change. I’m sorry not to be able to bear better news or offer silver bullets.
In the meantime, here’s what you can do. Write to your MP. Ask them to champion reform of the private rented sector. And vote – vote whenever you have the opportunity for political parties and candidates who understand the scale of what renters like us are up against.
My question is regarding my Oxbridge university college – when I tried to apply for college accommodation, I was asked to put down a deposit of £3,000. The invoice states that “the accommodation deposit of £3,000 will be split into two parts. The first £1,500 will be credited back to you on your first term’s bill. The balance of £1,500 will be held and set against your final accommodation bill.” On top of that, it also asks for “a payment of £300 for caution money is required and will be charged to you on your first college bill”.
My concern is that the deposits they’re asking for aren’t legal with regards to the 2019 Tenancy Fees Act, with the deposit limit of 5 weeks rent and because it specifically references student lettings.
I’ve sorted myself out with other accommodation but my concern is that while I’m thankfully not in a precarious position right now, it’s a huge access barrier for those who are. It’s also a bit frustrating that if it is illegal, the uni have continued to ask for these deposits presumably because they can and don’t see themselves as having to follow the same standards. Because college accommodation is cheaper in the long-run, it’s also a bit crap that you’re essentially forced into taking more expensive accommodation if you can’t stump up the money upfront.
I don’t really know what to do now and I’m not sure if I’m even right at all. I’ve asked Shelter and Citizen’s Advice who both directed me to each other so I’m a bit stuck.
Well, well, well. What have we here? An Oxbridge college that thinks the rules that mere mortals must follow don’t apply to them? Shock.
It’s true that the letting fee ban brought about the Tenant Fees Act which means landlords can no longer ask for more than five weeks rent upfront as a deposit. So, why your university think they’re somehow exempt baffles me.
I wanted to be absolutely sure about the legality of your situation so I asked Giles Peaker, a solicitor and partner at south London-based law firm Anthony Gold. Peaker, who was named Housing Lawyer of the Year 2018, is what’s known colloquially as an absolute legend. He worked alongside the Labour MP Karen Buck (also a legend) on the Homes (Fitness For Human Habitation) Act which is enforcing minimum standards in privately rented accommodation. He has some thoughts on the fees you’ve been charged.
Hold tight, because, as you’re about to find out, your gut instincts were absolutely right. “A tenancy granted by a university to a student studying or about to study there falls under the Tenant Fees Act,” Peaker explains.
“Because your reader’s university is what’s known as a ‘specified educational institution’ under government regulations and looks to meet the conditions set out in paragraph 8 (lettings to students) of Schedule 1 to the Housing Act 1988, it is a relevant tenancy under the Tenant Fees Act. The same is true of a licence to occupy.”
“The question is what this £3,000 they are calling a deposit actually is. If it is a deposit, it should be no more than five weeks rent. If it is actually rent in advance, they may be able to charge that as long as that is what it really is – i.e. only used for rent. But calling it a ‘deposit’ is confusing and does raise the question of whether it is only used against rent. If it is used against any other liability – breakages, say – it could be a deposit.”
“What on earth is ‘caution money’, though?”
After I shared Peaker’s feedback with you, you went back to your college. You didn’t need to do this. You’d already sorted yourself out with somewhere else to live, but good on you for caring about the greater good over here in this corner of the internet. After all, being asked to drop £3,000 upfront is a huge access barrier to many people without parents who can just whip out a cheque book.
Reader, I am proud of you. You managed to get your college to tell you that they are now “in the process of reviewing and updating the accommodation deposit requirements” and will soon be implementing a new system. Go forth and bathe in your good karma.
UPDATE 247/09/19: An earlier version of this article stated that the first letter-writer had been given notice. The article has been updated to reflect that the contract was actually unrenewed and to include advice from Shelter and Citizens' Advice.