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ELECTROCUTED BY MY FLAT, THEN CHARGED FOR THE DAMAGE: HOW TO SURVIVE 
RENTING IN YOUR TWENTIES


By Hannah Green

18.05.21

From dodgy landlords, rats and electric shocks, to creepy cruise ship photography appearing on the walls - Hannah Green lifts the lid on the fresh hell that is the renting industry and the savvy quarterlifers who are fighting back.

"The long list of problems with our house has started to become a running joke, as has the unbelievably laid back attitude of our landlord, Chris. We have had, in no particular order, the following: mice (lots), a gas leak (once), a leaking roof (recurring), blocked drains (recurring), a broken oven (once), a faulty lock (recurring), no hot water (intermittent), and gaps between the windows and walls so large a bird once flew through them...

Chris’s response to these problems has been patchy to say the least - it can take him anywhere between a few days and several weeks to arrange so much as a visit from a plumber. My favourite thing he’s ever done is probably the time when our cooker stopped working. It took him five days to get someone to come out and look at it. When we asked him to supply us with a microwave in the meantime, he declined, suggesting we get takeout instead. Or perhaps it was the time he thought plastering over a crack in my flatmate’s ceiling would be a long term solution to her leaking roof.

 

Or maybe it was the day he decided to actually tackle the leak, asking us for a knife, a spoon, and a dustpan in the process, and spent the next half hour making mysterious noises on the roof. We watched as random debris flew past our window - moss, leaves, bits of rubble all found their way onto the car parked in the street below or were flung over into neighbouring gardens. Yep. That’s Chris. And all this for the delicious price of £850 a month, or £425 each. For a two-bedroom flat in central Bristol this is quite frankly a steal.

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Most 20-somethings pay more than they can afford for rental housing, and end up in properties that aren’t even safe, let alone comfortable. Hannah investigates by speaking to fellow 20-somethings about their renting experiences from hell.

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I’m 23, and I graduated last summer - now that I’m in work, my rent makes up about 35 percent of my income, but during a period of unemployment a few months ago it made up almost 60 percent of my Universal Credit payments. Research by the Resolution Foundation on housing costs found that households spending 30 percent or more of their income on housing are far more likely to struggle to make housing payments, which can result in arrears and defaults so that they are also far more likely to experience material hardship. 

General wisdom apparently states that you should spend no more than 35 percent of your income on rent, bills and utilities - a suggestion that most 20-something may find laughable. In fact, research conducted by Yorkshire Building Society for End Youth Homelessness last year found that private renting was unaffordable for young people living anywhere in the UK. The study concluded that under-25s working full time for minimum wage will not be able to rent a house for less than 35 percent of their income anywhere in the country, with rent on average eating up 71 percent of their income. With a decade of stagnant wages and the rising cost of private rentals, young people are accustomed to making do with less than ideal conditions.

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To investigate this further, I spoke to a few other quarterlifers about their experiences with private renting and lettings agencies.

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Last year, Polly, 25, rented a flat with several others through Digs, a lettings agency which deals with student and professional properties. Polly’s catalogue of nightmares began the day she moved in: “There was the previous tenants' food trodden into the carpet, the fridges were dirty, the cooker had not been cleaned. The flat was covered in mould. We also didn’t have hot tap water. It took Digs three months to get in a plumber who then took ten minutes to fix the boiler.” After dealing with broken fridges, rotten beams, BED BUGS from second hand mattresses Digs had provided, mould, damp and unprofessionalism, Polly’s flat got in touch with Bristol Council. 

 

“After an inspection from Environmental Health, it turned out that the flat was insufficiently heated and inadequately insulated, and therefore should never have been let in the first place.” They also confirmed that Polly’s room was not big enough to be legally let as a bedroom.
 

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Polly contracted tonsillitis five times and slept with bed bugs in an illegally small room in her student house which Environmental Health later deemed illegal to be rented.

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“The experience was atrocious. It caused me serious stress which impacted upon my academic studies, and the conditions contributed to me contracting tonsillitis five times while living in the property. Digs are villains and constantly find ways to exploit students. The fact we were renting a flat that DID NOT LEGALLY meet basic regulations, and STILL Digs would not compensate us for damages/costs induced by their complacency AND claimed £200 of each of our deposits is criminal.”

Polly feels that the fact the flat was only £400 per person per month (on the cheap end for a student house in Bristol) was used by the lettings agency to justify their complacency and the flat’s poor conditions. “When the Digs agent came round he implied that because the rate was affordable we should have expected a grim flat.”

 

While extreme, Polly’s story is not unique. It seems landlords and letting agencies will do what they can to spend bare minimum, from avoiding essential maintenance work to extracting extortionate amounts for imaginary problems at the end of a tenancy. 

In Sheffield, Harvey rented a house with four other people, for £90 a week. Like Polly, his house was dirty and damp when he first moved in. A few months into the tenancy, the electric hob started short circuiting the whole house, and gave his flatmate an electric shock. They were left without power for two days before their letting agency gave them access to the fusebox. “I left this property and a few weeks later we received an invoice for £300 per person. We were being charged for breaking a bed (broken when we first moved in - there was a photo on the advertisement showing this clearly), for breaking a heated towel rack (there was no heated towel rack) and for mould (after we repeatedly contacted the landlord about the damp).”
 

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Harvey’s flatmate in Sheffield was electrocuted by his rental flat, then charged for the damage.

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When I put the call out for nightmare renting stories, I received a pretty juicy selection in my inbox. This one, however, probably takes the biscuit. When Gabriel moved into his flat in Bristol, there were literal rats running around (our mouse problem suddenly seems almost quaint in comparison). After failed attempts to catch them and later to poison them, the landlord eventually blocked off every hole in the property, trapping them in the walls and ceilings. Whilst it did solve the rat problem, it also led to the smell of decomposing rodents in Gabriel’s bedroom, which, incidentally, didn’t have a window. He lived rent free in a flatmate’s room whilst they were home over lockdown, but his troubles were far from over. 
 

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In Gabriel’s house, rats running loose were trapped into the walls and ceilings where they died and decomposed, and raw sewage flooded the bathrooms.

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What’s worse than rats? Yes, it’s raw sewage: the toilet flooded a total of three times whilst Gabriel was living in the property, with the third and final time severe enough for Gabriel and another flatmate to be temporarily moved into a nearby two bedroom flat. Whilst they were in the temporary flat, the landlord scheduled viewings for prospective renters and gave Gabriel only an hour’s notice - which is actually illegal. 

 

Stories like these are all too common - landlords and lettings agencies take advantage of people from all ages and backgrounds, but renting can be especially hard to navigate if you’re a 20-something, living independently for the first time. This is particularly true if you no longer have, or indeed have never had, the support or advice that universities and students unions are often able to offer. 

 

Whilst we’ve come a long way in terms of tenants rights and acceptable living standards, we have a long way to go. Government measures to tackle rogue landlords have been tentative at best: despite official estimates that there are 10,500 rogue landlords operating in the UK, over the past three years only 39 of them have been recorded in an online database created to tackle the worst offenders. 
 

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Only 39 in an estimated 10,500 rogue landlords operating in the UK over the past three years have been recorded.

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The opposition doesn’t exactly fill me with hope for justice for tenants either - last year Keir Starmer was accused of ‘failing renters’ after refusing to back calls to cancel rents for those affected by coronavirus. Labour has since urged for extensions to the eviction ban which is currently in place due to the pandemic, but in the face of poor conditions, astronomical prices and exploitative landlords, this really seems like the bare minimum. 

 

As the government, the opposition and local councils drag their feet, it’s up to local organisers and activists to demand change. Fundamental to fighting for better conditions is knowing your rights as a tenant, and there are some great organisations out there, such as ACORN UK and London-based tenant's unions, doing great important work educating tenants and campaigning for better conditions. 

 

Founded in Bristol in 2014, ACORN describes itself as a ‘mass membership organisation and network of low-income people organising for a fairer deal for communities.’ The union campaigns on a wide range of issues, from fuel poverty to public bus ownership, but they are best known for their work on renters rights. Their Member Defence teams use direct and peaceful action to confront bailiffs and landlords, stopping evictions and fighting for vital repairs and money owed to its members. 

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Neglected by the government, it is local activists and organisations like ACORN and The London Renters Union who fight the fight for renters’ rights.

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ACORN has offices in Bristol, Brighton, Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle, Lancashire & Morecambe, Birmingham, Oxford and Leeds, as well as local branches across the country from Aberystwyth to York. In London, the London Renters Union is a coalition of housing groups and social justice groups, who help members with issues like rent debt, urgent repairs, rent rises, getting deposits returned and fighting eviction. You can also find advice about your rights as a tenant on the Citizen’s Advice Bureau website, and The Tenant’s Voice.

 

Landlords and letting agencies get away with much of their outrageous behaviour by assuming their tenants don’t know enough about the law to fight back. Emma got in touch from St Andrews with a heartwarming story about a victory against her landlord, Shady John. 

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Landlords often assume young tenants are stupid, like Emma’s landlord Shady John who wanted a male in the house to take over the role of lead tenant from her.

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Shady John was pretty shady: he tried to insist that a male renter take on the role of lead tenant instead of Emma, refused to replace an ancient, broken hoover, and saw nothing wrong with renting out a cold, gloomy house with the staple mould and broken windows, for which Emma was paying £600 a month. “To top it off, he’d hung cheap pictures of cruise ships all around the flat, and then headed off to Australia for the winter on a cruise. He was there for four months. As we sat, shivering in our mouldering home, the reminder of where our money was going was a little bit galling.”

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Landlord Shady John hung pictures of cruise ships all around the rental flat, then went off on a winter cruise as the tenants sat shivering, reminded by the pictures of large sparkling ocean craft of where their money was going.

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“Why did we put up with this? Why did we pay that much money? It seems so ridiculous now. We were very young, and idiots, and the alternative seemed to be homelessness. Everyone else was desperately trying to find housing, and we’d heard dramatic horror stories of people living in even worse housing, with rat infestations, or a bus ride away from town. House viewings could have ten to 15 groups looking at a single property. It didn’t feel worth it to try to move out.”

 

The final straw for Emma came when it looked like Shady John was angling to keep their £2500 deposit. After receiving an email from Shady John claiming the flat was in a disgusting condition, Emma and her flatmates returned to deep clean the property - only to be told that it would have to be professionally cleaned, and that John would be keeping their deposit until that happened, which could be months. 

 

“A friend of mine then became aware of tenant protection laws in Scotland, which was deeply revelatory. Turns out Shady John was shady. Deposits in Scotland legally need be placed in a deposit holding scheme within thirty days of the tenancy beginning, and the tenants should be informed of the location of their money, otherwise the landlord is liable. I emailed John to ask about a holding scheme. I got an instant reply, telling me to meet him and he’d explain everything. When he arrived, he started to lie through his teeth. He’d taken the money from us meaning to put it into a deposit scheme, but then he’d been ill, and his wife had accidentally moved it into their savings, but he’d get the money to us once he’d deducted the cleaning fees (which had increased since we’d last spoken), and hopefully we’d understand.”

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Shady John turned out to be very shady indeed. 20-somethings shouldn’t be intimidated out of educating themselves on their rights and the laws in place to protect them, or opening official disputes to claim back unfairly-held deposit money.

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“The dates he mentioned coincided suspiciously with that cruise to Australia he’d been on. I emailed him that evening, threatening to take him to Tribunal and involve solicitors (like in the movies), as the law clearly stated my rights and his responsibilities, that I’d be able to claim back three times the amount of the deposit. I told him I’d tell all future tenants of his behaviour. I told him I’d call the landlord registration people. I went all out. He emailed me back the next morning, with a one liner “I note all you say”, and paid back the amount in full. I felt like Batman. Vigilante landlord justice.’”

 

There are laws in place to protect tenants, but for them to be effective you have to be aware of your rights. Hopefully over the coming years we’ll start to see our politicians taking campaigns for housing justice seriously, and adequate protections will be put in place to help tenants secure safe, affordable housing. But until then: join a union, know your rights, and don’t accept any nonsense from your landlord or letting agency - rats, mice, electrocution, bed bugs, tonsillitis, or withholding your deposit money to go on onto winter cruise. If it feels shady, then it probably is. 

Image by Tina Sosna via Flickr

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