One of the things one never really imagines as a tenant is how quickly evictions can happen. My rather tenuous grasp on this area and possible eventuality of renting was mainly informed by soap operas and third-person accounts in newspapers and TV shows. Until it happened to me.
I moved into my studio flat in Forest Hill in the autumn of 2008. It was after a number of issues in my personal life had come to a head, and I was keen to find a place living on my own, which I had never done in 9 years of living in London. I saw a picture of the flat on Moveflat.com and instantly got a feeling that this was my ‘home’.
I met with the landlord, Jack Wood* to sign the contract. My first impression of him was of a Del-Boy type of character, a loveable rogue who spoke incredibly quickly and had difficulty in sitting still. The flat had been empty for a month and he was clearly keen to rent it. He explained that my last month’s rent would be covered by my deposit. While still fairly naïve in the realm of renting as a sole tenant, I had the foresight to insist that this be included in the contract. I had no idea how well this was to serve me almost 8 years later.
The relief was immense at finally having a place to call my own after a period of uncertainty. I met with the previous tenant, Rebecca, and while she was not overtly negative, a couple of the things she said resonated later on. ‘My shower stopped working and I was without a shower or hot water for 3 months, until Jack moved me into a different flat’ was one nugget of information that, in my enthusiasm at having found an affordable abode, I brushed aside. She also gave an insight into my prospective landlord’s personality: ‘He’s a bit HORIZONTAL about getting things done’. Again, a phrase that would resonate throughout my tenancy.
I moved in, and with the help of friends, set about making a home for myself. He had shown the flat complete with washing machine, and when it wasn’t there when I moved in, I insisted he buy another, which he did. It wasn’t long before the cracks started to show, however. The road I lived on in Forest Hill at that time was littered with pubs, fast food places – rich pickings for pigeons that lived in the area. However, one of the few places sheltered were flats like mine. Every day I would come out to pigeon excrement a couple of centimetres thick. I asked my landlord several times over a 5 month period to fix it, but it wasn’t until I got Lewisham Council involved that anything was done.
I had been aware when I moved in that the flat had a damp problem, but had been assured by the landlord and his Polish handyman Pavel that it had been satisfactorily dealt with. In the autumn of 2011, visible damp spots started to seep through, which I alerted Jack to. At this stage, we had a fairly good and amicable relationship. However, nothing was done.
I had been going through some financial difficulties at the time, and Jack was kind enough, when it was pointed out that I’d missed a month of rent in 2012, to suggest I only pay half of it when I had it, as I was, in his words, his ‘best tenant’. Notwithstanding this endorsement, nothing was done about the damp. The cracks started to appear structurally in the house as well – I was flooded a number of times from the upstairs flat, drains outside clogged up several times, the boiler broke at regular intervals. There was no security for the flat, and after one unbearably cold winter, we discovered that someone had been stealing the copper insulation from the roof of my kitchen!
In April of 2014, Jack told me he would be refurbishing his son’s flat upstairs, and it would take a maximum of 3 months. He asked me if he and his workmen could store their tools in my courtyard. I agreed on the proviso that it was only for a few months. In June, I contacted him letting him know that I had seen rats, most likely due to the sizeable amount of rubbish now gathered. It took him and his workmen till November to clear some of the rubbish, and two years later there was still a sizeable amount there.
From my understanding from him, Jack was sparing no expense on his son’s flat above, and in the light of this, I pushed a bit more for the damp issue to be dealt with. I was promised that once the building work was over, there would be a total refurbishment of my flat. My kitchen was flooded twice directly connected to the building works, and so the damp in the kitchen was dealt with and new lights installed (the old fluorescent strip light had been gaffer-taped beyond repair, and was hanging by wires from the ceiling). The same was done in the bathroom where the only light there was holding up the shower rail with a bit of rope and was perilously close to water. The electrician who fitted the lights made no bones about his opinion that these light fixtures had been a real hazard.
After a new boiler was fitted in June 2015, but the area around where the boiler was installed was left exposed, I decided to try to keep a better track of my correspondence with my landlord and his handyman Pavel, who was now apparently, ‘managing’ all of Jack’s many properties in the area. Between June 2015 to December 2015, I left my keys with Pavel some 20 times, sometimes just for a day, often for periods of three days while I was away working, and at one stage, for a period of 8 days. Each time I would come back, to an excuse as to why it hadn’t been done, or only minor tangential jobs done (a smoke alarm or carbon monoxide alarm fitted, that sort of thing). By the end of October, I had the feeling I was being given the run-around, and I wasn’t sure where that run-around was coming from. So I let Pavel know that I would be involving the council from December if nothing was done. (The council had offered to come around immediately, but I decided the best course of action would be to set a timeline and to give my landlord and his handyman the benefit of the doubt). By the beginning of December, the pigeon problem had come back to roost, as some of the spikes had been knocked off in the renovations, and a sense of dejá vu from 7 years previously began to descend.
I informed Jack that although I was sorry to do so, this was no longer acceptable and I felt I had no choice but to involve the council. The anger of his reply slightly unnerved me, but I stuck to my guns. I decided to wait till after Xmas and to see if something would be done. Nothing was. At the end of January Pavel promised twice that something would be done – after the second time when there was no discernible action taken I contacted Lewisham Council.
On the 17th February I made Pavel aware that the council would be coming on the 19th. On the 18th, I received a Section 21 (basically an eviction notice) through my post box, with Jack saying that he felt our ‘relationship’ as landlord and tenant had to come to an end, and that he had to say it had been a pleasure to know me and have me as a tenant! I showed the letter and the flat to Lewisham Council and they advised me to visit their Housing Options team.
The couple of times I visited the Housing Options team at Lewisham was a real eye-opener. On my first visit, I mistakenly joined the queue for families, which was mainly (though not exclusively) young mothers with small children. Having found the correct queue, I met Berniece, a 60-year old grandmother who was sleeping on her niece’s couch after her landlord had locked her out of her flat. Not for not paying her rent, mind; but because he wanted her to pay it on another day that was more convenient for him. When she explained she couldn’t, as she could only pay her rent after she had been paid at work mid-month, he changed the locks. In order to get her possessions, Berniece’s sons (now also made homeless) knocked the door down. Berniece had suffered from a stroke the previous year.
I also met Mick, a former coach driver for a government department, whose accommodation was linked to his work. When Mick fainted one day on the job, it was allegedly decided by the DVLA that he was ‘medically unfit’ for the job and so he lost both accommodation and job. This, despite no medical examination ever taking place.
Lewisham Council advised me in the meantime on a draft of an email which I later sent to my landlord in which I politely stated that I wasn’t prepared to be made homeless because he hadn’t done structural repairs that he was legally required to do, but that I wanted to come to an amicable agreement for our mutual benefits. Lewisham’s verdict on the email was that he was lucky that I was striking such a conciliatory tone – because he had never put my deposit in a Safety Deposit Scheme that he had in fact served me an eviction notice illegally, and should it reach court, it would be immediately thrown out. Quietly confident that I would be able to stay in my flat till the autumn, when I had planned to leave for work purposes anyway, I sent the email.
At first, he seemed to be open to a compromise. His contention was because my rent had not increased according to market value (according to him £950 pcm, although rents for similar properties in the area did not exceed £825), he could no longer afford to rent it to me – but because I only wanted to stay for a few more months, he offered a compromise to £750. While slightly annoyed that I was essentially going to have to pay a 36% increase to get the repair and maintenance issues dealt with, I accepted that my rent hadn’t increased in line with the market, and that as long as the issues were dealt with, £750pcm was probably reasonable enough.
What happened next was incredibly telling. I was temping at a school the following day and around 10.15am I received a text from him, saying that he had been looking at my email again, and wasn’t happy with it, so while he was going to wait for me to get back to him, and give me the chance to “explain” myself, he would have to re-think his offer of a compromise. I didn’t reply to it, as I didn’t have time to. Later, around 3.30pm I received another text saying that he was rescinding the eviction notice, but that he would rent me out the flat at ‘market value’ i.e. £900 (which was a 64% increase on my rent). I called Lewisham Council for advice and they said to come in and see them the next day. I then emailed him back and said I would have to seek further advice, which he seemed to accept.
However, at 22.18pm that night I received an email from him that was so bizarre in its content that it elicited responses from council employees ranging from ‘My 5 year old wouldn’t have such a tantrum’ to ‘Was he drunk?’ In it, he outlined the timeline of events from his perspective, made the assertion that I wouldn’t want to pay £900pcm, and then – the cherry on top of this bitter pie – that he had been looking on Zoopla and had found a room for me in a flatshare at a rent he deemed more within my means.
Two things were very clear at this juncture: (a) this had become personal for him and (b) he wanted me out. I’d also heard from a neighbour that long-term tenants were being kicked out of their flats because of the sale of a building close by for £1.5 million. The plan was to make them into luxury flats. (Much later it transpired that my landlord’s father owned the firm that had won the contract to develop the flats, and my neighbour’s theory was that my flat, as a ground-floor flat closest to the site, was going to act as the site office).
Lewisham Council offered to act as intermediaries, which they did, but to no avail. In an email trail that I was deliberately or inadvertently sent, my landlord contended that he had liked me and that was the reason for giving me a deal on my rent; however, it was now clear that he had been an old fool and we were ‘just’ landlord and tenant and everyone had to look out for themselves in this ‘shit old world’.
My reaction while reading his emails to the council veered between hysterical laughter and alarm. In my view, we had always been only landlord and tenant – what was this implication of something else? Added to which, his handyman had a copy of my keys. Close friends, who had been incredibly supportive advised me to be cautious as this now seemed like it was veering into very unhinged territory.
The council’s advice, based on my landlord’s reply was that I would be better off finding a room somewhere, as while I could fight an eviction, private landlords are allowed to set their own rent and I might end up having to pay both the increase and the court costs. They agreed to liaise with him in terms of me giving notice. The day they did that, another of his workers jumped over my gated entrance into my backyard, which, as you can imagine, was extremely unnerving. I made it clear to the council that the next time something like this happened, I would call the police. Until the end of my tenancy I heard nothing more from Jack, though I did see him on one occasion passing by. He quickly looked away.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have friends who’ve looked out for me in terms of accommodation. So why tell my story? Well, a number of reasons. I had, as aforementioned, what I thought was a pretty good landlord-tenant relationship. What happened to me was incredibly unnerving and stressful, and did have a direct impact on my health. And when it happened, it escalated pretty quickly, with virtually no recourse or protection for me as a private tenant – and this is a situation that many renters experience in 21st-century Britain. While I left the property at the end of April, this is the first chance I’ve had to process everything that happened and put it forward in a way that I hope is fair, but will also start a discussion.
Everyone deserves to have a home fit for human habitation and we have to start questioning why, in the 6th richest country in the world, so many people do not. It’s not the first time in the rental market that I’ve encountered sexism – other encounters have included an attempted sexual assault in my bed while sleeping and sexual harassment from male flatmates and live-in landlords alike. Again, from conversations with female renters, this is more common than is often thought. I’m also in a sector where the notion of owning one’s own property in London now feels like a fabled myth told from days of yore, and while in the past artists had access to relatively decent affordable housing, like so many other sectors, we no longer have. As the rental market becomes the primary source of accommodation for most people in the UK, it is absolutely vital that there are strict regulations for private landlords in terms of the quality of housing, and also in terms of rent control.
I don’t think Jack Wood is the worst of the bunch – he’s basically an Essex boy who got lucky, allegedly through his wife’s wealth – but he certainly isn’t the best either. His transformation from happy-go-lucky cheeky chappy man-about-town to angry slumlord didn’t take much scratching beneath the surface to enflame. The tenants I knew of mainly tended to be immigrants or women i.e. those he perceived as manageable and vulnerable. This apparently is a common pattern for slumlords. I’ve heard other stories, one being that an Eastern European tenant a couple of doors down complained when he discovered that the Chinese nail bar above was running its electricity off his meter. Jack’s reaction apparently was that it would cost him £4-5k to replace the meter (untrue) and that he would have to increase the tenant’s rent accordingly.
During my last weeks there an engineer from BT came around to check on the estate agents above, which involved access to my flat. She said that I had been extremely fortunate due to hazardous wiring. A former neighbour has since informed me that two months after I left the flat was still unoccupied due to the extensive structural repairs needed, though he is renting it out to one of his current tenants. His ability to rent it on the open market was no doubt hindered by a review I left on the renters’ advocacy site, Ask Tenants. Besides writing this, that was all I could do.
While the law has changed since October 2015, there is little protection for long-term tenants on ASTs (Assured Short-Hold Tenancies). In fact, I can say from my own experience that if one has signed a contract prior to this date, it is really not worth the paper it was written on (except when my landlord tried to change the terms of my deposit agreement with him, and I was able to send him a copy of what I had insisted be included – a small victory). 213,000 families were affected by retaliatory evictions last year i.e. an eviction that happens as a result of a complaint about the landlord to the council. While that seems like a small percentage of renters, when one considers that on average each British family consists of 4 or more children, according to the latest figures, this makes it closer to 1, 278,000 people affected by retaliatory evictions alone.
While landlords as a group insist that slumlords are but a minor percentage, the proverbial lone ‘bad apples’, my experiences and those of friends who are also long-term renters would indicate that a good landlord in the UK is the exception rather than the rule. While there are rules in place, there are no bodies to enforce them. There seems to be no sense of how standard levels of structural maintenance should be implemented, or any sense of quality of living space – I have seen everything in my search for accommodation over the years, from hazardous electrical wiring to a shower in the middle of a living room.
When a neighbour who is also a landlord suggested I complain to the Landlord Ombudsman (which I duly did), I was informed that private landlords were not covered under the Ombudsman. While Lewisham Council were immensely helpful and went above and beyond their remits to help me, their ability to effect any real change in the borough is hampered by cuts which have caused their Rogue Landlord and Legal teams to be shut down.
The only option for tenants is to agitate for change politically, especially within London, to share stories and contribute to hashtags like #VentyourRent and get involved with organisations like http://www.generationrent.org. A much higher than normal percentage of MPs are landlords, which means that the rights of private tenants has to become a voting deal-breaker if change is to be implemented. The Tories rejected a move put forward earlier this year by Labour to ensure that rented homes are fit for human habitation, so it is clear that unless it becomes a voting issue, there will be no support from government.
As much as I found my own situation unacceptable, I am aware that there are individuals and families with worse situations than mine. In modern-day Britain, our government should be ashamed that a two-month old baby died as a result of an eviction which led to its mother (a domestic violence victim) living in a car, as happened in Poole recently. I’m including a link here to some videos I made of the property on the final days of living there – I’ve been told they’re quite enlightening: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLKs3hjcFV-RSE5COwcVofyUyi_Lt_QFQK
Rogue landlords need to be outed as much as is legally possible, through organisations like Asktenants.co.uk, Shelter and through local councils (who do hold rogue landlord databases still, despite the cuts). But this is an issue that is in bad need of legislation, and, as with so many issues, it is clear that this no longer can be entrusted to politicians. In the absence of affordable housing, the rental market is set to increase exponentially, and the right to a safe, clean, comfortable home should be a universal right. Sadly, in present-day Britain, this is not the case.
*All names have been changed