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My experiences within the Private Rental Sector

24 Apr 2021

Megan Cole

My experiences within the Private Rental Sector

Coming to university represents a significant stage in any young adults’ life. Your first taste of independence and freedom from your family, and often the first time you feel fully self-sufficient. After a year of living in halls accommodation as most first year UK uni students do, my new friends and I decided to live together. We settled on an 8-bedroom HMO property within the Selly Oak area of Birmingham. Ideal due to its closeness to the uni and also catered to the group of 8 we had accumulated.

In July of 2019 we moved into our new house and were immediately greeted with a long list of issues. In fact, throughout the house there were a series of notes hidden by the previous tenants, warning of the landlord’s rogue behaviour along with the poor state of the property. This included ants’ nests, mould in bedrooms, leaky showers that dripped into rooms below, broken ovens, and a dodgy boiler. Obviously, this panicked us, however, a quick tour around the house with the new landlord, and promises that all issues would be seen to quelled our anxiety.

However, this was when another discovery was made. One of the other housemates looked up our house on the HMO register and saw it was unlicensed. A house in multiple occupation, or a house of multiple occupancy (HMO), is a British term which refers to residential properties where ‘common areas’ exist and are shared by more than one household. As such, this often encompasses student housing. In the UK HMO houses are required to have extra licensing due to their size and potential for exploitation, so the fact our landlord had not obtained a HMO license was quite concerning. HMO licensing serves as a means for protecting tenants, it requires landlords to have gas safety certificates, energy certificates and it means communal spaces in the property must be a certain size to accommodate all tenants. 

At this point we immediately got in contact with the Birmingham City Council, who informed us of our landlord’s “rogue” status and his criminality. Within the passing weeks we were visited by the council who carried out an assessment of the house and deemed it unlicensable due to its condition. Fun stats from this include that our 8-bedroom house was only suitable for 5 tenants and that one of the living room walls was approximately 90% damp!

The council also informed us that were we to live out the yearlong tenancy in the house, we would be eligible to apply for a Rent Repayment Order (RRO) and take our landlord to a tribunal. Of course, we were delighted by the prospect of claiming 12 months rent back, but the systems in place meant we had to live in the unfit accommodation for a whole year.

Events that happened in our year in the “illegal” house

- From October to November 2019, we were left with no working boiler, this meant no heating and cold-water showers. Something we pestered the landlord to fix over 6 times only for him to ignore us.

- In January of 2020, we had a man knock on our front door and inform us our house had over £1000 worth of unpaid gas/electricity bills. He said if we hadn’t opened the door and shown our tenancy agreement, he would have been able to knock down our door and take our possessions.

- The landlord took 6 months to provide us with our deposit protection letter, and when presented with it many of the details were incorrect.

- The Estate Agents denied accountability for listing an unlicensed landlord on their books.

After our year long tenancy, we took our landlord to tribunal and won our entire years rent back. The processes were long and not pleasant, and we often felt powerless against the systems in place. But it was this anger and frustration that fuelled my dissertation. Everyday, many vulnerable individuals suffer within the private rental sector in the UK. The sector represents an accumulation of individuals in unfortunate circumstances; those on benefits, migrants, individuals fleeing domestic violence, the list goes on. With rogue landlords often exploiting people’s need for discrete tenancies and thus silencing their suffering.

There is no denying that my housemates and I were in a privileged position to hold our landlord to account, we knew the processes and had the financial means to pay for the RRO and Tribunal. This should not be the case. Those suffering in poor quality housing and squalor should not require power and money to fix their situations, ultimately, the nature of UK legislation means this is the case.

There are a plethora of policy options that can and should be implemented by central government. This includes, banning section 21 (no-fault evictions), implementing a framework to identify landlords (Rogue landlord database), improving the way councils deal with HMO housing and ultimately rebalance the skewed power dynamic to support tenants, not silence them.

I’m so glad that my dissertation has resonated with so many of you, and I am sorry I can’t get back to all of you. But to come from a background where university was never an expectation or deemed achievable, to going viral for my dissertation and hopefully empowering other tenants, has made me so incredibly happy. Thank you so much to everyone who has shown support, I will publish my dissertation as soon as I receive my results. Please remember, that you are not alone in your unfortunate circumstances, join a tenant’s union, get involved with housing charities and lobby government. Because ultimately, only through fighting injustice and inequality will a better future prevail.