The UK is turning into a country of renters – with one in five now paying a landlord monthly. Not every rental property is up to scratch, however. This week, the Guardian’s Living Hell series has highlighted the issue of unstable and unsafe housing and landlords who exploit loopholes in the system.
Tarun Bhakta, a policy manager at Shelter, says that tenants need more routes to fight back because of rising rent and the cost of living crisis. “We have huge demand on our services,” he says. “In the last decade we have seen really significant growth in people needing support.”
There may not be many ways to improve poor living conditions but some tenants have taken on their landlords – and won.
‘We went to a tribunal’
In the early days of the first Covid lockdown, Marc Sutton and other residents of Somerford Grove, a block of about 100 flats in Hackney, London, were worried. Many of them were freelance and worked in creative industries, so were losing their regular income. They wrote to the managing agents to see if they might reduce the rent by 20%.
The reply was not what they expected – and gained media attention. The managing agent said that “reduced work travel, reduced work clothing, reduced lunches, cancelled holidays” would “minimalise the impact on the reduction in income”.
The dispute did not end there. When Sutton, who had moved into the flat when he got married, and his husband and their two flatmates came to the end of their tenancy, instead of it being renewed as they expected, they were served a section 21 eviction notice. That’s when they took the battle to court.
The tenants found out that their landlord had neglected to get a house of multiple occupancy (HMO) licence. This is required by law for health and safety reasons. If landlords do not have the licences they need, or fail to fulfil other legal requirements, such as protecting your deposit, renters can take action to get their money back.
The group took their landlord – a company called Simpson House 3 Ltd – to a tribunal for rent repayment. Because it had not got an HMO licence for the property, the case was found in their favour. They won £22,500 – about 80% of the year’s rent.
After their success, the tenants of 20 other flats at Somerford Grove have filed rent repayment orders, which could amount to almost £500,000 in claims against the landlord if they all win. The cases are ongoing.
The flatmates have still not received any money and they submitted a statutory demand on 5 September 2022. The deadline for payment was 29 September but they have not heard back.
A spokesperson for for the managing agents says: “Marc Sutton has never been a recognised tenant of Simpson House 3 Ltd. He is not named on any AST [assured shorthold tenancy] as a tenant, and was moved into the property by his partner without the consent of the landlord. Section 21 was subsequently used as it is intended, to deal with such situations.”
They added: “Simpson House 3 Ltd is an insolvent company and has been dissolved. This is partly a result of the actions taken by the tenants.”
The tribunal decision noted that the lease permitted Sutton to live in the flat.
Sutton, who is a member of the London Renters Union, says usually when you make a challenge such as this you do get your money back. This case has been hard to win but he still advises a tribunal as a tactic for those who feel they have been mistreated and have discovered that their landlord has broken the law in some way.
In a separate case, another tenant, who asked not to be named, challenged his landlord after becoming suspicious that their landlord did not have an HMO licence and had breached fire safety regulations. “There were four of us living there but only two wanted to challenge the landlord,” he says.
In 2022, they took action via Justice for Tenants, a non-profit organisation, who offer advice and can take on people’s challenges for them. “They helped negotiate with the landlord,” he says.
He and another flatmate ended up settling outside the tribunal and received £11,000 between them, about 70% of their total rental payments.
“Originally, [the landlord] offered us 60% of our rent back and they countered with 75%. We settled on 70% in the end,” he says. “Justice for Tenants can also represent you in court but takes 30% of whatever you get back.”
Sutton says that you do not need a lawyer for a tribunal and it is “relatively straightforward”. You start the process by filling in a rent repayment order form (RRO1) with basic details and sending it to the first-tier tribunal with £100 court fees.
You need to produce evidence that you paid the rent and that the landlord does not have a licence.
“The judge will make sure you lived at the property and ask you questions but it is supposed to be easy to do,” he says. While their case has been going on for years, Sutton says most are resolved in about 18 months.
He adds: “The process is difficult … you can be cross-examined, which can be stressful. Councils should be doing this enforcement but they don’t have the resources, so it is up to the renters until councils get the money to go after landlords who break the law.” His tip is to do it with a collective such as the London Renters Union to “feel supported”.
The tribunal will “look at the landlord and tenants conduct and factors like fire and gas safety issues”, he says, and “they will then decide to give back between 60% and 100% of the rental payment money”.
Shelter’s Bhakta says taking your landlord to tribunal can be time-consuming and not always successful.
“Some parts of the law need to be improved to make the tribunal a useful avenue to go down,” he says. “The main problem is the threat of no-fault eviction hangs over tenants, and if they take their landlord to court they risk [this]. It can also be expensive, and people need to take time off work.”
Bhakta says that tenant protections in Wales and Scotland are usually stronger than in England, so tribunals may be a better option there.
Wales now requires landlords to give six months’ notice for no-fault evictions. In England, it is only two months, which is a significant difference. Scotland abolished the practice of no-fault evictions several years ago. These countries are more advanced in improving the rules and regulations.
‘We held protests outside the letting agents’
Last month in London, outside Keatons estate agent in Mile End, two dozen protesters gathered. Four tenants who had complained about unsafe conditions had been evicted, and their deposits withheld. The London Renters Union organised the event when residents were served section 21 notices. Landlords can use these notices to ask tenants to leave, giving them a two-month warning. They do not have to prove any wrongdoing by the tenant.
Alex Wakefield, the secretary for the Tower Hamlets Branch of the London Renters Union, says that the tenants’ £1,000 was kept unfairly. He says that while they could not challenge the eviction, the tenants wanted to get their deposit money back.
The protest prompted the letting agents to meet the tenants to negotiate over the deposit.
Keatons says that the section 21 notice had been served correctly, and that once the tenants had left “substantial remedial works were undertaken to the property to resolve as many of the properties shortcomings as possible. Those improvements would not be deemed appropriate to undertake with tenants in situ.”
It adds: “We have no jurisdiction over the tenant’s deposit, which is being handled by the TDS [tenancy deposit scheme], a government approved deposit protection scheme.
“However, we have met with the tenants in person. And now that we are fully aware of their concerns, we strive to find a fair and reasonable solution for them.”
Wakefield says that there are a number of ways to organise protests and that having the backing of a union is a “good thing”.
He adds that working with a group makes you feel confident. “Even if it is just a few dozen people outside the letting agency, they cannot as easily ignore that,” he says. “The basic principles of collective action and solidarity are beneficial.”
Bhakta says that there are a number of different routes people can take when they feel unfairly treated and these are outline on advice pages, such as those on the Shelter website. He says: “Eviction proceedings are heard in the county courts and some other things like challenging rent increases will be at the first-tier tribunal.”
He says that tenants should not simply withhold their rent, as this could get them into trouble legally.
“For most people, the first port of call will be complaining to their landlord or local authority,” he says. “We would want local authorities to have the funding and enforcement teams and staffing to regulate the private rented sector in their areas. That should minimise the need for tenants to take action themselves, which is time-consuming and hard.”