Our Troubles as Tenants – and a Union to fight for Housing Justice!

Like most students in Oxford, we moved into our four bedroom flat in September and like most tenants in Oxford, our welcoming was plagued with problems. The letting agency kindly forgot to mention that the neighbouring restaurant did not have their own fire alarm, which we discovered with their loud bangs on our door within the first week of getting comfortable in our new home. For the last year, whenever they triggered the smoke alarm, they would have to enter our house to turn off the alarm. An event we discovered happens almost daily. When we weren’t at home, the restaurant would call the landlord, who then came into our house without the 48-hour notification agreed to in the contract. For our first showers, we could choose between scolding hot or freezing cold, as a retiring boiler combined with illegal plumbing meant that mixing water into an enjoyable temperature was not possible. This is to say nothing about the broken radiators. After several phone calls to the landlord, who quickly stopped picking up, multiple complaints and requests to an inefficient letting agency, and numerous delays and setbacks, we finally received a call at 7:45am notifying us that someone would come that very morning to fix the boiler. We thought our troubles would soon be over, only to find out that fixing the boiler entailed removing the entire old system. This left a living room that looked like a construction site and a deep hole through which the winter entered our kitchen.

Our own story is by no means unique, as we’ve heard countless horror stories from around Oxford. You most likely have your own to share. Discussing with other tenants, we’ve learned that landlords are unresponsive and uncaring, that they can break contracts without repercussions, that letting agencies are unable or unwilling to help, and finally that tenants without money or the legal expertise have no means to defend themselves. Therefore, workers and students have come together as tenants from across Oxford to begin demanding their rights and taking action. We’ve learned that we need more legal knowledge. We need better representation and further possibilities for action. We want to find alternative housing schemes for those who want them. And most importantly, we need increased solidarity with other tenants in the face of rent hikes and letting agencies/landlords, who care more about making money than about those who pay it, the tenants.

 

Come along on Tuesday 11th February at 6.30pm in the Oxford Town Hall for the formation of the Oxford Tenants’ Union (OTU). We are coming together as tenants to build Oxford’s first tenants’ union from the ground up, to collectively organise and to defend our rights. At the meeting, we aim to identify common problems and struggles, and form specific working groups to tackle them. The meeting is for all tenants to get involved, participate and contribute, to make our voices heard and respected! 

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One thought on “Our Troubles as Tenants – and a Union to fight for Housing Justice!

  1. Shelter recommended recently that tenants should have a choice: either the current Assured Shorthold Tenancy, or a more secure tenancy (akin to those on the continent) where, whilst complying with the tenancy terms, their tenancy can run for up to 5 years.
    Whilst we are all stuck with the Assured Shorthold Tenancy all tenants are vulnerable: kick up a stink about the landlords obligations in terms of disrepair issues and the landlord, in spite of those breaches, can terminate the tenancy and evict you, starting with a section 21 notice, usually at 6 months, certainly at end of agreed term – 9? 12? months – and his breaches are not considered relevant by a county court judge. So we are vulnerable when we complain – landlords don’t like it and can drag their feet over repairs whilst evicting us, resulting in tenants having a miserable time prior to inevitable eviction.

    How to fight bad landlords and properties in disrepair?
    The City Council has done us all a disservice with the new HMO rules – whilst it likely makes the new class of HMO:
    http://www.oxford.gov.uk/PageRender/decH/Houses_in_Multiple_Occupation_occw.htm
    …a better bet; there is an inspection regime and standards to be met…
    It does not guarantee that a property is of good quality yet: An unreliable old boiler is ridiculous given tax breaks for landlords, but will cause you inconvenience or worse when it goes wrong, perhaps repeatedly.

    IMHO the City Council should see ALL rental properties registered and inspected to improve standards compliance across the entire sector. A modest registration/inspection fee of £100 and then targeting gentle improvement and compliance with a baseline of standards… more fees for those needing subsequent inspection to meet each years target standards.

    A serious hidden issue – visible in bleak wet weather
    Porous old brickwork will seem dry in the summer and autumn, but during your tenancy, penetrating damp will be unpleasant, and make your property difficult and expensive to heat – cooling it by evaporation with every gust of wind after rain. EPCs take no account of porous walls (they assume walls are dry- that a little dampness will dry out before affecting the calculated u-value of a wall) – this is peculiar and wrong.
    The City Council position on porous walls?
    Well, it seem to be enforceable under the HHSRS:
    Housing health and safety rating system (HHSRS) enforcement guidance: housing inspections and assessment of hazards (within Housing Act 2004)
    https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/15810/142631.pdf
    http://england.shelter.org.uk/get_advice/repairs_and_bad_conditions/home_safety/hhsrs
    “The housing health and safety rating system (HHSRS) is a risk-based evaluation tool to help local authorities identify and protect against potential risks and hazards to health and safety from any deficiencies identified in dwellings. It was introduced under the Housing Act 2004 and applies to residential properties in England and Wales.

    The HHSRS assesses 29 categories of housing hazard. Each hazard has a weighting which will help determine whether the property is rated as having category 1 (serious) or category 2 (other).”
    … the @OCC_CarbonTeam say that this aspect of habitability is enforced:
    Dec10 tweet: “@Oxfordite @landlordtweets @nationalandlord We do enforce on this – contact hmos@oxford.gov.uk or environment@oxford.gov.uk

    [the remedy is simple and not expensive: use a modern beatheable/waterproof rendering system – carried out during dry weather – or, more crudely, paint the wall with exterior paint… property maintenance is not rocket science]

    What can we do?
    See that students sign up and that as many as possible become knowledgeable about disrepair … that these students then prospect for rental property and report significant breaches of standards to the City Council … so not merely becoming more choosy, but getting the Council on cases of substandard properties; in the worst cases, Local authorities have the power to compulsory purchase properties that are unsafe or uninhabitable, so ultimately they do have teeth to press a landlord to put things right.

    Check that rental properties for more than 2 unrelated persons have been registered as HMOs – unregistered landlords face a fine – as this assures the City Council have inspected:
    http://www.oxford.gov.uk/PageRender/decB/Licensing_applications_search_occw.htm

    Check that rental properties have an EPC – legal requirement:
    https://www.epcregister.com/reportSearchAddressByPostcode.html
    Report those that do not to trading standards – landlords face a fine, so do this when you are no longer vulnerable and have your deposit back.

    Check that properties have relevant Gas Safety Certificate – the landlord must provide a copy of one during processing of the tenancy/you receiving keys, and it should have been carried out by a Gas Safe registered engineer:
    http://www.gassaferegister.co.uk

    Letting Agencies CAN do things to help you – though they risk losing a landlords business … they have a conflict of business interest.
    Letting Agencies can report a landlord to the City Council.

    Report to relevant agency anything that runs contrary to common sense, e.g.
    – houses converted to flats that share a gas or electric meter (this likely has planning permission and council tax issues too)
    – houses that have shared services with commercial properties, such as a restaurant smoke alarm
    – houses that do not have exclusive use of their front or back door

    Set up training in how to spot signs of existing damp and disrepair, so that a larger number of people can avoid and then report ‘uninhabitable’ properties to the City Council Environmental Health department for enforcement action per HHSRS (see above).
    Issues such as penetrating damp, black mould, unsafe electrics, unsafe stairs and floors, windows that do not close properly (major draughts – obvious faults).

    And keep an eye (set up a register?) of properties with storage heaters & Economy 7 electricity: storage heaters maybe okay, but if you need ‘boost’ heat during the early evening, economy7 electricity costs 150% normal electric at that time – so the same cost will apply to laundry and cooking outside of circa midnight to 6a.m.; the outcome will be insufficient heat/ventilation and associated problems of unhealthy mould growth.
    Landlords must be shamed in to shifting away from Economy7 for rental properties where this supply is unsuitable and uneconomic.

    Don’t rely on the courts seeing the sense you deem ‘common sense’ about landlord issues. Landlords are very well protected in law, whilst tenants are vulnerable to tenancy termination. The City Council Tenancy Liason can only attempt gentle diplomacy with landlords, and whilst this may help, equally, it may not. Maybe, collectively, find a really good solicitor, one who is willing to work on a no-win, no-fee, basis…

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