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Private protection

 
March 3rd 2015
 

Living Rent Campaign protestors outside the Scotish Parliament ©Peter Kelly
James Hyslop, 57, returned to Glasgow from London and found himself sleeping on the streets. After several nights, he got a place in a hostel and, with the help of the Glasgow Rent Deposit scheme, he managed to get a private let.

At first he was pleased, but the warm glow didn’t last. When the cooker blew up, he contacted his landlord and after a wait, he sent his brother to fix it. It didn’t work. Another was found, but it didn’t fit the space. Weeks went by, and James was forced to spend his benefits on take-aways.

Damp patches stared to appear in both the living room and bedroom; mould sprouted. Worried about the health risks, he again contacted his landlord, but it didn’t help.

James stopped paying his rent. His landlord met him to discuss the matter at the housing benefit office, but when the didn’t resolve things, he simply changed the locks.

“I got home in the evening and found I couldn’t get in,” James says. “I was just in shock. I had the clothes I stood up in and a small rucksack. I didn’t know I had any rights."

In fact, his landlord had broken the law by failing to follow the correct process that includes a notice to quit, a possession order from the sheriff court and, if the tenant doesn’t go voluntarily, an eviction order, to be carried out by sheriff officers.

The number of households living in the private rented sector has more than doubled in the last 10 years in Scotland to over 300,000.

What’s more, 18 per cent of homeless applications come from people like James, whose private let didn’t work out.

And like him, many have no choice. Between April 2013 and March 2014, Shelter Scotland’s helpline received 142 calls about alleged illegal evictions. And the charity believes many more go unreported, as tenants are not confident enough to report illegal eviction as a crime.

According to one support worker, problems with private landlords and letting agents are extremely common and often end in homelessness. One mentally ill man she supported, whose mother lived with him as his carer, had a landlord who refused to deal with the damp. His mother couldn’t stand the conditions and moved out, at which point he was told he would be liable for her rent too. He had no way to pay and was made homeless.

In another case, a recovering heroin addict was delighted to have been given help with her deposit to move into a private let. But the dream fell apart when the letting agent found out she was a methadone user and refused to take her. Others still have found themselves in rent arrears, or have had locks changed and possessions seized while they are in hospital or prison.

“I am fairly sure that in most of these cases, landlords are aware of the vulnerability of the tenants and know that often people who have come ‘through the system’ have lost the energy or skills to challenge these living conditions,” she says. “Sadly, some people give up and find themselves falling back into homelessness.”

But could change be on the horizon? Late last year, the Scottish Government proposed private tenancy reforms that it claimed offered more security for tenants, and sent them out for consultation.

At first, according to Govan Law Centre, they looked positive. But on further reading, the charity was appalled at proposals, which it claims, could make it easier than ever before for landlords to evict tenants.

In its consultation response, it labelled them "more regressive" than Tory policies dating back 34 years. Shelter also raises some concerns. The Scottish Government’s report is due at the end of March.

“We recognise that many private landlords offer a very good service to their tenants, but there is a minority that still gives the private sector a bad name,” Neil Baldwin, Shelter’s Communications Manager, told The Pavement.

“With the number of private renters doubling in the past 10 years, we believe it is essential the private rented sector is reformed.”

But no matter whether the private rental sector is properly regulated or not, the solution for most is clear: more social housing. After spending some time back in a hostel, James was lucky enough to find exactly that. “Now I’m in a GHA flat and if there are any problems, they are sorted,” he says. “It’s a tremendous help in terms of my health and well-being to know that is all taken care of.” And that’s not much to ask.

 

Alex McKay explains that letting agents need to play fair

I moved into a private let in 2011 and stayed there for three years. The door had a major dent in it – it looked like someone had put their boot through it. There was damage to the ceiling, and the shower switch was not working. Repeated promises to fix these were never honoured.

In March last year my toilet started leaking. The smell of sewage water was  overwhelming. Though the letting agent told me again and again someone would be out to inspect it, this didn’t happen.

I threatened not to pay that month’s rent, so then the plumber came out, lifted and threw away the toilet flooring. The carpet, sodden and unhygienic, remained and the agent told me to organise to get it cleaned. 

Though I objected, my request for a new carpet was refused and a man came to clean it, taking two hours to drain the water from it. I paid the bill and had to wait to take it out the next month’s rent. 

Two years ago, I collapsed in the street and ended up in hospital with a suspected heart attack; I didn’t regain consciousness for four days.

My mother explained at their office and they seemed sympathetic. But it was only a few days before I got a letter chasing my rent, complete with threats to charge me £25 for each day it was overdue. It caused me a lot of stress. 

It was a huge relief when, after seven years of waiting, I got a new flat from a local housing association. 

I gave one month’s notice. But I felt harassed and bullied to move sooner. For the first viewing by a potential new tenant, I was given just 30 minutes’ notice. It happened the week after that too. The member of staff admitted there was pressure to get a tenant in as soon as I left. 

When I handed the keys in, I was told I had been a model tenant. I asked about my deposit but was told to phone the Royal Bank of Scotland who holds the Landlords Deposit.  When I called, the agent had confirmed keys were handed in and inspection done. My deposit was to be paid within five working days.

And then... nothing happened. I visited the office three times, but still nothing. When I visited at the end of January, I was told it would told it would take a further six weeks as they hadn’t yet done the inspection. I couldn’t believe that was the case – someone else had already moved in! Meanwhile, I was living in a flat with no white goods or furniture and no money to buy them. 

In fact, my deposit was paid sooner, but only in part. I’m still fighting to get £200 that has been withheld. This behaviour needs challenged.

 

Know your rights on private lets, says Caroline McCue

Essentials
Make sure your landlord is registered with their local council. A landlord must give you a tenancy agreement and meet gas, electricity and other safety requirements. It is their responsibility to maintain the property's structure and exterior. He or she must also ensure that repairs are done to the property in a timely way.

Eviction
If your landlord tries to physically remove you from the property without a court's permission, they are committing a criminal offence. You should first receive a notice to quit, then the landlord must get a possession order. If you do not leave voluntarily, the actual eviction must be done by sheriff officers. If you have been illegally evicted you can report it to the police.

Deposits, Charges etc
It is against the law for a landlord – or a letting agent acting on their behalf –to charge and administration fee when you start renting a new flat, or renew your contract. The landlord or their letting agent may charge only rent and a refundable deposit of two months' rent at the most. Find out more: www.reclaimyourfees.com.

If you need help, contact:

Shelter: www.shelter.org.uk or call the helpline on 0808 800 4444 (open 8am–8pm on weekdays and 8am–5pm on weekends)

Citizens Advice: www.citizensadvice.org.uk / tel: 03444 111 444 or in Scotland www.cas.org.uk/; Tel: 0808 800 9060

Private Renters Panel (Scotland) Handles problems with unresolved repairs or rent hikes: www.prhpscotland.gov.uk

More detail in the List (mid pages) or read our full special on private lets and tenant's rights: www.thepavement.org.uk

 
 
 

March 2015

 

Contents

Advice: Gambling it all

Need to know: drugs

Focus: Arts with benefits

Readers give their views

Authorities held to account

Emmaus launches new centre

Norway drops begging laws

Award-winning storage

US woman walks for justice

Man shot for throwing rocks

Homeless people urged to register to vote

Football dreams

Homeless man set on fire

Locals mourn ‘car lady’

City-wide hostel upgrade

Weekend drop-in closes doors

Cooking up a plan

London fights back

Soup runs: a reader replies

Private protection

 

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