When we left our shared house, our landlord demanded £10,000 for invented damages

Oh good. Image: Getty.

Most tenants you ask have a story to tell about an unreasonable landlord. Disputes over repairs, deposits and rent increases are part of life for those in the private rental sector. But this one was different. “WITHOUT PREJUDICE AND SUBJECT TO CONTRACT,” his email began, ominously. “THESE DAMAGES WILL USE UP YOUR DEPOSIT AND MORE TO WHICH I WILL BE LOOKING TO YOU ALL.”

Over the next month, we fired dozens of emails back and forth. Mine were long, poised, imploring: surely we could come to an agreement based on the proper process? His were brief, rude, often capitalised: we were terrible tenants, the neighbours were glad to see us go, what did we expect?

Each week this went on the number only grew. First it was the whole deposit of £5,500 – six weeks rent on our six-bedroom house. By the end of the month it was more than £10,000, including £4,550 to redecorate the entire property and £5,089 on refurnishing the house, including complete sets of high-end furniture in eight bedrooms (two more had appeared since we’d left). This was “with out Legal Cost” he told us, solemnly.

Throughout our exchange he declined to provide inspection reports or photos to support his claims, instead attaching invoices drawn up by his contractors. “It’s down to you to make me an offer,” he said. “Litigate or negotiate.”

So we went to arbitration – your only option as a tenant with an unresolvable dispute short of a trip to the small claims court. The companies that protect your deposit are legally required to offer you a free dispute resolution service. You each submit a document: your landlord sees yours; you don’t see theirs. You have one shot – and no right to appeal.

I submitted our case on a Friday evening. It had taken quite some time to put together – and I’d benefited from the advice of friends with legal experience (“less righteous”). Four months on – half a year after we moved out – the ruling came back. The landlord had provided no evidence of anything more than “fair wear and tear”, the adjudicator confirmed. He was seeking what’s known in the industry as “betterment” – to use our tenancy to end up in a better position than when we moved in. We got our deposit back. After a moment of celebration and relief, I asked what they would do about our unscrupulous landlord. The answer was clear: nothing.

When I’ve told friends and colleagues this story I’ve discovered that, while my landlord’s behaviour was extreme, such experiences are common. After she moved out, one friend’s landlord splashed mud on the walls of her flat and claimed deductions – without realising she had taken had timestamped photos of the rooms when they were spotless. Another friend was threatened with legal action for disputing that standard end-of-tenancy cleaning and repairs should run into four figures. A former colleague told me they’d been threatened with eviction if they didn’t agree to replace a faulty washing machine.

While there isn’t accurate data, a poll by Tenants Voice suggested 30 per cent of tenancies end in deductions, with 13 per cent of tenants losing their entire deposit. Another found that 29 per cent of tenants lost their whole deposit and estimated that deductions could amount to as much as £1bn per year. A fifth of tenants say that they have had their deposits unfairly deducted.

Why do landlords get away this behaviour?

If a tenant wants to report an errant landlord, it’s not easy to work out where to go. Unlike restaurants owners, market traders and taxi drivers, most landlords in England need no licence to operate (they do in Scotland, Wales and most other countries).

Many are not even registered. My old landlord owns more than thirty residential and commercial properties in my borough, but when I contacted the council they said there was little they could do: I should take it up with my deposit protection company. But while the arbitration system worked well in my case, the three companies created in 2006 to protect deposits are funded by… landlords. According to The Rent Trap, by Rosie Walker, the one chosen by my landlord – somewhat ambiguously called MyDeposits – for a long time had the dubious honour of being the only scheme which allowed landlords to keep their tenants’ money in their own account and earn interest on it. No help there either.

“First and foremost, there is no accountability,” says Ben Yarrow, founder of Marks out of Tenancy, a new platform for rating and reviewing landlords, agents and properties, which aims to fill this gap. Whereas on Airbnb you’d expect to see a rating and several reviews before booking a stay in a stranger’s house, tenants sign year-long contracts without any information about a landlord’s past behaviour. This means landlords might as well try it on. Seeking betterment is a one-way bet.

And it’s a bet landlords often win because tenants in the UK have weaker rights and more limited access to advocacy than tenants in most wealthy countries. Tenancies are much shorter – six to twelve months, on average, compared with four to six years in Italy and Germany – and tenants in England can still be evicted with two months’ notice having committed no-fault, although the government has announced plans to end this. Whereas in Germany renters are organised into powerful unions, with over 3 million members, many in the UK don’t know where to go. The arbitration system seems opaque and risky. Those who are less aware of their rights, unwilling for various reasons to take on landlords or simply need some money back quickly for their next house make for easier targets.

In New South Wales, Australia, deposits are protected by a state-run company entirely funded by the interest earned on them (some AU$56m), which also covers tribunals, free advice and advocacy for tenants. Lloyd Russell-Moyle, MP for Brighton Kemptown – otherwise known for grabbing the parliamentary mace – recently introduced a ten-minute bill calling for the UK to adopt this model, using the £4bn currently held by deposit protection companies. After the speech, a cabinet minister crossed the floor to tell him it was a sensible idea.

Cross-party efforts to improve tenants’ rights such as this are especially overdue because the nature of private renting in Britain has changed: 11 million people in the UK now rent their homes from private landlords. The number of privately rented homes has increased by almost two thirds in the last decade, driven by social housing cuts and rising property prices. By 2025, half of under 40s will still be living in properties owned by private landlords, while, according the Resolution Foundation think tank, a third of millennials face renting from cradle to grave. What was once considered a stopgap has become a long-term reality for many, including families and the elderly. It’s time the law and policy caught up.

Tom Sasse is a senior researcher at the Institute for Government. He is writing in a personal capacity.


How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 

Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first

On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them

A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.