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.


Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.

So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.