“Landlords are stressed about school fees”, and other gems from the worst housing press release ever sent

To let signs in Bath. Image: Matt Cardy/Getty.

I work for REDACTED, and wondered if you would be interested in a story about how a third of landlords are stressed out from troublesome tenants due to the demands placed on them

So begins a press release that found its way to me this morning. (Okay, that's not an exact quote – it doesn't actually say “redacted”. I've decided to cut the name of the company being PRed for reasons that will become apparent.) It relates to a survey, conducted to promote the work of a firm which provides property management services for Britain’s hard-pressed landlords.

I, like every other journalist on the planet in the 21st century, get a lot of badly targeted press releases: ones covering deeply boring things, or, sometimes, quite interesting things that are, nonetheless, entirely irrelevant to anything I write about. It's the cost of doing business and, while I may wonder, in an idle moment, what crime I committed in a previous life that meant I now deserved to be on the refrigeration industry's mailing list, it doesn't really matter in any serious way.

But  just occasionally, one reaches me* that is relevant, but which is so horrifically, magnificently, mis-targeted, that it's genuinely worth writing up – albeit not for any of the reasons that the PR agency who sent it think it is. This is one of those times.

Here's that first sentence again:

I work for REDACTED, and wondered if you would be interested in a story about how a third of landlords are stressed out from troublesome tenants due to the demands placed on them, and their dependence on the rental money received to pay of [sic] their mortgage (50%), children’s university (10%) and school fees (13%).

Okay. So the story here is that buy-to-let landlords – people who, in the middle of the worst housing crisis this country has seen in decades, pretty much by definition own more than one home; people whose income comes to a large extent from the labour of people who are younger and poorer than themselves – those poor, honest, hard-working landlords are feeling the squeeze.

They're not greedy, or anything, you understand – they're “dependent” on that money. Those school fees won't pay themselves. (Unrelated: In 2014, according to the Citizen's Advice Bureau, after accounting for housing costs, 21 per cent of the population were in poverty.)

Landlords are, if anything, the victims here – victims of those “troublesome” tenants, who make their lives a living hell, by demanding things like working central heating and ceilings that don’t double as water features and homes that are in any way fit to live in. Why can’t they just be grateful, eh?

The research which polled 500 British landlords, found that 83% of landlords spend up to £5000 per year on property repairs for their rental home.

Notice the way the figures there are in bold. Our eyes are meant to be drawn to them, presumably in a “oh my god how terrible” sort of a way.

Actually, though, they’re a bit baffling. A majority of landlords “spent up to” £5,000 per year? Is that a maximum? Does that mean the other 17 per cent aren’t spending anything? (In which case, given that houses need maintenance, WTF?) Or do they spend more than that? In which case, why not emphasise that figure?

Either way, we’re clearly meant to be shocked by this figure – “Landlords have to pay money to maintain their properties? My god!” – so let’s assume the tiny violins are out and move on. 

Further findings from the research revealed:

Over a third (34%) of landlords receive calls in the middle of the night from renters

Without knowing what those calls are, that sentence is a bit meaningless. If the tenants are ringing for a chat, or asking the whereabouts of I. P. Freely, I can see how that’d be a bit irritating. If it’s “the radiator just exploded, send help”, it’s a different matter.

Minor issues for call outs ranging from unblocking drains (23%)...

Doesn’t sound like a minor issue, but okay.

... lost keys (19%)...

These landlords would rather their tenants just changed the locks without bothering them, would they?

...and changing a light bulb (13%)

Okay, I’ll give them that one. That is a minor issue. Change your own bloody lightbulbs, tenants. Can’t reach? Get a step ladder. Get a bloody step ladder, you lazy, lazy sods.

43% of landlords are unclear on what their current responsibilities are when it comes to repairing their property

That’s a genuinely newsworthy figure, and one which an organisation which offers management services to landlords obviously has an interest in promoting. But it is, charitably, an incredibly strange fit with the “oh poor landlords” tone of the rest of the release. 

There’s more – there’s much more – but the bits that look good aren’t interesting, and the bits that are interesting don’t look good. Halfway down the release there’s this golden nugget:

Landlords spend 11 hours a month managing their property

Last November, the average rent in the UK stood at just under £9,000 a year. To earn that sum, landlords have to invest just over one working day a month.

I think we can be pretty confident that the tenants living in those homes are working a lot more than 11 hours every month to pay that bloody rent.

I decided not to name and shame either the agency who this release was meant to publicise, or the PR firm who wrote the release. That might look a bit of a cop out – but I’m being a bit self-indulgent in writing this rant in the first place, and this is exactly the kind of write up that PRs are hired to avoid, and the PRs in question asked nicely. I'm punishing them enough by writing this: I quite genuinely have no desire to get anyone in actual trouble.

But I decided to write it up anyway, because the release does, inadvertantly, sum up everything that is wrong with many landlords' attitudes to their role and their tenants. It implies we are meant to feel sorry for the people who are hogging Britain’s scarce housing stock, because they’re worrying about how to pay their kids school fees. It implies that tenants are being a pain in the backside by expecting to have a functional home, or a copy of the key to their own front door. It implies that being a landlord should be easy.

Well – it shouldn’t. Being someone’s landlord doesn’t just give you access to a significant chunk of their salary every month. It gives you certain responsibilities, too, to ensure their home is warm and well-maintained and that it doesn’t smell of sewage because the drains have got blocked again. Becoming a landlord is not a lifetime guarantee of free money.

The buy-to-let classes have already collected most of Britain’s housing wealth, through a combination of well-timed investment and having been born at the right time. Congratulations. I’m happy for them. But since they’ve already got the money, do they really need our sympathy, too?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He tweets as @jonnelledge.

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*Full disclosure: This release was never actually sent to me personally, but to a friend who also writes about housing stuff, and who forwarded it to me in a “WTF” sort of way. It's also, for some reason that entirely escapes me, embargoed for Saturday. But since I'm a) not naming the firm and b) am about to rip the release to shreds, it doesn't seem worth worrying about.

 
 
 
 

Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.