Between a rock and a hard place

I am proud to have spent the past three years as a Shelter adviser in east London, running surgeries for private tenants.  But I am tired of having to help people balance keeping a roof over their heads with doing something about the landlord’s refusal to sort repairs.

Only a few weeks ago, I found myself – again – asking a family whether they were prepared to risk eviction for trying to enforce their basic rights.  For three years, their landlord has refused to deal with the broken heating and the black mould covering their bedroom walls.  I explained that because their housing conditions are putting their health at risk, the council would have a duty to act against the landlord.  But I also explained that because the original six month fixed term of their tenancy had ended, their landlord was allowed to end the tenancy at just two months’ notice.  A landlord doesn’t have to give any reason for this.  So there was a real risk that if they asked the council to help, the landlord might retaliate by kicking them out.  By the time their complaint got anywhere, they might well be gone.

The family are on the minimum wage.  As our report on Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets shows, rents have shot up far beyond the ability of most east Londoners to afford them.  Average rents for the cheapest quartile of two bedroom flats would take up 50% of the median full time wage in Newham, 57% in Tower Hamlets and 59% in Hackney. Local housing allowance rates have not nearly kept pace.

We talked about the consequences of this. If they were evicted their only option would be making a homeless application.  And that would mean temporary accommodation and – almost certainly – being moved out of the area by the council. They still haven’t decided whether it’s better to go on putting up with slum conditions or to risk being sent somewhere miles away from their family, their friends and their son’s school.

This is why Shelter has argued that the circumstances under which a landlord can start evicting must be reviewed.  So it’s pleasing to see that the Government has taken this on board and last week published a consultation on this issue.

The lack of protections for tenants also reinforces the need for longer tenancies, which would allow families to feel secure in their homes without the constant worry of eviction: we’d like our proposed Stable Rental Contracts to become the norm in the rental market.

As a front-line adviser, I’ve seen the human impact of the housing affordability crisis in London. And it’s clear what needs to be done: we need to ensure more homes are affordable to ordinary Londoners. To achieve that, the Mayor needs to prioritise affordable housing in his strategy. And the Government should lift the borrowing cap on councils, freeing them to borrow sensibly to build genuinely affordable homes. In the meantime, local housing allowance rates should keep pace with market rents, so that people on ordinary incomes can access and then keep decent privately rented homes, rather than being at the mercy of rogue landlords who refuse to carry out repairs.

Finally, the Government should restrict the ability of rogue landlords to serve notice in retaliation for their tenants trying to enforce their basic tenancy rights.