On Saturday 27 April, renters from all over London will gather to take action against letting agents. If you’ve had any experience of the private rented sector in Britain, you probably know why.
The message for the day is simple. No more discrimination against housing benefit claimants. Proper regulation of letting agents. And an end to rip-off fees, which have already been made illegal in Scotland.
Ask most private tenants about renting in Britain, and they’ll tell you a horror story. Boiler broken for the whole of winter? Check. Rent increases of 10 per cent? Sure. Unreturned deposits? Just another day for ‘generation rent’.
Britain is in the midst of a housing crisis. Of the 230,000 new homes needed here each year, just 100,000 are actually being built. The most obvious result of that is the escalating cost of housing, trapping people in renting.
But that’s not the only problem. In a market stretched to capacity, people desperate for a home are vulnerable to exploitation. With so many in the queue for every damp, leaky boxroom, renters have no choice but to dance to the tune of those who control the housing stock.
And that’s where letting agents come in.
If you need a new place, then you’ll probably have to negotiate the fiendish obstacle course of letting agency bureaucracy and fees. While these unregulated intermediaries make a killing, renters are left out-of-pocket and disempowered. In a recent YouGov poll, one in four Britons said they had been ripped off by a letting agent, and housing charity Shelter found 88 per cent of renters were charged excess fees.
These non-refundable, non-optional fees for ‘admin’ and ‘credit checks’ are generally announced without warning or advertisement, frequently once a contract has been agreed. Luckier renters might pay £100 ($153). Choose the wrong agent, and you could be landed with a £540 ($825) charge.
Tenants have even reported getting landed with these ‘credit checks’ every year, and getting handed a £150 ($229) bill for the privilege. Others say they’ve been charged £100 just to view properties.
I experienced this first-hand last year. My friends and I were already stretching our budget for an unremarkable East London flat, when the agent suddenly announced that we had to pay £400 ($611) each in ‘admin fees’.
What could the cash possibly be for, we asked? The agent’s answer – unspecified photocopying, credit checks, an inventory. In reality, an agent’s job is something of a mystery. Shelter estimates the cost of a credit check is between £8 and £25 ($12 and $38): after negotiating my charge down to £100, I’m convinced the fees were completely arbitrary.
That’s not the only way vulnerable renters get hurt. Agents play an active role in keeping housing costs high: one fifth of landlords have increased their rents after encouragement from letting agencies. Worse, the discriminatory practice of refusing letting to those on housing benefit prevents a vulnerable and growing group of people from renting a home at all. For many, the result is homelessness.
That’s why private renters are taking on the letting agents. On Saturday 27 April, we will come together at the dodgiest housing dealers to show we’re on to their exploitative, destructive practices.
In Islington, we’ll be playing a real-life game of housing crisis Monopoly. Herne Hill groups have composed a song, and Haringey renters are presenting ‘cease and desist’ orders to anti-social landlords.
Saturday’s actions are a small step toward balancing a hopelessly skewed housing economy. But for many renters, it’s only the beginning of a wider movement. Generation rent has been silent for too long, and this weekend we’ll be starting a momentum towards sustainable, affordable and secure homes for all.
Find out more about actions happening around London at the Let Down campaign website.
To find out more on the issue of housing, read or buy our April magazine.