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29 October 2014updated 02 Sep 2021 5:23pm

Renters are being evicted for complaining about their poor conditions

With 200,000 renters evicted for complaining about health and safety problems in the past year, the government has decided to back a Private Members' Bill that would protect tenants from revenge evictions.

By Maya Oppenheim

Complaining about your electricity, leaky roof, a lack of running water or a faulty boiler can leave you at risk of eviction. As ominous as the term may sound, revenge evictions pose a major problem for renters across the country. According to a recent report from Shelter, 200,000 people have suffered revenge evictions for complaining about poor conditions in their homes in the last year. In order to counter this problem, the government has decided to back a Private Members’ Bill which would make it illegal to evict tenants who make justifiable complaints about poor conditions.

Susan Hayley has experienced the horror of revenge evictions first-hand. Since moving in to her Southampton home four years ago, she has not only suffered appalling living conditions but also prolonged harassment and more recently an eviction notice. After Susan and her autistic son moved all of their possessions in, they were immediately shown a letter from their previous landlord. “Rather than showing me a contract, he showed me a letter which warned him that I had complained about conditions in my former home. My new landlord clearly explained that if I were to complain again to him, I would be instantly evicted.”

With agency fees paid and no other choice of home, Susan was forced to stay in the property. While the first few weeks were fine, as soon as summer ended, rain started to pour in and the leaks began. “From then on, damp has risen from the ground floor to the top of the house. Mould grows everywhere and it’s ruined everything I own, even the TV which is too damp to turn on,” Susan says. “Right now I’m lying on a wet mouldy mattress but there’s no point going out to buy another one because it’ll just go the same way”.

Despite the fact that Susan has complained countless times, her landlord fails to fix the problems adequately. “Instead, he’ll get his unqualified mates to do something slapdash so the problem gets worse. If the windows are too rotten to open, he’ll just seal them down.” Susan also says that these builders will let themselves in with a key at any time of the day without warning. “Not only did one guy demand I get out of my kitchen, another one left a bonfire going in the garden while I was out.”

After being left with no hot water for three weeks last September, Susan’s psoriasis started to become infected. This was the point at which she decided she had no choice but to call environmental health. After viewing the house, a surveyor from the council immediately confirmed the property was in no fit state to live in, due to a range of Category One hazards, including loose electrics. Since complaining, Susan has been served an eviction notice by her landlord. “They rang me and said ‘we are coming round to collect your keys because your time is up’.” In law, this Section 21 eviction notice doesn’t require the landlord to provide a reason for his eviction once the fixed period of the tenancy has expired. With large numbers of renters on short-term rolling contracts – where they renew their tenancy periodically – many tenants are at risk.

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After the phone call, Susan immediately rang the police who cautioned the landlord for harassment. However, the council have told Susan to wait in the property otherwise she will be making herself homeless. Still living in unliveable conditions, Susan awaits her court date in the coming weeks, at which point the landlord could get his property back. Given the conditions she is living in, his power to make a revenge eviction might be a blessing, but in other situations it is often a curse, leaving tenants homeless, just because they have complained. Because she is in the private rental sector, they are under no obligation to help.

While, Susan’s experience might seem like a horror story, many people across the rental sector are living in similarly poor conditions. A shocking third of privately rented homes fail to meet the government’s Decent Homes Standard. What’s more, nearly 20 per cent of privately rented homes contain a Category One hazard. Despite the ubiquity of poor conditions, the number of renters reporting problems is low. Research from Shelter found that as few as 8 per cent of renters have complained to their local council. On top of this, one in 12 renters surveyed admitted to avoiding asking their landlord to repair a problem because they were scared of eviction.

For those who do complain, the threat of retaliatory evictions is very real, especially in London, where 7 per cent of renters have received these evictions. Nationally the figure is lower, with only 2 per cent of renters having received retaliatory evictions. Unsurprisingly, migrant renters and renters on housing benefit are the two most vulnerable groups in the rental sector. An astonishing 17 per cent of migrant renters have received revenge evictions. Hannah Gousy, Shelter’s policy officer, says, “landlords don’t have to fix poor conditions because they can simply evict the tenant and get a new one in and the cycle goes on”.

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If the government-backed Private Members’ Bill were to be passed, it would provide protection for an estimated 9m people in the UK private rental sector. All tenants would have to do is call the council to confirm there was a health and safety issue and then they would be able to complain freely to the landlord, knowing they could not be thrown out within six months of requesting a repair. Not only would this make renters less vulnerable, landlords would have to address poor conditions in their homes. The Bill will be considered by parliament on 28 November. Although the Bill has cross-party support, it will need to be prioritised if it is to get through before the general election. While Britain has long favoured the propertied, this Bill would significantly readjust the feudal balance of power between landlord and tenant.