LANDLORDS OF LAND LOUTS?

I came home at around 11 pm one evening and the landlord's father was sat in our living room, having let himself in. He had randomly turned up to do some ‘essential’ work on the house, during exam time, bearing in mind we were all moving out a month or so later. Not content with this, he then ended up living in our garage without telling us, illegally burning tar in the garden and pouring concrete down the street drainage system.”

This is not an isolated incident. Housing has long been a difficult, controversial and at times traumatic aspect of student living. Stories of poor quality accommodation, manipulative landlords and dodgy agents are rife within student circles. Recent efforts by the Students’ Union and other groups have sought to increase awareness and improve standards, although Accommodation and Community officer Sian Green has claimed: “For as many students who will find good quality, well-maintained housing, there are as many, if not more, that will struggle with poor property standards.”


 House of Horrors

For many students, the issue of poor housing is primarily a case of small, isolated incidents and hard-to-reach landlords. Briony Valencia told Impact: “The house was the dirtiest that we’d ever seen when we moved in. Some of the furniture was broken and light bulbs hadn’t been replaced. There is a serious case of dampness in three of the four rooms and the cellar is full of pots and pans from previous tenants.  The landlord isn’t exactly rude, but is very inattentive, particularly as he lives in London and works in Leicester.”

Sarah-Jayne Grahame has been in temporary accommodation since August and is still waiting to move into the house she signed for: “We were told we would move in at the end of September, then November, then in official writing on the 14th December, then January, then the end of January.

“We were promised that we could move in on the 18th February, so we packed everything to go. We are currently living out of boxes - I literally have nothing usable, including my dissertation work and clothes. We got there in the morning [of the 18th] and the head builder (who we talk to as [the landlord] doesn't bother with us) is ill and the other guy in charge won't let us in until electrical checks are done. Why we weren’t told this earlier I don’t know. I am currently trying to get extenuating circumstances as my work has been affected.”

Sygy Collins rented a property on Derby Road: “I had a tiny flat, which was overcharged. My room had no heating and in the winter I could see my breath, with a mould infestation that covered one whole wall green. There was a crack in the window pane/side of the house and she had placed a wardrobe in front of it to cover it up! Furthermore, [the landlord] was in debt and had listed my rental flat as their primary residence, meaning that I had to deal with debt collectors coming around.”


 Prices Through the Roof

Extremely high rent is accepted as a necessary evil by students, many of whom believe there is no option but to pay for whatever they can find quickly, otherwise they’ll miss out on housing. However, this has not been the case for some time. “There is quite a bit of empty housing – there has been for many years, especially in Dunkirk,” says local Councillor Sarah Piper. “It has a very empty feel to it if you walk around the area near the University [South Entrance]. We’re left with the issue of what to do in a an area where there is falling house demand and it has been evident for years that this is the case.”

The Students’ Union advises that students take their time and look through Unipol, a housing organisation recognised as ‘the official student accommodation site for Nottingham’. Nonetheless, some students remain suspicious as to how useful their accreditation system actually is: “The three landlords we used over the years, two of which I'd highly recommend (neither of these are Unipol accredited) are Kwik-Let and MS Estates. We also used Grainger RAMP (Grant Management) who are Unipol accredited and were shocking. We had so many issues with this company it was untrue.

“We turned up to find lots of the previous tenant’s possessions there and a large hole in the floor at the bottom of the stairs. It took three months for them to finally board over the hole: they didn’t fix it, just put a temporary botch on top.”

Kwik-Let has since been accredited by Unipol, though MS Estates has not been.  Grainger Residential Asset Management Platform Ltd are still accredited, while Grant Lettings (formerly Grant Management) has a Gold standard rating, which means it has been a member of the Unipol DASH Code for at least three consecutive years without a sustained complaint being made against them. Grant Management were unable to provide Impact with any specific information about the incident – however they did confirm that the shift to Grainger came after the previous landlord went into administration and that Grainger was the agency responsible for the disturbances. Grainger RAMP were contacted by Impact but declined to comment on the matter.

Unipol does have a record of punishing landlords who fail to abide by their code that governs student lets. Since September 2010, Unipol has investigated eight landlords and letting agencies, including Shields and Grant Lettings, following complaints by student tenants. Of those investigated, Sheila Rathour, Beverly Hall and Dr Fatima Jabbar/Max Choudhuri have all been suspended from the Unipol DASH code. According to Unipol, there are “several cases on-going”.

The system, however, relies on students reporting landlords to Unipol, which, judging by the relatively low number of cases brought to the organisation each year, seems to be something that students are reluctant to do. Forty five per cent of students surveyed by Impact would be unwilling to report their landlord to Unipol in the event of a problem, with some respondents claiming that they “don't think it would have any effect” or that they “didn’t know you could”.

Unipol provided Impact with the following statement:

“The University of Nottingham Accommodation Services, the Students' Advice Centre and Unipol work together to support students in their search for accommodation, providing different roles. Students living in a Code property can approach Unipol in the event of issues with their property.

“Unipol write to students in all Code properties to make them aware of what their landlord has committed to. Unipol's own research shows a significant number of students are aware of the Unipol DASH Code and their website has over 266,000 searches a year.”

Housing has become a central part of the operations of the Students’ Union Advice Centre; its casework has increased by 151% year on year, according to Union statistics. The Advice Centre provides contract checking services and can assist students with problems of disrepair, bad conditions and contractual issues, such as getting deposits back and finding replacement tenants. Due to the nature of the services that the Advice Centre provides, it is “therefore most likely that students are more familiar with this service”, according to Unipol.

Rather than report housing problems through official channels, many students have taken to Facebook via the ‘Crap Landlord/House Awareness’ group, which was set up in 2006, to air their concerns and to share stories of housing woes, as well as offering advice for good landlords in the area. Although not a formal guide, it contains hundreds of word-of-mouth testimonies concerning both good and bad landlords. Currently over 1,000 students are members of this group.

Some students have expressed dissatisfaction with Shields Student Homes, a popular housing provider that is accredited under the Unipol scheme. One student wished for their testimony to remain anonymous as their house is considering taking legal action against the company for systematically failing to sort out vital repairs: “Our house flooded on the first day that we moved in and we are still without proper electricity downstairs, no carpets in the hallway or on the landing, no plaster on the walls in the living areas.  They [Shields] have been rude, unhelpful and continually impossible to get hold of. We wrote a detailed letter explaining everything that had happened to pass on to the insurer and, rather than doing so, they rang up and threatened us because they felt that the letter placed them in a bad light.”

Shields “The tenant’s version of events is not reflective of the actions carried out by Shields. Good service and communication has been maintained throughout the process. The refurbishment has been completed including carpets and electrics. Compensation for the inconvenience has also been offered with no further complaint being received.

“This situation could not have been anticipated and was dealt with as efficiently as possible given the circumstances. We were impressed with the resilience and sense of humour the tenants displayed in this situation.”


 Student Slums

Maya Fletcher, from the community organisation Nottingham Action Group (NAG), has seen the problem of inflated rents for poor-quality properties develop over the last few years: “It is one of the things that keeps coming up with members of the NAG, how students are being ripped off.  We know these houses; we know the properties.  I used to go around the local ones every year until last year – and I can’t this year – but you see what the properties are like, you see people living in the garage and yet they’re paying enormous rents. These tenants just sit there in these awful conditions, seemingly okay with it.  You can’t help but think that sometimes students can be their own worst enemy. In that respect they really are.

[What] really gets most people, is that these landlords are operating businesses. It’s not that you have somebody who inherits a house and rents only that out – these are massive portfolios that they have. And yet they pay no business rates whatsoever.”

Councillor Piper has expressed concerns about the exploitation of international students by some landlords, particularly in the area of Dunkirk closest to the University: “They’re generally properties that international students, who arrive late in the year, tend to rent out.  They’re almost certainly the types of property that no English undergrads would be interested in renting and they don’t tend to be the best landlords – we get reports that a lot of them have mice and some have rats in.”

Perhaps the most infamous of landlords in the Dunkirk area was the recently deceased ‘Uncle Tony’ Carroll. In January 2010 he was fined £62,200 in Nottingham Crown Court for a variety of misdemeanors, including a washing machine and freezer blocking a stairwell, not holding a valid Council license and for illegally evicting tenants when they discovered that the property was infested with mice.

Although he pleaded guilty to all seventeen charges brought against him, his lawyer claimed that the situation had come about because Carroll ran the business himself and had literacy problems.

 

 Quick Fixes?

When it comes to finding a resolution, there seems to be no unified agreement on how to improve student conditions. Dan Lucas, a member of NAG and a former University of Nottingham student, says there is a lack of common agreement between students and residents about how best to address Nottingham’s problems: “It is frustrating for us, because we think people like to be able to portray things in black and white – residents against students or this, that and the other. That’s just not how it is.

“If I were to pick out a villain of all of this it would be a lot of the landlords. Even that isn’t fair, because some of the landlords have tried really hard to make sure that properties are in a decent state.  The trouble is that a lot of them are not like that.”

Some landlords, meanwhile, have complained about being victimised and vilified in the community. In a letter to Nottingham City Council, local landlord Shad Ali accused the Council of collaborating with other groups to smear landlords: “Despite the fact that the next local election will not be until 2015 it seems that [Councillors] are already pandering to [their] handful of local supporters made up of local Nimbys* [sic] and the anti HMO (Houses in Multiple Occupation) lobby, namely NAG. It never ceases to amaze me, both the hostility towards landlords and the uneducated views that are constantly expressed by Councillors representing this Council.

“Whilst I have been helping this City to grow with my landlord colleagues, investing millions of pounds annually into the housing sector, [the Council] continue[s] to slander us from self-serving positions of power. If it wasn't for landlords like me and my colleagues this City would be even more economically deprived than it already is.”

Ali goes on to argue that landlords by and large follow the rules: “As landlords we have asked for years for you to tackle rogue landlords in a manner that would be effective and that would benefit the City as a whole. We have wanted to be part of this process and work in partnership with [the Council]. We have always accepted that there are bad landlords just as there are rogue traders in all professions. In case you need reminding some of the worse [sic] housing in this City is owned and managed by the Council itself.”

Speaking to Impact, Ali added: “Landlords have been investing heavily in their properties and making sure that tenants are happy in order to compete with each other and the numerous private purpose built blocks that have surfaced. We would be foolish to believe that savvy students, who have a choice of accommodation available to them, will rent our houses if they were not of a certain standard.”

With such bad feeling between many of the interested parties, it seems unlikely that there will be a rapprochement anytime soon. Students should, however, be aware that there is a surplus of housing in Nottingham. With the average rent in Lenton for next year currently at around £70, according to Unipol, there is little point paying over the odds for a terrible property with a dodgy landlord. If you find you have a bad house, don’t sit in silence. There is plenty of support from a variety of organisations. Bad landlords need to be stamped out – but it is students who have to lead the way.

*NIMBYs = Not in My Back Yarders

[Ben McCabe, Impact Magazine, Issue 222, p.19, 2013]