Stop criminal landlords

‘Cos I’m frae Govan an’ ye’re frae Partick
This yin here’s fae Bridge o’ Weir
And thon’s fae Kinning Park
There’s some that’s Prods, there’s some that’s Catholic
But we’re Mrs. Barbour’s Army
And we’re here tae dae the wark.

Probably the worst private landlord I ever had to do with was the one in Reading who reacted to the news that I had been burgled: had the burglar had damaged his property getting in? No, I said. “Well, that’s all right then.”

I’ve rented from 11 private landlords, for periods ranging from seven years to a few weeks, and mostly found that the less I saw of my landlord the better I liked them.

(Though I’m currently a private landlord myself (via www.spareroom.co.uk – recommended) and am operating on two guiding principles – my tenant’s room is private except for emergencies or on 24 hours notice, and Shelter Scotland is providing my legal advice. Even though the big advantage of the spareroom site is that it enables tenants and landlords who are basically compatible to find each other – specifically, I needed a tenant who liked cats, as my cats have no sense of privacy and don’t give 24 hours notice on invading a room – still, I remember the worries of being a tenant too well to assume that any landlord is ever welcome in your own room.)

From 1915, a tenants revolt in Glasgow:

In Govan, Mrs. Barbour, a typical working-class housewife, became the leader of a movement such as had never been seen before, or since for that matter. Street meetings, back-court meetings, drums, bells, trumpets – every method was used to bring the women out and organize them for the struggle. Notices were printed by the thousand and put up in the windows: wherever you went you could see them. In street after street, hardly a window without one: “We Are Not Paying Increased Rent”.

These notices represented a spirit amongst the women that could not be overcome. The factors (agents for the property owners) could not collect the rents. They applied to the courts for eviction warrants. Having obtained these, sheriff’s officers were sent to serve them and evict the tenants. But Mrs. Barbour had a team of women who were wonderful. They could smell a sheriff’s officer a mile away. At their summons women left their cooking, washing or whatever they were doing. Before they got anywhere near their destination, the officer and his men would be met by an army of furious women who drove them back in a hurried scramble for safety.” (Revolt on the Clyde, Gallacher, 1936)

Setting aside the toerag who didn’t care if I got burgled, the worst landlord of the general run of creatures was the husband of a couple who were buying flats for buy-to-let. He liked to show up without notice on Saturday mornings to inspect our flat (there were three of us living there, all in our 20s), and complain that even with three women in the house, we hadn’t done the washing-up. (I asked him once if we would always find the counter empty of washing-up if we visited his home, and he said “No” and then “That’s not the point!”)

One of my co-tenants in particular didn’t care for him: she worked in the same building as he did, and had discovered a week after she signed the lease and paid the deposit that the landlord had been having an affair with a previous tenant in this very flat, and that everyone he worked with knew it: the affair had been broken off and the tenant had left when his wife, who co-owned the properties, found out.

But we put up with his Saturday morning visits for some months. We knew he was supposed to give us 24 hours notice, but there didn’t seem to be any real way to prevent him from just showing up. Then I acquired a second cat (I had permission to keep one cat, and I’m afraid I took for granted that this could expand to two without notice to my landlord, though I asked my co-tenants) and on a Saturday morning visit of inspection the landlord spotted the new kitten. He picked her up to inspect her (he also worked as a vet) and wanted to know where and why I’d got a new cat. (A friend had had to rehome about eight kittens, and I’d volunteered to take one.) He tutted over that, and told me that he could easily arrange to have this one put down.

I freaked out. Very quietly. I doubt if my landlord noticed anything. But I rang my landlord later, and got – as I knew I would at that time of day – his wife. I told her that we’d had a visit of inspection from her husband that morning, and that he quite frequently just showed up, no notice, once or twice a month. I said that while of course we appreciated a landlord who would keep in touch so regularly, Saturday mornings was when we slept in, and he generally arrived when we were all in our skivvies.

I don’t know what his wife said to him that night, but reader, he never showed up again for an unannounced visit.

We all want to live in safe, secure homes. Some people can’t. Private tenants are among the most vulnerable in our city, with low incomes, insecure jobs, and insecure tenancies. Many tenants have problems with their landlords, including:

  • withholding deposits,
  • refusing repairs,
  • illegal evictions, and
  • threats of violence.

The average rent for a one or two bedroomed home in Edinburgh over the past year, ranges from £580 to £775 per month – between a quarter or a third of the national average salary, before tax. (When I was sharing that three-bedroomed flat with two other women, we paid £250 each per month – which was 20% of my monthly wages pre-tax.)

Mortgage payments may be cheaper – but even small one-bedroom flats in Edinburgh start at fifty thousand, and you must be able to put down at least 5% deposit (at least £2500). When I was a first-time buyer, there were still flats for sale in Edinburgh at £25-£30K, and it took me three years to save the deposit.

This is probably not news to most people reading this: it’s become increasingly apparent to me over the past ten years that fewer and fewer people are able to save enough money for a deposit on a first-time buy and move into their own home. If I had waited even another year before I got my first flat I might never have been able to do it. Without council homes to rent and without any realistic possibility of saving to put down a deposit, anyone who can afford to make a business out of renting a second flat can do extremely well. The law gives protections to tenants, but the power lies with the landlords.

A campaigning group started in Edinburgh by tenants who have had experiences of bad landlords, Edinburgh Private Tenants Action Group (EPTAG), had found that no landlord had ever been struck off the landlord register, despite some landlords committing criminal offences against their tenants. They cited:

One Edinburgh based landlord, Mark Fortune, was recently convicted on October 12th for threatening his tenants with violence after they asked him to pay for repairs.

Fortune, 42, of Essex Brae Edinburgh has previously been banned from renting out HMO [Houses in Multiple Occupancy] properties, amid allegations that he threatened council staff. Earlier this year was fined £1,000 for letting an HMO property without a licence. Fortune is still legally able to rent out properties in Edinburgh.

A spokesperson for EPTAG said: “Stricter enforcement of the law regarding criminal landlords is urgently needed to protect the rights and welfare of private tenants, many of whom are among the most vulnerable in our city. More resources need to be put into stopping these unscrupulous landlords who abuse the rights of tenants, and break the law.”

Alyson Macdonald writes A Call for a Tenants Movement:

We might be accused of trying to hold landlords to ransom, but that’s hardly a justified response – landlords have been holding us to ransom for years, and all we’re trying to do is help tenants take back some control of their situation. Private sector renting used to be far better regulated: rent levels were controlled, and tenants had long-term security in their housing; but since the late 1980s, those protections have been replaced with the belief that a free market would regulate itself to everyone’s benefit. This hasn’t worked, and it’s time that we started clawing back the protections that were lost under the Thatcher and Major governments.

Mrs. Barbour made a poster sayin’,
“We’ll no’ pay higher rent”;
Then chapped on every door of every Govan tenement.
She said, “Pit this in the windae
an’ when you hear me bang the drum,
We’ll run oot an’ chase the factor
a’ the way tae kingdom come.”
When the poor wee soul cam roon’
He was battered black and blue
By a regiment in pinnies that knew just what tae do.
Mrs. Barbour organised the gaitherin’ o’ the clans
And they burst oot o’ the steamie
Armed wi’ pots an’ fryin’ pans.

On Thursday 8th March, the Edinburgh Private Tenants Action Group is holding a public meeting (7-9pm) at Old St Pauls Church (39 Jeffrey Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1DH) to launch a campaign for tougher enforcement against criminal landlords.

Verses from “Mrs Barbour’s Army”, in the Gude Cause Songbook, 2009

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Filed under Housing, Poverty, Scottish Culture

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