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Coronavirus housing stories

Revenge evictions and scum landords: the pandemic’s housing horror stories

As the eviction ban is about to be lifted and thousands face homelessness, young renters reveal their experiences amid the coronavirus crisis

TextBrit DawsonIllustrationCallum Abbott

Jordan, a 31-year-old postdoctoral researcher, lives with four housemates in an east London tower block containing 170 flats. Each of these is owned by John Christodoulou, a Monaco-based billionaire who owns a $50 million superyacht, and came in at number 82 on this year’s Sunday Times Rich List.

At the beginning of coronavirus lockdown, tenants in Jordan’s building – many of whom had lost their jobs – composed a group letter to their letting agent asking for 20 per cent off the rent, and a guarantee that nobody would be evicted for being unable to pay.

“We were met with an extremely hostile response,” Jordan tells Dazed. “We were told that we could use the money we’d saved on ‘cancelled holidays’ and ‘lunches’ to pay full rent, and that ‘while tenants are isolating, the wear and tear in properties is increasing, which will be at the cost of the landlord’.” A quick reminder here that the landlord is, in fact, a billionaire.

After recognition of the letter, security presence increased in Jordan’s building, and 12 tenants received letters threatening legal action for ‘breach of contract’. “They said we would be held liable for other tenants’ unpaid rent as well as legal fees,” continues Jordan. Tenants’ correspondence with their letting agency, Tower Quay Ltd, can be seen in full here.

Last month, Jordan and his housemates were served an eviction notice “at the request of the landlord” for a “business decision” – but the group believes they were singled out for “speaking out on behalf of tenants” after his story was widely reported in the press.

Jordan’s story is not unique. He is just one of countless UK renters who – in the face of a global pandemic and unprecedented unemployment – have been abused and mistreated by their landlords and letting agencies.

While landlords were given a three-month mortgage payment holiday at the beginning of lockdown, tenants were told by the government that they must continue to pay their rent, unless “tenants and landlords (could) work together to put in place a rent payment scheme”. Landlords were not legally required to agree to this, but if they did, they would simply be paid back in full at a later date, leaving renters in enormous arrears. 

“We were told that we could use the money we’d saved on ‘cancelled holidays’ and ‘lunches’ to pay full rent” – Jordan, tenant

Doing the bare minimum for the non-rich as always, the government did tell landlords they couldn’t evict renters until August. Now, with evictions due to resume in two weeks, and almost 230,000 in rent arrears, thousands of people are at risk of homelessness.

“The government has completely failed renters,” says Jordan. “All they’ve done is ask landlords to show ‘compassion’ and to ‘work with tenants’. Our landlord is proof of just how ridiculous that is – we haven’t even been able to meet with him. The Tories are a party of landlords, so that’s where their priority lies. At a very minimum, they could repeal Section 21 (when a landlord can issue a ‘no fault’ eviction), which they promised to do in their manifesto. But they have no qualms with throwing renters on the streets.”

“We were promised comprehensive protections for renters (by the government),” Dani Wijesinghe, the national administrator at community-based union ACORN, tells Dazed. “What we actually got was pathetic, and merely deferred the debt that renters were doomed to incur because of job losses, falling ill, or having to protect loved ones.” Wijesinghe describes one key point of failure: “That the recommendation for landlords to grant rent reductions and repayment plans was never legalised. This meant that it was simply down to the sympathy of landlords.”

A poll conducted by The Guardian near the start of lockdown revealed that one in five tenants were forced to choose between food and bills or paying rent, while one in four had already had to voluntarily leave their home by April, just weeks after stay-at-home orders were imposed. Statistics revealed yesterday (August 11) show that one in four London renters are still struggling to keep up with their rent.

“Judges should be given the power to stop renters being automatically evicted if they’ve fallen into arrears because of the effects of coronavirus,” Polly Neate, the chief executive of Shelter, asserts. “It’s a simple tweak that would strengthen the safety net for renters and give people the best possible chance to get back on their feet. It’s much harder to get a new job if you’ve lost your home too.”

26-year-old artist and hospitality worker Selena* lives in a warehouse in east London with three friends. The group – along with other tenants in the warehouse – has been trying since mid-March to get a rent reduction after each of them lost all or part of their incomes. “Our landlord has been fairly unreasonable,” she tells Dazed, “and has shown no compassion despite government advice. After ignoring us for a month, (our landlord) then began phoning tenants individually, harassing that they pay rent that day.”

“After ignoring us for a month, our landlord then began phoning tenants individually, harassing that they pay rent that day” – Selena*, tenant

Selena and her friends have since fallen into rent arrears, and have now received a letter from a debt collector. “We had no warning from the landlord,” she continues, “or any effort on their part to do a repayment plan. I’m worried about eviction when the ban is lifted this month. Now that we’re on a very limited income because of Universal Credit, and the job market looking pretty dire, we’re going to struggle to pay back the arrears.” 

When lockdown hit, a number of the other tenants in the warehouse departed, leaving their rooms vacant at short notice. “The joint tenancy means that we’re paying arrears for rooms that are not our own in the house, which makes it even more difficult.”

Franklin, a 26-year-old freelance tutor and musician, and his three housemates were granted a 20 per cent rent reduction in May, but only on the baffling condition that they pay the full sum of arrears by June. “We resisted this,” he tells Dazed, “deeming it to be not only an arbitrary date, but also one which resolutely failed to take into account the projected length of the lockdown.” The group requested that the landlord “forgive the debt”, but were told by the letting agency that the landlord was “experiencing ‘substantial financial hardship’ of an unspecified nature”. Franklin believes the agency “was not forwarding our correspondence in full, but rather synthesising it and influencing their course of action”.

An agreement was eventually made for Franklin and his housemates to pay the arrears back by the end of their tenancy in June 2021. “The fact that they’re demanding repayment of this meagre amount in full and in such miniscule sums not only exposes the obvious lie that they were ‘experiencing financial difficulty’ (what hardship is attenuated by £30 monthly pay packets?),” declares Franklin, “but shows a lack of solidarity with the country at large, and us specifically as we faced a traumatic situation.”

Franklin says he hasn’t felt at all supported by the government during the crisis. “All fiscal measures offered by the government were directed at protecting landlords,” he explains, “and the response from Labour was meagre in its concession to a rent arrears repayment programme (as opposed to rent suspensions).”

On May 15, the London Renters Union (LRU) launched its ‘Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!’ campaign, which encouraged renters to prioritise essential spending before paying rent. Recent YouGov polling showed support for this initiative, with 83 per cent of people backing rent cancellations, while 67 per cent agreed that tenants should withhold rent if they can’t afford other basic needs.

“All fiscal measures offered by the government were directed at protecting landlords, and the response from Labour was meagre” – Franklin, tenant

Young renters and students have been especially hit by the crisis. According to research by Shelter, over a third of young private renters say the pandemic has made them feel worse about their long-term housing situation, with under 30s most likely to report a negative impact on their physical health.

“Unsurprisingly, it is young renters who often live in the most unstable and expensive homes, while having the least stable jobs,” explains Neate. “This means they pay out huge chunks of their income on rent for very little security in return, putting them in a risky position right now.”

Wijesinghe says many of the calls to ACORN’s helplines were from students in need. “Many have been forced to return to their families, sometimes abroad, leaving vacant rooms costing thousands a term,” she tells Dazed. “Private student landlords and universities have both been equally vile when it comes to refusing to cancel rent. We heard of one private landlord who refused to cancel two terms of rent for University of the West of England students, costing them millions in total.”

ACORN has a list of demands for the government in order to protect renters from unfair evictions. These include: an indefinite extension on the evictions ban, a permanent end to Section 21, rent and arrears waivers for the duration of the crisis, and more protection for lodgers.

For those currently facing eviction or the prospect of paying back huge rent arrears, it might not be too late if the government takes urgent action. “We’re hoping to find a way to have this eviction decision overturned so that we can continue to live here,” concludes Franklin. “Thankfully LRU and other organisations are helping to build the mass struggle of renters that will eventually force the government’s hand.”

If you’re in need of housing advice, you can contact Shelter here, ACORN here, and the London Renters Union here. Jordan and other tenants in his block have written an open letter to their landlord, asking for fair rent and no evictions – you can sign it here.

*Name has been changed