The successful court battle inspired a deeper dive into the systems that grant rogue landlords ‘an incredible amount of power’ over their tenants
Student accommodation has been thrust under the spotlight over the last year, thanks to nationwide rent strikes over UK universities’ treatment of renters amid the pandemic (and the subsequent backlash, from “targeted” evictions to police violence). Even off campus, though, renting is often a minefield for students and other first-time renters, who may be more susceptible to exploitation by rogue landlords.
Megan Cole, a student studying philosophy, politics, and economics (PPE) at Birmingham University, is fighting back. Following a year-long tenancy filled with faulty appliances, leaky ceilings, mould, and ant infestations, Cole has won a two-year legal battle against her unlicensed landlord, who has been ordered to repay the entire year’s rent.
Cole originally moved into a house in Selly Oak, Birmingham in July 2019, along with seven other roommates. The house was ideal for its proximity to the university, she explains in a Bulseye Magazine article posted last month, but the group were immediately greeted with a long list of issues, detailed in a series of notes hidden by previous tenants.
Even worse, when one of her roommates looked up the house on the HMO register, they found that it was unlicensed for multiple occupancy (a regulation intended to help combat exploitation). After contacting Birmingham City Council for an assessment, they were told that their eight-bedroom house was actually only suitable for five residents. “The council informed us of the landlord’s rogue status and how we were in a really strong position to take him to court and claim our rent back,” Cole tells Dazed. “So we pretty much thought, ‘Why not give it a go’, especially since we knew there was no way we were able to get out of the tenancy agreement early.”
Other issues that cropped up throughout the year-long tenancy – including spending October to November without a working boiler, and having bailiffs show up at the door for unpaid bills – only hardened their resolve. “So much unpleasantness only prompted us further to seek justice,” continues Cole. “We felt we had to hold him to account for how insecure and vulnerable we felt.”
Even after the favourable outcome of the tribunal, Cole and her housemates are still struggling to receive the justice they deserve. “Initially we felt amazing about it, we felt like we’d beaten the systems in place that make it so landlords hold an incredible amount of power over their tenants,” she says. However, they later realised that the Rent Repayment Order (RRO) was unenforceable, which has left them “clueless” about how to enforce the judgement.
Cole’s experiences have also inspired her to take a deeper dive into UK rental policies, resulting in a dissertation on the power dynamic between rogue landlords and vulnerable tenants. “It was our lived experiences and an investigation into the murky and convoluted legislature that prompted my desire to propose and advocate for change,” she explains, adding that it’s often the most vulnerable in society that are most at risk of exploitation.
The dissertation also includes policy proposals for change, which Cole says are “hugely inspired by the work of some of the UK’s most formidable housing charities and other third sector organisations”. In particular, she points to Shelter’s Renters’ Reform Bill – which includes the establishment of a national landlord database, and the scrapping of unfair Section 21 evictions – as “an incredible alternative to the current systems in place”.
Cole also suggests that universities need to do more to prevent students from being exploited by rogue landlords, or support those that are already in precarious situations. “When we found out about the landlord’s illegal status, not only did we approach the council but also emailed and contacted our university and the students’ union,” she says. “They provided little to no help.”
She adds that the university’s processes to protect students are “completely inadequate” and provide little guidance. “There needs to be a framework to teach students how to watch out for exploitative measures,” Cole asserts. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has only highlighted the lack of support for UK university students – according to a new survey shared with The Independent, around 40 per cent have considered dropping out of higher education.