by | May 21, 2022 | Safer Renting

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About 6 years ago I was brought in by Channel 4 Dispatches as a consultant to explain the ins and outs of a renting problem they were devising a programme on. All bright, clued up people but after 4 meetings they were really struggling to grasp the nuances of the situation and explain it to viewers.

I get this. Housing law is mad and arcane. As a trainer, sometimes I am standing up in front of 20 people explaining how the Protection from Eviction Act works and I get that disembodied feeling that I’m talking gibberish. Like the teacher in the Charlie Brown Cartoons, where her subtitles go “wah wah wah wah”.

Housing law can be like that and the numerous journalists that I’ve worked with down the years always struggle making housing law issues understandable to people not involved in that world.

Three or four years back I encountered Vicky Spratt who had started writing her book, published a few days ago “Tenants”. We’ve spoken numerous times and exchanged many emails and I was always struck by how she seems to really “Get” the issues, not just the legal issues but the way the renting crisis extends it’s icy grip through society. The sort of insight I only normally get when chatting to people working in the front line of housing provision.

So I was really looking forward to reading “Tenants” and it doesn’t disappoint.

Vicky doesn’t write like a journalist observing the subject from a professional distance and there are several references in the book to her own experiences as a renter, which is partly why it has the ring of truth to it but it was as I was approaching the end that I realised why the whole book is authentic, page 254 to be precise, where she shares her experiences of being a 7 year old and absorbing the stress and worry of her parent’s home loss and perilous situation.

I went through exactly the same thing as a child, living in emergency charity housing, attending 9 different schools in 10 years. Things like that stay with you, which is why I have spent almost my entire working life working in homelessness and landlord and tenant law.

What keeps me angry and motivated clearly drives Vicky to specialise in the same issues in her chosen field, telling the stories of others in the same boat and explaining to the reader the systems that underpin how and why this all happens.

Each chapter begins by introducing us to real human beings, renters and their specific problems before, in true investigative journalism fashion, looking at the legal and policy backgrounds that account for why these people end up trapped where they are.

All points are covered in the book, from precarity, rogue landlords, damp, mould, poor property conditions generally and the cost to the NHS of bad housing. I was particularly interested in her reporting on the growth over the past few years of the weird hybrid monster that is, the Property Guardian business model. The legalities of which are complicated enough to make Einstein drop his pipe.

She grasps the technicalities perfectly and comments pithily of the Property Guardian Providers Association’s bizarrely proud claim that a third of property guardians are key workers, nurses, doctors etc saying it’s a good thing. “It isn’t. These people do vital work but they are so poorly paid in relation to private rents, which have risen beyond wage growth, that they cannot afford decent housing and are resorting to guardianships” and I love her observation on the way landlords and politicians have re-branded”Iinsecurity” as ”Flexibility”. Something that always makes my blood boil as well. Who wants flexibility in their housing when they have kids in school or are 50, 60?

It’s a lie, the same way that the increasingly used phrase “Affordable Rents” is a lie that needs calling out every time it comes up.

My automatic affinity with the book makes me wonder about the market for it. Any EHO, TRO, Planning enforcement officer will nod all the way through it, recognizing what they see every day.

Commentators from the landlord lobby side of the fence may recognise some of it but justify a lot of the findings with “Yes but” and like the Property Guardian Providers Association may say, “What you have to understand is” and would imagine that a 50 something homeowner who has never rented or had children exposed to the godawful shadow private rented sector would think of the reported stories as distant from their life as that of a cattle herder in outer Mongolia.

Will it be read by the very people who need to read it? In other words, policy makers.

In ordinary times I would say no but these aren’t ordinary times, they are extraordinary. Last week Tory Minister Tom Tugendhat admitted  ‘The Conservative Party has to fix the country’s housing problems, or we will face electoral oblivion”. When a senior government politician starts to wake up to voter concerns it may well be that books like “Tenants” might be the very thing they start looking to for clues about public anger.

More and more renters living with the precarity of assured shorthold tenancies, the dreadful shadow of s21, perpetually hanging over their lives, rent increases that show no signs of slowing down, despite the cost of living crisis, energy bills and food prices that cripple people alongside the announcements of the profits being made by supermarkets and energy supplier, and a chancellor just named as one of the richest people in Britain, is a recipe for serious social unrest.

Politicians would do well to read “Tenants”, in order to understand the world lived in by so many voters

“Tenants” isn’t just an authentic book, it isnt just an accurate book, it’s that rarest of things, a timely book. A zeitgeist thing. The reality of renting, right now in May 2022

  By Ben Reeve Lewis

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About Cambridge House Safer Renting

The Cambridge House Safer Renting team present the ‘go-to’ blog on the world of the Shadow Private Rented Sector.

We monitor the world of rogue landlord and agent activity, publicise developments, circulate innovative ideas, keep readers abreast of changes in laws and regulations, raising awareness of criminal trends and scams, celebrate successful actions and interview people working in the field, connecting up anyone involved, from tenants and their advisers, to enforcement officers, lawyers and journalists.

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