My first flat out of university was the kind where the landlord pays the council tax and recommends you don’t tell anyone else that you live there. It had rats, broken windows and a “no more than three people in the property at the same time” policy, after my flatmate and I once played a record too loudly on a Friday night. The bathroom was shared, and situated on the floor below. We once hung our underwear out to dry in it one day after using the washing machine and three pairs of pants mysteriously disappeared.
What we lived in, during that four-month stint, could justifiably be called squalor, although we didn’t think of it that way at the time; we were just glad to be able to live in London, even if it did mean working eight-hour days for the landlord in lieu of rent, weekends included. Crazily enough, the whole scenario felt like a good deal; hell, it was a good deal, especially when compared with what else was going on in the same city for some of our friends.
If you’re the kind of person who has never lived in a rat-infested condemned apartment with a sociopathic landlord then you might think that I’m either lying or that what I experienced was reassuringly unusual – but neither is the truth. The problem with the housing crisis is that people know what it is in theory, but only like to acknowledge its existence in very specific, extraordinary circumstances.
A Kent landlord banning what he referred to as “coloured” people from renting his properties “because of the curry smell” is one such case. Fergus Wilson, who is reported to own a property empire comprising 1,000 homes, also updated his criteria for tenants at the beginning of the year, instructing estate agents not to rent his properties to a range of normal individuals including “battered wives”, single parents, low income or zero hours workers, and – bizarrely – plumbers. The multimillionaire, seemingly completely unaware that his remarks made him sound like a caricature of a Disney villain, responded to criticism by saying: “We are in business to make money, so we make a selection based on a sensible business plan... If ever a person came in wearing pink socks and defaulted on rent, then we would stop renting to people who wear pink socks.”
Call me a bleeding heart liberal, but it seems that Wilson has forgotten what he’s taking to market: homes, not identikit houses from an abstract portfolio. Homes are things people rely on, make memories in, have emotional attachments to, consider their place of safety from the outside world. You have to make allowances for that if you’re a landlord; you have to accept that you are not selling a sandwich or a jumper or an iPhone, but something integral to a customer’s life and a family’s existence.
You might think that that’s obvious – but it wasn’t obvious to the landlord who recently evicted my friend from the house she’d lived in for three years with one week’s notice so his son could live in London rent-free instead. When she begged for a little more time to find an alternative place to live, he responded with a shrug: “It’s my house and I can do what I want with it.”
When did this logic extend to being able to do exactly what you want with the people inside those houses, and to hell with the emotional damage you might wreak? When did a “property empire” become the signifier of an impressive business brain? When did we agree that being a tenant makes you deserving of disrespect and disregard, while buying up all the first homes in a block of new builds in order to rent them back to the very people they were built for, and at a significant premium, makes you a savvy investor?
The flat I live in at the moment – much higher spec, you’ll be pleased to hear, than the one with the rats – is part of somebody’s property empire, and the secrets of that person or people are so closely guarded that the management company they use to deal with their tenants won’t even tell me their name. It’s technically illegal not to tell a tenant who their landlord is, but everyone involved in the transaction knows that there’s no real legal recourse to force someone to give you the information – at least not until long after you’ve moved out and ceased needing to care.
It’s also illegal to suddenly evict a tenant with a few days’ notice, and illegal to make off with someone’s deposit for no reason at all, and illegal not to maintain basic standards of health and safety within a property, but landlords continue to do all of these things with impunity because they know that tenants can rarely afford the time or the money to pursue claims against them.
These apparently shocking incidences are not unusual; anyone who’s rented a home in London in the last 10 years will have encountered them, likely on multiple occasions. But if we only reserve our (justified) outrage for people who use offensive racial epithets and publicly say it’s “just not good business” to let women who have experienced domestic abuse rent their homes, we allow the housing crisis to quietly grind on as we turn our attention away.
When the headlines disappear, the rats are still there.