|Issue 16 - October 1973|
|Tenants Versus Landlords|
|It is now one
year since the Tory Government's Housing Finance Act - more popularly,
and humorously, known as the 'Fair Rents' Act - became law. Muther
Grumble looks at how the Act is working, presents a brief guide to
tenants' rights and offers some suggestions to all those pissed off
with the rent-paying syndrome.
1) Fair Rents: Aftermath
The numbers of tenants now claiming rent rebates exceed even the wildest Tory predictions of 12 months ago; the better-off council tenant is paying almost as much rent as that for a good home in the private sector; more such council tenants are buying their own homes, placing an extra burden on the rapidly deteriorating mortgage system; the Rent Scrutiny Boards, in their 1st batch of final decisions, have in some cases nearly doubled what the councils themselves have estimated as fair rents - and no-one can discover how or why the boards reached these decisions or even the names of the people who sit on them. As the working class become less and less able to pay their rents, councils are increasingly turning towards providing more expensive, better quality housing for middle class tenants - the Greater London Council already runs an independent high-rent list for converted properties.
An increasing percentage of the wage packet has to be spent on rent, while rent and rate rebates, together with other State benefits, effectively prevent increases in the real wages of low-paid workers, e.g. for every £1 wage increase, £1 may be knocked off the rent rebate. Big wage claims, therefore, fight the Government's policy of depressing real wages.
The development of large ghettos in our cities is becoming a very real danger. With rents continuing to rise, the SS may feel that claimants are living in places "too large" or "too expensive" for them and refuse their rent money unless they move into worse accommodation, with lower 'fair rent'. Increasingly single mothers, immigrants, homeless and 'problem' families are ending up on the older, dilapidated council estates. At the same time, low-earners, claimants and pensioners on these estates stand even less chance of being transferred to better estates, because rents elsewhere are considered above their level.
Local authorities can use their discretion, ignore all these conditions and still grant a rebate if they think you'll "suffer hardship" if they refuse the money, but it's impossible to say yet how liberally this discretion will be exercised.
Meanwhile, rent rebates for council and New Town tenants and allowances for those in private unfurnished accommodation remain on offer, with bigger rebates and allowances available to the disabled. Sample maximum income figures (before tax) of people in furnished accommodation who can still apply for help with their rent are: single - £25, couple - £35, couple / single parent and child - £40. This reckonable income does not include all of a wife's earnings or anything paid for board by lodgers or by family members for their upkeep. 'Couples' do not have to be married. Tenants who receive supplementary benefit are advised by the Government not to apply for rebates but in the north-east local council offices are discovering a lot of flaws in SS information (in many cases you'd be better off with a rebate), so don't let this put you off.
The rent to be assisted by the rebate or allowance does not include rates, heating, furniture or service costs.
If you are moving into unfurnished accommodation being let for the first time, it would probably be to your advantage to ask for a fair rent to be set by the Rent Officer. If you are dissatisfied with his decision, you can appeal to a Rent Assessment Committee for a final ruling. Landlords and tenants can agree on rent and rent increases between themselves without going to a Rent Officer, but these agreements must be in writing and not interfere with the landlord or tenant's right to apply for registration of a fair rent. Once a fair rent has been registered the landlord cannot charge any more than the agreed amount, although he can apply for a rent increase if he has improved the property or after 3 years have passed since the original registration.
Similarly, a landlord of privately rented accommodation can apply for a 12½% rent increase following improvement works to his property. Once this new fair rent has been registered the landlord cannot normally increase the rent to the new figure straight away - instead, the total rent increase is paid by annual increments until the registered rent is reached. (Where the rent is increased by agreement, landlords and tenants are free to agree on their own phasing arrangements.)
A tenant in furnished accommodation can ask the Rent Tribunal to reduce rent which he considers too high and set a fair rent for the property. An increase in the registered rent will only be approved if the landlord has made improvements to the house, furniture or services, or if he can show that his running costs have risen. (More about Rent Tribunals under Eviction.)
This is certainly true of Durham, where rents have risen dramatically in the past few years while the percentage of students living in college has declined. The university's Accommodation Bureau claims it deals only with the city's best landlords, but this is obviously untrue as many students know to their cost. A Durham council official commented: "Most students are paying through the nose for rent". The situation is complicated by rumours of a blacklist system, but it is time students became more aware of their role within the community as a whole and made greater use of Rent Tribunals and health laws, thereby improving rents and conditions for others.
Rent Tribunals can suspend any notice to quit for up to 6 months at a time, and, if necessary, can renew the period of suspension when the previous one expires. The period can, however, be shortened if the tenant does not pay rent, damages property or disturbs other people living in the house following the tribunal's decision. Any notice to quit issued after a tenant has asked the tribunal to fix a reasonable rent will be suspended for 6 months unless the landlord can show good reason for issuing the notice.
The main reason why unfurnished places come up so rarely these days is that it's much harder for a landlord to get tenants out of unfurnished property than it is to throw them out of furnished accommodation. The landlord has to apply to County Court for an 'order for possession' which will only be granted if the rent is overdue, or if the tenant is damaging the building or upsetting other people, or, in some circumstances, if the landlord himself or a member of his family wishes to live in the house. This last point is worth investigating beforehand as all too often a landlord will claim he wants the property for his own use and then, as soon as you're gone, lets it out again.
Both Rent Tribunals and County Courts tend to favour their Establishment companion, the landlord, but even if you lose your case you can gain some small satisfaction by speaking for yourself. Both set-ups are very informal, but your landlord will probably bring along a solicitor, which means the affair will be costing him money.
Squatting is the most direct method of fighting back against the bad conditions in which millions of people live and the situation in which houses stand empty awaiting 'development' by profit-minded councils, landlords and speculators while thousands of people are homeless. If you want a long-term home, council properties are your best bet - councils are more vulnerable than private landlords in the sense that they're supposed to be housing people rather than chucking them out on the streets. It's worth checking beforehand whether the house you have in mind still offers water, lighting and heating services. Do not damage the building and remember you'll be expected to pay rates. Landlords have to get a court order (specifically naming one or more of the squatters) before they can evict - all other methods, including police 'persuasion', are illegal. Once the order has been granted, you can always move on to the nearest empty house and start the process all over again, and move a new set of people into the original building. The more work you do on the property and the more you involve yourself with the community, the more local support you'll get.
With property prices as they are today, it is unlikely that communal living would provide an immediate escape from the rent trap, but it does offer a better situation for the average tenant. Rent, food, services and furniture etc would be cheaper for the individual if paid for jointly for a group of people, while the household itself would form a strong unit whenever it came to presenting grievances. Communal living also forms a direct rejection of current social values, doing away with the consumer-based nuclear family set-up and experiencing more open relationships with one's fellow human beings.
Addresses: Family Squatting Advisory Service, 44 Nelson Sq, London SE1; 'Squatters Handbook' useful practical info) from 11 Hemingford St, London N1; The Commune Movement, c/o Richard Secombe, 2 Chapel Hill, Ashcott, Nr Bridgwater, Somerset.