According to housing charity Shelter, over a third of private renters are forced to live in dangerous conditions for fear of eviction. Steffi, 36, tells the story of how the property she rented made her ill, and how it haunted her even after she moved out.
The pandemic has made our homes – and feeling safe in them – more important than ever. For most of the past year, while the country has been in lockdown, our lives have been more confined to the four walls of our flats, apartments and houses than ever before.
Now, a report from housing charity Shelter, reveals that over a third of private renters have been forced to live in dangerous conditions during the pandemic while also dealing with the fear of eviction.
New figures by YouGov show 39% of private renters – equivalent to 3.2 million people – say they have been forced to live in dangerous or unhealthy conditions because they fear complaining to their landlord will trigger a retaliatory eviction.
The pandemic has exposed the grim reality that too many of the country’s 11 million renters – including key workers, families and the elderly – wake up every day to mould, pests and dangerous hazards. In fact, 35% of renters say that their precarious housing situation has made lockdowns even harder to cope with.
Steffi, 36, from Bristol, lived in a rented property in severe disrepair and with multiple safety hazards. Her flat had black mould and leaks, including water leaking into the electrics, causing them to constantly short circuit.
Despite repeated complaints to her landlord, they refused to do essential repairs leaving Steffi with no choice but to move out before the end of her tenancy. After vacating the property, her landlord withheld her deposit and incorrectly hounded her for payments, which took its toll on her mental health.
This is her account…
When I first saw the property, I fell in love with it straight away. It looked very high spec, and different to anything I’d rented before. But from the very first day I moved in there were problems.
I went into the kitchen to find pools of water on the hob. “It’s strange the builders left that,” I thought, before I realised there was a leak coming from the extractor fan. I contacted the landlord right away [but] he told me that it was just condensation, and to switch it off.
The more I looked, the more I discovered was wrong. The shower didn’t work and there was no hot water. “Have you tried turning it to hot?” the landlord asked, which I found patronising to say the least. It took four weeks of cold showers for them to call a plumber out to fix it.
The leak in the kitchen was ongoing. Water dripped constantly, even when I wasn’t using the fan and the electrics were off. I didn’t want to cause a scene so I just put up with it, mopping multiple times a day. Without being fixed, it of course got worse and worse.
Damp damage spread across the kitchen ceiling and eventually the landlord called a roofer to come and take a look. What was supposed to last two weeks took over two months, but once they finally left I thought that would be the end.
From then, it seemed like every week there was another problem. I found huge patches of black mould in my bedroom which, as an asthmatic, really concerned me. The landlord didn’t seem to understand how seriously it could affect my health, and suggested I wipe it down with anti-mould spray.
But the problem was far more severe than that. I suffered multiple lung infections while living at the flat which, while I can’t be certain were caused by the black mould, my GP said it definitely didn’t help.
By this point, both my physical and mental health were suffering. The leak got so bad that, before Christmas, water was coming through all of the light fixtures and even the smoke alarm. On Christmas Day, while I was cooking dinner, the electrics crashed five times.
The landlord implied that I was causing the issues. “You’re going to have to be responsible for paying for the callout if it turns out it’s your lamp blocking it,” they warned me.
Among the mould, daily flooding in the kitchen and electrical issues, I didn’t know what to do. When the electrician came over to try and fix things, he was too concerned to touch it. “The water has made it so soft that this entire thing could come down on my head,” he said.
That’s when I decided that I could no longer live in this way. I had to move out.
Annoyingly, I had just signed a new year-long lease a month before the problems got really bad. But waking up every morning to pools of water and black mould, knowing the landlord wasn’t doing anything to fix it, really affected my stress levels.
As a renter, it feels like you have no rights if things go wrong. I was lucky that I could be housed by friends and move out, but before that I had been terrified to fight my corner. I had been scared of saying what I believed was my legal right in case they kicked me out.
Once I left, they did every single thing they could possibly do to try and get money out of me. Living there and dealing with them had been bad enough, but the way they hounded me after I moved – for supposedly unpaid bills and cleaning fees they claimed I owed – left me distraught and exhausted every day.
I had to leave because the property was uninhabitable and it wasn’t safe to be there, but they still withheld half of my deposit and made me pay the remainder of my rent up until the end of my tenancy. They claimed I was still financially responsible for council tax and utility bills that I’d settled before I left.
“I didn’t deserve any of it. I’d been a dream tenant while I was there.
I’ve lived all over the world – in America, Germany, Sweden and France. And I’ve had some interesting experiences renting, but never have I ever had anything as bad as this.
I’m very wary of renting in the future. I’m worried this isn’t an anomaly after hearing other horror stories from friends. Only in the last month have I started to feel as though I’m back on my feet. Because they withheld half of my deposit, I had no money to get a new place. Without help from my partner, I would have been ruined financially.
I still feel the after-effects. This kind of thing really needs to be investigated, as I wouldn’t want this to happen to anybody else. It caused me so much anxiety and sleepless nights. Landlords like these need to be held accountable because it’s disgusting what they get away with.
I put up with so much for far too long. My advice to anyone in my position is to stand up for what you believe is right. But there are people that can help you, and could’ve helped me if I’d known about it.”
Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said: “Our broken renting system is overdue serious reform. For years, renters have paid through the nose for neglected properties, left powerless and paralysed by the fear that complaining about basic repairs could see them out on the streets.
“Over the past year, our homes have been our first line of defence against coronavirus. Yet this pandemic has exposed the grim reality that too many of the country’s 11 million renters - including key workers, families and the elderly - wake up every day to mould, pests and dangerous hazards.
“The renters’ reform bill offers us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform private renting and create a fairer safer system for all renters - we must seize it with both hands.”
Between March 2020 and March 2021, Shelter has seen a 35% increase among private renters who are contacting the charity’s helpline and webchat services for advice about poor conditions.
For housing advice contact Shelter. Shelter’s renters’ reform bill campaign is urging the government to transform private renting for the country’s 11 million renters and create a fairer, safer, more humane system. You can read more or donate via their website.
Image: Getty. Photos of damage provided by Shelter.