All posts by Alex Parsons

Only 56% of private renters are registered to vote

I didn’t vote last election. This puts me in good company, most people didn’t – in England only 36% of people voted in the local elections. The problem is I was trying a lot harder to get on the system than most of them – and it still went wrong.

My friends and I had moved into Waltham Forest two months before the election and so hadn’t been caught by the annual canvas. We had completed the arcane ritual of printing off a pdf, scribbling our details with ink to prove we existed and putting that in the post so someone else could retype it. We turned around and threw salt over our shoulder. We did all the things right, so it was a concern when we weren’t sent polling cards and a pain to turn up at the polling station and discover we weren’t registered.

My housemate complained to the council and on the back of the information that returned that I sent in an FOI to get a more precise picture. An error meant that 430 people who were put on to the system between the 7th and 12th of May weren’t put on the main register.  This problem was noticed and a supplementary list was produced for the polling stations. This would have been great, if only our polling station had consulted it. Democracy, like the devil, is all in the details.

Basically this was really unlikely – it’s entirely possible the rest of the 430 went to polling stations that checked the second list and were able to vote, it’s impossible to find out. How you register to vote has now changed to a better system so the only real lesson for the future is that polling staff could be better trained – we were given several different answers to ‘when was the cut-off date?’, which was unhelpful for getting to the root of the issue.

But the big, unavoidable, factor in this problem is that we’re renters. By being late onto the register, the risk of something going wrong increased – renters are more likely to move and be later on the register. In Waltham Forest 2,982 people were added to the register after the master register was produced in February. I’d bet a lot of those were renters. A lot more would never have got that far.

The 2012-2013 English Housing Survey found a third of private renters have lived in their home for less than a year and 80% less than five years – for homeowners 81% had been in their home for at least five years. This is an astonishing difference that helps explain why private renters are so badly registered. 87% of homeowners are registered to vote, social renters at doing slightly worse at 78% but for private renters the figures are terrible – only 56% are registered to vote.

56%. Just think about that. Only 13% of homeowners aren’t registered – but almost half of renters aren’t in the system. There are a lot of reasons why homeowners have more sway in politics – but this is definitely one of them.

Even local elections matter for housing policy. Local councils are making decisions on how to deal with their own housing problems, much of the headway being made in landlord registration is at the local level.

The difficulty we had registering to vote shouldn’t happen again. The new individual electoral registration system lets you register online – making the process much smoother.

One of the things we want to do at Waltham Forest Renters is get more renters registered. That’s why there’s a link to the registration page at the top of the site. There’s a whole group of people being excluded from the process and this hurts our prospects for fixing the situation.

So when you move, remember to register to vote. Register early (when you move), register often (every time you move).

And then actually vote. That’s important too.

Invasive Referencing

Private renting is an area with several very large problems and a thousand smaller problems. One of those small issues is how much some landlords want to pry before you’ve even moved in.

When we were last moving we got as far as putting a holding deposit on a flat that looked promising.  After we passed our reference details to the letting agent, they got in touch saying that the landlord wanted to see our bank statements. This was a new thing to us – when you’re going through a letting agency this seems part of their very thin reason for existing. You tell them who you work for and how much they’re paying you – they then charge an absurd fee to get someone else to check that to see if you can afford the rent.

A quick google told us was actually fairly common, and in fact found posts on landlord forums (which are some of the grossest places on the internet outside 4chan) where some landlords say they insist on it – they’re taking the risk letting out the house you understand. A word on this: the “risk” of the landlord is a privilege of making money off owning property – they’re welcome not to. The risk of substandard housing, irresponsible landlords, rip-off fees and insecure living can’t be opted out of nearly as easily.

But renting comes down to a contract between two people. Landlords can ask to see anything they want before judging a tenant worthy. Tenants are of course free to walk away and find someone else. But you know, good luck.

Landlords who want to see bank statements aren’t being financially prudent – they’re being creepy. Giving a potential landlord an itemised bill of everything you spend money on and how much money you have in the world to your name is personal stuff. But we wanted somewhere to live so, like many others, we handed it all over.

He then wanted to meet to interview us personally – and when we talked we quickly realised we were not at all comfortable having any kind of professional relationship with this man – let alone involving something as important as our home. So we took the decision to walk away and look for somewhere else to live (with a week to find it). The place we ended up wasn’t quite as nice, but there’s no doubt in my mind it was the right thing to do. I’m sure he disposed of our personal information in a secure and safe way.

This inquisition into our finances was all especially galling given the problem with the previous landlord was that they were financially unable to uphold their side of the contract. We didn’t have a working oven for the first four months because they couldn’t afford a replacement, other repairs to the house (two months with a broken shower) dragged on for financial reasons. At the end of the tenancy it took three months to get our deposit back. Through the wonder of deposit protection we got every penny – the landlord didn’t even contest, they just wanted to drag out the process to hang on to our money for as long as possible. Just in the time we were waiting for our deposit house prices in the area went up 1.7%. I suspect this was somewhat more than the value of our deposit.

Tenants need to bow and scrape to prove they are financially worthy of renting. We have to give deposits to be dipped into if we’re deemed to have committed some property sin (which are often part-withheld knowing that tenants can’t afford to contest – they need it quickly for the next place).  Landlords, who also have financial obligations, for some reason don’t have an equivalent deposit. It’s a contract between equals you understand. But they have the house.

Do you have a story about a renting issue you’ve experienced? Get in touch

Renting and Pets

One of the many small indignities of renting is how many landlords don’t want you to have pets.

When you see this from their point of view it’s perfectly reasonable – while the tenants get all of the furly love and companionship, the landlord picks up the risk of property damage – sure it’s probably fine, but why take the risk? There are plenty of other, pet-less, people out there to do business with. This doesn’t really explain why 10% of landlords in 2008 were banning goldfish but it’s possible these were maliciously throwing themselves against walls to cause damp.

This makes it much harder to find where to live if you already have a pet. A 2011 Dogs Trust survey found that:

  • Pet owners can take up to seven times longer to rent a home compared to non pet-owners
  • 1 in 3 pet owners could not find a suitable property
  • 47% of pet owners who used a lettings agency found them to be ‘unhelpful’

To own a pet is to opt-in to making the process of renting even more difficult – so why bother? Even if your current landlord is fine with it, how long until you move again? Finding a new place to live regularly is already such a slog, why would you want to make it harder?

The fundamental problem is that landlords have something we desperately need – a place to live. Until there’s less people going after each rented house they can continue to dictate terms over the small but important of what ‘home’ is allowed to mean to us – can we hang things on the wall? Can we keep a goldfish? How about something that’ll eat a goldfish?

If you are desperate for companionship read on. Due to a never repealed part of the Allotments Act 1950 contracts can’t prevent renters from keeping rabbits or chickens (you don’t have to eat them) – so if either of those appeals the law is on your side.

That said the more cynical of you might wonder how much that matters. Of course, the fact that something’s legal doesn’t mean your landlord can’t kick you out for it – so even legal rabbits and chickens aren’t risk free. To do something about this have a look at Shelter’s campaign to stop retaliatory evictions.

The safest option is to watch kittens over the internet – but it’s really not the same.

“We don’t want people to lose out.”

Says Nick Clegg. He’s talking to people who already own property where he wants to build new garden cities. He wants to reassure them that even if new houses lose value he’s willing to compensate them by buying their houses or offsetting council tax.

Let’s be clear – solving the housing crisis requires people’s homes to lose value. The ridiculous price of housing doesn’t come from their intrinsic value, but from the scarcity of housing. People’s whose wealth is in their house are not ‘asset-rich’ but ‘crisis-rich’, if the crisis goes away, so will some of that wealth.

Taking Clegg to extremes means compensation should be paid to people for each house build – as every new build represents a ‘theft’ from people whose house would have been even more valuable if that house was never build.

But on the other side, *not* building houses also represents a theft – over the long term renting is far more expensive than home-ownership. Halifax estimated the additional cost of renting over home-ownership to be £900 a year. This money isn’t lost to the air – it’s a transfer of wealth from tenants to landlords. This doesn’t happen because landlords are an essential and necessary cost, but because housing is.

People are already losing out. Creating more (but less absurdly valued) housing creates less losers, not more.