It’s Time For Letting Agencies to Be Held Accountable for Discrimination Against Students
The post-moving out hassle of getting your deposit back can fill you with utter dread, because as students and graduates, it feels like all you can do is hope that your landlord won’t try their luck. Recent graduate Sam Griffin chronicles his infuriating experience with G 4 Lets Brighton, and calls for us to make noise over letting agency exploitation.
There always has, and perhaps always will be, a stereotypical idea of a student.
A young, excitable individual who’s flown the nest, away from the prying eyes of their parents or carers and into an environment with other alike individuals. Alongside this aspect of increased freedom and responsibility is the assumed drug use, drinking, and general partying that goes on in a student’s life. And when letting a shared student accommodation, this is a narrative that landlords and agencies take advantage of.
It is, however, a narrative that rings true to most students living in shared accommodation. These stigmas cause concern for letting agencies renting to students because, let’s be honest, they’re not entirely false. And naturally, if a property has recently been furnished, both the agency and the students renting it should treat it with respect, not drunken recklessness.
As student renters, not only do we have to pay an agency and, often, a payment of the first month’s rent up front, a large deposit is also required from each tenant to secure the house against any possible damages. This encourages students to either keep on top of cleanliness throughout their stay, or embark on a thorough and exhausting clean of the property before the tenancy comes to an end. Because who wants to lose £600?
“Yes, there was alcohol, and yes, we were ‘typical students’. But did we cause any issues that were directed back to the agency? No”
For my second year at uni, I secured a property on Queen’s Park Road in Brighton, East Sussex, with a group of five friends. At first glance, the house seemed pretty average; aesthetically sound, good-sized living room and kitchen, clean and sizeable bedrooms and bathrooms, and a useless slab of concrete that the agent called a ‘courtyard.’ We were advised to observe the inventory, to take photos, and to email any problems with the property to a stated address, with pictures so we wouldn’t be charged once we left the property.
We were relatively sensible throughout our stay – yes, we did have a few parties here and there, yes there was alcohol, yes there were periods where the music went past sociable hours. Yes, sometimes there were arguments, yes we lived in between neighbours that had kids and yes, we were ‘typical students’. But did we cause any issues that were directed back to the agency? No.
As is often – unfortunately – the case, we began to notice problems with the house that predated our move in, that we hadn’t noticed earlier. The mould in the bathroom and some bedrooms, of which we had been given instructions on how to remove, would not budge.
“The house was literally falling apart”
There was increasing wear and tear along the carpets, but according to our tenancy agreement, natural wear and tear was unavoidable. A huge hole began to form in the ceiling of the attic room. The wardrobe in my room was, unbeknownst to me until after about three months, beginning to fall apart, with many screws loose and falling out. A similar problem with a drawer in our kitchen; the inner hold of the draw had come loose and, after replacing the hold with a rubber band, had snapped and fallen off too. Tiles in the kitchen also began to fall off. The house was literally falling apart.
So, we called and emailed the agency and the drawer got fixed, but my wardrobe and the mould problem was not. And despite my constant emailing, the wardrobe was never replaced. After no word back, I was forced to live with a wardrobe with no doors or bottom drawers. But I could live with that, I just didn’t want to be charged for it. Little did I know, that’s exactly what happened – and that wasn’t the worst of it.
As the end of the tenancy approached, my housemates and I were determined to get the house as clean as we possibly could to secure our deposit back. We got together and did a clean that took about two days.
“We used gardening tools, an assortment of sprays, wipes, paint, you name it – if a murder had taken place in that house, we would have got away with it”
We split into teams, working separately on the outside, living room, kitchen, bathroom, the hallways, the front of the house, as well as our respective bedrooms. Our parents, who had contributed significant amounts towards the deposits, were just as determined to get it back, so came down too to help with the cleaning. Even my housemate’s grandmother got stuck in.
The house wasn’t in too bad a state, but considering we had been living there for two years, each with our own habits, there was most definitely a student aura left behind. We used gardening tools, an assortment of sprays, wipes, paint, you name it – if a murder had taken place in that house, we would have got away with it.
We hoovered the carpets, we freshly painted all marked walls, we bleached the entire kitchen, we cleaned the oven, we wiped every surface and skirting board, we trimmed the overgrown hedges out the front of the house and drove to the nearby recycling centre, which took four trips in total. We removed everything from each bedroom and blitzed each corner of the room, we bleached the bathrooms and toilets, we hosed down and cleaned the courtyard area out the back and we checked the inventory to make sure nothing was missing.
We waited to get back our deposits, confident that we would be receiving the majority of them. However, we heard nothing for well over a month, plus ten days after the date they were legally obliged to give us the details of our deposit return. When we finally did, not only were we each given half of what we originally paid, but we’d been charged for areas of the house that we’d actually cleaned thoroughly.
“The agency stole from us, because they’re a big company with a ton of money and contractual advantage, and we’re just a bunch of poor students”
We were being charged for the wear and tear that had occurred, as well as the mould issues on the bathroom ceiling, even though it was clearly stated in the contract that deductions for both of these were prohibited. We had also been charged for a missing toaster, when in reality, our toaster had broken and we’d asked for a replacement, which was still there when we left. But forget the toaster – that was the least of our worries.
As the agency had inspected the property at least a month after we’d left, we’d also been charged with dust build up on skirting boards and surfaces that we had cleaned. The sum of the money we had lost was £1,080. They had blamed every discrepancy on us, even though such discrepancies either predated our initial move in, were structural problems associated with the age of the property itself, or were simply imaginary.
The bottom line is, this agency stole from us, and got away with it. This is because they’re a big company with a ton of money and contractual advantage, and we’re just a bunch of poor students, even poorer now because we didn’t get enough of a deposit back to secure a deposit on another house. Time passed and emails were sent, and feeling helpless, we gave up and put the issue aside.
However, one of my housemates and I, losing sleep over the incident, decided to do something about it. We teamed up with Brighton Solidarity Federation Housing Union (BSFHU) to help raise the issue with them. As luck would have it, they’d actually already opened a case against the letting agency, G 4 Lets Brighton, about another issue with another group of students.
“We joined forces to display our disgust and put pressure on the company to give us our deposits back”
These students had to live in mice-infested, unsafe accommodation for a year, and despite their best efforts to alleviate the problem, had £2,000 deducted from their deposit. They were charged for pest control and fire safety issues, despite this being the obligation of the landlord, not the tenants. The tenants were left without a working fire alarm following a fire safety incident caused by an unsafe cooker. Adding insult to injury, they were also charged for the cleaning of a carpet which they’d replaced themselves following an unfruitful string of emails with the agency who admitted that the original carpet was ‘beyond cleaning’.
We joined forces to display our disgust and put pressure on the company to give us our deposits back. This party is now demanding compensation for having to live in unsafe and unhealthy accommodation for a year, and we are demanding the refund of our agency fees.
One tenant explained: “the mice and the general state of the house affected my mental health really badly throughout the time I was living there. I ended up with a really bad grade at the end of last year – I pretty much hit rock bottom and it became clear very quickly that it was us against the agency; they tried to pin the blame on us for anything and everything.”
“At pickets, passers-by shared their own experiences of losing money because of unscrupulous tactics by landlords and letting agencies”
We wrote a letter with BSFHU to the agency at the beginning of November about these issues, demanding the money back, but the agency responded by saying that they were not prepared to work with the Union and instead wanted to settle the problems directly with the students (ironically, hesitant to outline how they intended to do this). BSFHU replied by informing them, with our consent, that we would not be dealing with the agency as they had been more than unhelpful, and gave the agency a one week deadline to resolve each situation. No offer was given after this time.
Subsequently, pickets orchestrated by the union outside the letting agency’s headquarters did well at attracting attention to the situation, and passers-by shared their own experiences of losing money because of unscrupulous tactics by landlords and letting agencies.
You’re probably wondering how the saga ended. Well, the agency refused to make any sort of offer, maintaining that they will not deal with BSFHU and that the tenants should pursue the issue through alternative channels. But what alternative channels are there?
Sure, the third party that is holding the deposit could be approached, but this is being handled by the agency themselves, so it’s hardly an alternative channel. None of us is in the position to hire a lawyer to help with our dispute, so it only seems fair that we continue our supposed illegitimate fight by siding with the only organisation that’s happy to help with our issue, free of charge.
“The stereotype of students being irresponsible animals that live in pig sties must be done away with”
No letting agency should be allowed to get away with this. It has resulted in stress and has forced some of us to move back with our parents, away from the career prospects we had waiting for us in Brighton, as well as the psychological problems associated with having to live in a mice-infested house with no fire alarm.
It doesn’t matter if a student decides to have a party or live a somewhat care-free life – that’s part and parcel of being a student. There will be parties, there will be mess, and a degree of debauchery. Because what other time is the best time for all of that?
“We aren’t giving up any time soon”
They say your university years are the best years of your life. But it doesn’t mean we actively set out to be rock and roll stars who trash their accommodation once the time is up. The stereotype of students being irresponsible animals that live in pig sties must be done away with if future embezzlement is to end.
Any respectable letting agency, if the tenants had been well-behaved and polite throughout their stay, would let off wall marks, mould, general wear and tear, even an unclean oven. But the reason we initially decided to do such a deep clean was because we were well aware that this student stereotype could be used against us. But we were duped anyway.
To date, we aren’t giving up any time soon. We’ve been encouraging more students to speak out about issues they have had with letting agencies. Because we’re the ones being discriminated against, the narrative that we are dishonest and careless people is simply an abhorrent statement used to steal money that we have invested into securing a place to live.
We need wider solidarity and recognition of the problems students and young people face, and even if our deposits are never returned, we’ll never stop feeling anger and outrage towards letting agencies’ exploitation.