When York set itself up as the UK’s first human rights city in 2017, it was on a mission to make human rights ‘real’ to the residents of York. Before the declaration, city officials asked a range of people which rights were most important to them.
It’s perhaps not surprising that housing emerged as one of the top five priorities for residents. After all, having somewhere safe to call home is fundamental to a decent standard of living. But how can human rights protect people from bad landlords and awful housing?
A Tricky Problem For Renters
Image Credit: Alex Block
It’s a complex problem, especially when it comes to renting. While there are times the Human Rights Convention comes into play (Article 8 protects the right to a private and family life, Protocol 1-1 protects the peaceful enjoyment of property and Article 14 prohibits discrimination), beyond these limited circumstances it’s a tricky area.
It’s a huge question, and it’s not necessarily the same in each type of tenancy.
Nikki Carr, Barrister at Arden Chambers
Nikki Carr, a barrister at Arden Chambers, explained: “It’s a huge question [about rights], and the first thing is it’s not necessarily the same in each type of tenancy. You have the basics, like the right to peaceful enjoyment, but certain things will be guided by the contract.”
Similarly, Sam Hurst from rental community OpenRent, says the law behind some of the biggest problems – such as evictions and discrimination – “are not often clear” and “can leave tenants guessing”.
“The majority of properties in the UK are not advertised to all tenants,” he added. “Those with pets, on benefits, or with families are often told that the property is not available to them – and this is not currently seen as an illegal form of discrimination.”
It’s a problem that’s set to become increasingly important too, with a quarter of households in the UK predicted to be renting privately by 2021. So just what are the problems we’re looking to tackle?
‘We Killed 17 Mice in the First 24 Hours’
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For Rose*, a 22 postgraduate student in London, it was problems with previous tenants that caused issues. “One had a family of mice in her room because she refused to clean, and when she moved out, they all ran into the main house because they were disturbed. We killed 17 in the first 24 hours after she moved out, and another ten appeared afterwards, including one I accidentally took home in my suitcase when I went back for Christmas.”
The kitchen was also flooded with boiling water for a couple of days. We’d been unable to use the sink for a couple of weeks too.
“The kitchen was also flooded with boiling water for a couple of days too,” she added. ” We’d been unable to use the sink for a couple of weeks because the tap was broke, but then one day I came back from work and there was hot water all over the floor and the room was filled with steam. We’d complained about the sink, but it didn’t get fixed until the kitchen flooded.”
But Rose wasn’t the only renter we spoke to who had problems with unwanted guests. Jen, a writer from Glasgow, discovered her home was “infested” with mice shortly after moving in. “We would clean the kitchen, go to bed and wake up with mouse droppings in the cupboards, all over the worktops,” she explained.
Although my mental health was unrelated … the inability to get any natural light into my bedroom exacerbated it.
Jen, a writer from Glasgow
“I was suffering from a bad deterioration in my mental health at the time, as I have depression, and the blind in my bedroom broke meaning I couldn’t roll it up. The problem was still not fixed when I moved out. I sometimes pass the building on walks and see the blind is still broken. Although my mental health was unrelated, I do think my living situation, particularly the inability to get any natural light into my bedroom, exacerbated it.”
‘I Was Getting Colds All The Time And It Affected My Mental Health’
Image Credit: Sarah Aldridge
Mental health problems are a huge human rights issue in themselves, and it almost goes without saying that our homes can have a huge effect on our wellbeing, both physically and mentally.
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognises the right to adequate housing, and there’s a proven link between poor physical and mental health and homelessness – but what about those renting in poor conditions?
“I was getting colds all the time,” Sarah Aldridge, an account manager from Reading, told RightsInfo. “It affected my mental health for sure.”
While she was living in an annexe in a family’s garden, she was faced with slug infestations, mould issues, no heating or hot water. “My sheets would always feel damp when I got into bed,” she added.” I can’t believe I lived there, but I was desperate. I had to throw all my clothes out as they grow mouldy and I got unwell. I had a rash all over my chest area.”
I would scrub the sofas and tell myself it was makeup or something, which sounds ridiculous as I knew it was there, but I didn’t register it. I can’t explain it.
“The craziest part of it all was that I couldn’t accept there was mould,” she continued. “I would scrub at the sofas and tell myself it was makeup or something, which sounds ridiculous as I knew it was there, but I didn’t register it. I can’t explain it.”
Natalie Marchant, a freelance writer from Glasgow, also told RightsInfo how she contracted “tonsillitis, cystitis and conjunctivitis all over a period of two months,” after the landlord refused to fix a hole in the roof which meant it “essentially rained in my bedroom.”
With every drip your heart just sinks and you think this isn’t what I hoped it would be
Alice Sholl, a journalist from London
Similarly, for Alice Sholl, a journalist living in London, more than 30 calls to her landlord and agency still didn’t resolve rainwater pouring through her room and onto power sockets.“It was the emotional effect too,” she explained. “I came to London really wanting to establish myself, but with every drip, your heart just sinks and you think ‘this isn’t what I hoped it would be.’”
Could Rights Be The Answer?
Image Credit: Chansereypich Seng / Unsplash
However, while renters might currently struggle to understand their rights, could a rights-based approach be the answer?
“How many tenants know these things is very questionable,” adds Sam, speaking about the technicalities of being evicted.
Most tenants would, sensibly enough, think that if the landlord tells them they must leave, then they really must leave.
Sam Hurst, OpenRent
“Most tenants would, sensibly enough, think that if the landlord tells them they must leave, then they really must leave. But this is not always the case. There’s a very particular process that must be followed.”
As well as stressing the benefits tenants could gain from knowing their “commercial worth” to landlords, Sam is also keen to highlight how tenants can “benefit from learning” about their rights.
Rights surrounding renting might not be straightforward, but empowering people to know their basic legal rights could go a long way towards changing the rental landscape.
*Some names have been changed. If you’re facing problems with housing or renting, contact Shelter or the Citizens Advice Bureau.