Victory for renters who for too long have had to fork out.
Illustration: Louis Wood
Moving is expensive. Having moved five times in the past three years I am far too familiar with the awful feeling of having to pull hundreds of pounds out of thin air to account for the next round of vampiric letting agency fees, and I’m not alone.
According to the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, letting fees average at £400 per tenancy. A 2016 study by housing charity Shelter found that nearly a third of renters moved three or more times in a five-year period. The cost of moving is crippling, but when you have a limited window to find somewhere, you have no choice but to pay the check-in fee, the check-out fee, the inventory fee, the contract fee, the reference fee and so on, to ensure you have somewhere to move to when your tenancy is over.
But no more! Thanks to hard campaigning by Acorn and others, our voices have finally been heard; the introduction of the Tenancy Fees Act has seen rip-off letting fees made illegal. It also ensures that tenants cannot be charged more than five week’s rent as a security deposit and no more than one week’s rent as a holding deposit.
Acorn is a community union campaigning against poverty and for better living conditions. The union has achieved significant victories locally and nationally – from winning back thousands of pounds of unfairly held deposits, to forcing banks to stop discriminating against people on housing benefits in their buy-to-let mortgage contracts, and playing an instrumental role in putting an end to Section 21 no-fault evictions.
On 1 June, when the letting fee ban came into force, myself and other Acorn members were dancing in the streets of Bristol celebrating our victory – but the fight isn’t over yet.
We also took part in a national day of action – visiting letting agents up and down the country, asking them to sign a pledge promising to comply with the ban. It may seem bizarre that these businesses would need reminding to obey the law, especially as any letting agency or landlord found in breach is liable to pay a fine of up to £5,000.
But this may not be enough of a deterrent. Despite the tenants’ fees being banned in Scotland from 2012, Scotland’s tenants’ union Living Rent have found many letting agencies are continuing to charge illegal fees. We can expect to see the same attitude to the law here.
In one letting agent visited by Acorn members in Sheffield, there was a sign found on a noticeboard advising staff not to correct any customers who were unaware of the fees ban – effectively encouraging them to illegally charge people! The ‘Seize the Fees’ day of action on 1 June was therefore as much a warning to letting agents that we have our eye on them as a celebration of winning the ban.
Letting agents have of course protested, saying that the charges will have to be absorbed by landlords, and that might scare them out of the market. The services provided by letting agents are for the landlord not the tenant and so should be paid by them. Maybe having to pay for changing of tenants will encourage landlords to offer longer more stable tenancies!
Letting agents know that the real cost of the services they provide is negligible to a landlord. They are upset because they know that faced with someone in need of a home, they were able to charge the earth for whatever service they decided to call company policy.
I was once charged an additional £50 ‘handover fee’, which amounted to me walking into the office and being physically handed a set of keys before walking out. What else could I do but pay it? I needed somewhere to live. I’d like to see them try to pull the same trick on a landlord whose business relationship with them doesn’t determine whether or not they have a roof over their head.
So despite this victory, the fight continues. With rents still rising while landlords continue to leave homes in disrepair, it is more important than ever to join the union, fight back and win.