Ben Leonard, 23, was pretty satisfied with the shared house he found himself renting with his partner and four other friends in May last year.
The place was spacious and comfortable. And, since moving in the previous August, there’d been no mould, no mice and – crucially – no one had returned after Christmas to find the landlord snoozing in their bed (a Boxing Day surprise they’d encountered during a previous tenancy). Monthly rent for the five-bed Leeds property was a relatively reasonable £300 per person – bills included.
A-year-and-a-half later, however, Ben and his housemates were celebrating after successfully taking their former landlord to court – and winning £15,000 of their rent back. A picture on Ben’s Twitter from 29 March 2019, showed the four (out of six) housemates who’d been able to attend the hearing, raising their fists jubilantly outside Leeds Town Hall, squinting a little into the spring sunshine. “Just took our ex-landlord to court and won all our rent back,” Ben’s caption read.
The group’s story struck a chord and, within hours, the tweet had racked up almost 80,000 likes. Hundreds of comments and questions flooded in. How had they done this? Where did they get advice? What was the process like? Overwhelmingly, people wanted to know how they, too, could replicate the group’s action - how they could exercise tenants’ rights they didn’t even know existed.
For the 'Leeds Five' (one housemate decided against involvement in the case), it took council intervention to push them into legal action. A visit from a housing officer in May 2018 revealed their landlord was, in fact, unlawfully renting the property. Which was a problem, as they’d been living there for eight months.
It transpired their landlord hadn’t acquired a House in Multiple Occupation Licence (HMO). An HMO must be held by any home housing five or more unrelated people who share communal facilities (like a kitchen), with at least one tenant paying rent. An HMO is vital – it confirms the house has the correct safety certificates, that fire alarms are present and working and whoever is in charge of the property is qualified. Tenants can ask their local council to check if the property they’re renting currently holds an HMO.
As the housing officer explained to the group, this meant the council was pursuing legal action, although this wouldn’t affect their current tenancy (they ended up staying until their contract finished in July 2018). And under the expanded scope of the 2016 Housing and Planning Act, Ben and his other housemates would now be able to start a case too, by applying for a Rent Repayment Order.
Previously, only the council could initiate these repayment orders on behalf of tenants – and the landlord must have already been convicted for licensing offences before proceedings could commence.
Under the new 2016 rules, however, tenants can make the application themselves, as long as they believe their landlord is guilty of wrongdoing. As Ben tells it, the decision to take their case to court was an easy one.
“I’d be lying if I said the money wasn’t a motivating factor but we all share similar political beliefs and don’t think housing should be commodified,” he explains. “If private individuals are going to profit off property, we’ve at least got to hold them accountable when they do bad things. It wasn’t a personal vendetta against the landlord – he just broke the rules.”
The group’s legal victory inspired hope and curiosity in the thousands of people who saw Ben’s viral tweet.
“The amount of DMs [direct messages] I got, I couldn’t respond to them all,” Ben, now 24, tells BBC Three. “People were sharing their stories, saying ‘My landlord is screwing me over, how did you do this?’ The response was incredible.”
It’s no surprise. The extent of the housing crisis in Britain is well known.
A social housing shortage (fewer than 6,500 new social homes were built from 2017-2018, despite 1.2m people being on waiting lists) and rising property prices have helped push thousands into privately-rented accommodation. Property businesses themselves claim by 2023, there will be an additional 560,000 households across the UK renting privately.
For renters born between 1980 and 1996 – that is, ‘millennials’ - a bleak 2018 prognosis by the independent think tank Resolution Foundation suggests that up to a third of them will be renting for the rest of their lives, thanks to surging property prices.
But the cost of rent is swiftly creeping up too. Research by the BBC found that, on average, private tenants in the UK spend More than 30% of their income on rent - although this figure is skewed by higher prices in cities like London (where a tenant in their 20s, on an average income, could expect to spend 55% of their salary on a mid-range, one-bedroom flat).
This stands in stark contrast to the heady days of previous decades - for example, in 1980, UK private renters only spent an average of 10% of their income on rent.
Campaigners have called for greater tenant protections in the face of this shift towards long-term renting. They’ve made some gains in recent years, most notably the government’s decision this week to revoke Section 21 notices: controversial "no-fault" evictions which allow landlords to kick out tenants without a reason, provided they give two months' notice.
Some landlords have reacted angrily to the decision. The National Landlords Association (NLA) released a statement stating their objection to the Section 21 roll-back, arguing that legislation is used to help landlords to regain possession of their property when tenants are in breach of their contracts and refuse to leave. Many landlords believe Section 21 is their main recourse when locked in a tenant eviction dispute, as Section 8 notices - the legislation intended to be used when tenancy terms have been broken - are "ineffective".
“Landlords currently have little choice but to use Section 21,” wrote NLA CEO Richard Lambert.
“They have no confidence in the ability or the capacity of the courts to deal with possession claims quickly and surely, regardless of the strength of the landlord’s case.”
Social media is full of people sharing their housing crisis horror stories:
As Ben acknowledges, the idea of being able to enforce your rights as a tenant feels alien to many renters, who may fear eviction if they take action.
“Before the court case, I’d just accepted that’s how it is. When you’re young, you end up living in shitholes or poorly managed properties. I don’t think any of us thought it would be possible to take someone to court, especially when resources like legal aid have been cut. You basically accept what you’re given,” he says.
Housemate Charlie Hinds, 22, shares his view that private rental culture has normalised bad behaviour from some rogue landlords – and made tenants afraid to speak up.
“It’s got to the point where we expect the worst from landlords. When a landlord does something bad, it’s not taken seriously because it’s so commonplace,” he tells me.
“Look at the replies to [Ben’s tweet] - having a bad landlord has become a culturally acceptable joke, like a rite of passage. Plus, I don’t think most people know their rights at all. People are scared to complain because they worry they’ll get evicted and won’t have anywhere to live.”
Most surprising to the group was just how simple the process was.
“The housing officer gave us the forms to fill out and told us where to send them. We had to provide evidence we’d paid rent to our landlord, a copy of our tenancy agreement and witness statements from everyone confirming they lived at the property,” Ben recalls. “That was more or less it – it cost us a £100 application fee, plus postage for a few packages of documents, so around £30 each when split between the five of us.”
By 29 March 2019, the group was sitting nervously in Leeds’ grandest municipal building while a tribunal deliberated their case – the first of its kind to go to court in the city. An hour later, they were punching the air on the sunny steps of the Town Hall. They’d won.
The panel awarded them a full year’s rent back - £15,000 in total - although 30% was deducted after their former landlord pleaded extenuating financial circumstances. The five were left with £9,000 to take home, though a final repayment plan is still being agreed. Ben is the first to admit the result surprised them all.
“I basically went into it thinking it’s fairly likely we’ll get a token amount, a couple of hundred or so,” he says.
“Clearly I was wrong."
“It does give you hope,” says Charlie. “I was surprised it worked for us but landlords can face consequences for mistreating tenants. The case has already inspired some of my friends to look up their homes on the HMO registry and several weren’t listed, so they’re going to try and pursue that.”
Although the five credit the assistance they received from their housing officer as key to their win, they recognise that not everyone might be as lucky with their local authority. Instead, they’re urging those who approach them for advice on a difficult landlord situation to join a tenants' union for support.
“Joining a union is key,” says Ben. “They provide casework, advice, support. If you’ve got a problem with your landlord, your union comes together to solve it. We were lucky to win this one off our own backs but not everyone has the time, knowledge or confidence to pursue cases solo. The best way to win is collectively.”
As for the money they’ve won, it’s being put to practical use.
“I want to pay off my overdraft,” Charlie tells me. Any other goals, I ask?
‘Well…” he adds, slowly. “It would be nice to go on holiday.”