Since September 2018, we have been organising with two different groups of tenants – one who had their deposit stolen by G4Lets, and one living in accommodation in a serious state of disrepair. We’re pleased to report that both of these situations concluded well, with the first group of tenants receiving £1000 back from their stolen deposit, and the second group receiving a rent reduction for the poor quality of their accommodation, and with the works being carried out. Below is the story of these two disputes, particularly how they relate to our previous disputes with G4Lets and the tactics we used in these two most recent disputes.
From November 2017 until March 2018, Brighton Solidarity Federation was in dispute with the student lettings agency G4Lets. We were organising with two different groups of tenants – one who’d had £2000 withheld from their deposit, and one who’d had £1000 withheld. Our four-month public campaign, which included pickets, phone pickets, stalls at university campuses, articles published on our website about the millionaire landlords they were protecting, and articles about the dispute in the local student media, placed considerable pressure on G4Lets, who responded with acts of intimidation and threats of police involvement. However, they did not pay up the £3000 stolen deposit money plus compensation that we were demanding. We analysed the likely reasons for that here [http://www.brightonsolfed.org.uk/brighton/brighton-solidarity-federation.... Chief amongst them, we suspect, was their fear of setting a precedent. Over the course of our campaign, we heard from countless other G4Lets tenants who’d had their deposits stolen – caving to a public campaign would likely have set a precedent that G4Lets couldn’t afford.
As a result of this, we’ve had to rethink our approach to agencies such as G4Lets. They are a small agency, with one office in a residential area in Brighton with little footfall, meaning that whilst they hated the pickets, it was difficult to damage them economically in this way. Further, they advertise their properties through a website called StuRents, which means that most students – who often take places on the strength of the pictures alone, without going to a viewing, since they are arranging accommodation from a distance – don’t even realise that they are renting through G4Lets until they sign the contract. This means that damaging their reputation can be difficult because, whilst everyone knows they are scum, tenants often don’t realise they are renting through them until it’s too late.
One of the positives of our campaign was how many other G4Lets tenants approached us wanting to organise against them. In September 2018, for example, we were approached by a group of tenants who were facing deductions of just under £1900 from their deposit. The reasons for this were the classic nonsense that G4Lets come out with – that they needed to repaint the walls; that they had to clean already clean houses; that they had to replace items that it is not the tenants’ duty to maintain, and so on. Deductions like this can be really stressful – agencies lie to you about the status that you left the property in, which is an unpleasant experience, and they take money from you at a point when you need it to pay another deposit.
At the same time that this group of tenants approached us, we were also approached by a tenant and his family who had just started renting a place through G4Lets. G4Lets had rented this place out in a shocking condition: the cooker didn’t work; furniture was filthy; the room was not the size it was advertised as; sinks didn’t work; the shower was broken – the list was endless.
From our previous experience, we knew it was going to be difficult to damage G4Lets enough via direct action to make them meet any demands in these situations. With that in mind, what we did instead was organised with these tenants to go through the formal channels to address these issues. Whilst not our usual approach, it was the only one available to try and deal with the problems these tenants were having.
With the group of tenants who had £1900 taken from their deposit, we organised with them to take their dispute through the disputes procedure of the deposit protection scheme. G4Lets protect their deposits via the MyDeposits insurance scheme, which allows landlords to retain the deposit (and thus earn interest on it) over the course of the tenancy. These tenants put in a dispute with MyDeposits. We met up with them and together went through the check-in and check-out reports, highlighting all the discrepancies with the deductions G4Lets were trying to make (e.g. pointing out walls that they were claiming money to repaint that were already listed as dirty in the check-in report). We also included some legal information about the landlord’s maintenance responsibilities, as G4Lets were trying to pass these costs on to the tenants.
Happily, these tenants received back just over £1000 of the £1900 that G4Lets were trying to deduct. Nearly all of the charges for maintenance that is the landlord’s responsibility (unblocking drains, replacing locks) were dropped. The cleaning fee was lowered, and the painting fee was lowered considerably – from just over £1100 to just over £300. For us, what this shows is that G4Lets try it on; they pile in as many deductions as possible, refuse to lower them when challenged, and then hope that tenants won’t pursue the issue via the disputes procedure. For them and their landlords, deposit theft is a lucrative business.
With the tenant who had just moved in to a property that was uninhabitable, we organised to help him assert his basic rights as a tenant. This included that the house needed to be habitable for human habitation (as per section 10 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985), as well as the landlord’s responsibility for plumbing and sanitation (section 11 of the same Act). When G4Lets responded aggressively, such as by insisting that the tenant be in for contractor visits arranged to suit them and not him, he asserted his right to refuse entry and for visits to be arranged at a mutually agreeable time. G4Lets again responded aggressively to this, with one of the directors turning up at the house unannounced to try and intimidate the tenant. We again supported the tenant to assert his right to not be harassed by the agency for demanding basic repairs, as well as opening up a formal complaint with them.
Agencies are regulated by a body called the Property Ombudsman. Before a tenant can complain to the Ombudsman, they have to complain to the agency. This was why we advised the tenant to complain to G4Lets – so that he could then threaten to take his complaint to the Ombudsman. Happily, this threat produced a good result. G4Lets apologised for turning up at the house unannounced, as well as giving this tenant: a one month rent rebate, new white goods, and undertaking necessary repairs. They have also given a written promise that no cleaning deductions will be made at the end of the tenancy.
We think that, given how difficult G4Lets are to damage as an agency, and how much they (often successfully) rely on intimidation and the vulnerabilities of student tenants to keep their profits flowing, this is a good result. The deposit dispute tenants got over half their money back, whilst the other tenant now has a habitable property and some compensation.
There are limitations to this approach – MyDeposits takes a total of 3-4 months to reach a decision in a deposit dispute, leaving tenants out of pocket at a really inconvenient time and with no guarantee of any money being returned. Complaints to agencies also take time to process (15 working days), and they will only make any concessions if they feel under pressure. Had it been necessary to take this issue through the Ombudsman, this also would have taken time. Further, these kinds of procedures privatise these problems, leaving tenants dealing with them in an isolated way. However, in this situation, using these procedures was the most likely way to get a result, and also helped these tenants feel empowered. Whilst these procedures are designed to isolate tenants, there are ways to combat this – meeting up to collectively work through paperwork to dispute deposit deductions, for example, and sharing and explaining basic legal knowledge so that tenants feel able to assert their rights and explain them to their friends.
With the deposit dispute in particular, what we’ve also learned about G4Lets is the extent to which they rely on dragging the situation out and making it so stressful for tenants that they give up on trying to get their money back. With a lot of work, it’s possible for tenants to get some of their money back through MyDeposits. A much quicker way for tenants to get all of their deposit back would be to simply not pay their last month’s rent. Based on our experiences of G4Lets over the past year and a half, this is what we are recommending that their tenants this year do: withhold their final month’s rent to get their deposit back.
We’re not suggesting that they do this alone – we want to organise with any G4Lets tenant who’s interested in doing this. We explain why we think it’s a good idea in the G4Lets rent strike area of our website, which includes an FAQ that covers some common concerns. If you’re interested in finding out more, you should check out the FAQ. You can contact also us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
G4Lets might have won the battle last year, but these two disputes show that tenants are going to win the war.