Disgruntled Oxford residents form Tenants’ Union

On Tuesday, a group of students and Oxford residents came together for the first meeting of the Oxford Tenants’ Union in Oxford Town Hall.

The meeting, organised by Vera Wriedt and her housemates, aimed to bring tenants together in discussion to determine the principal problems facing people in rented accommodation in Oxford.

Those affected by specific issue put forth their stories. In Wriedt’s experience, the most pressing problem was the poor state of accommodation and utilities in Oxford housing.

In her recent article in the Oxford Student, Wriedt discussed of her rented property’s poor state of repair, saying, “For our first showers, we could choose between scolding hot or freezing cold, as a retiring boiler combined with illegal plumbing meant that mixing water into an enjoyable temperature was not possible”.

In addition to this, her housemates faced cold temperatures after a hole formed in an external wall. She told Cherwell, “This left a living room that looked like a construction site and a deep hole through which the winter entered our kitchen”. Her landlord and letting agency’s slow responses to a broken boiler and other issues was also a source of concern.

Wolfson postgraduate Eva Miller shared similar concerns. She spoke of the poor state and uncleanliness of her carpets, commenting, “My property is in disgraceful state: mouldy, drafty, unventilated, old carpets coming up at the edges. When I moved in the property had not been cleaned after the previous tenants and was filthy, and when I’d viewed the property they’d lied about what items came with the house”.

Miller went on to outline the effort and time it took to have issues with the accommodation seen to by the letting agency. “The property manager repeatedly lies outright about when maintenance will be carried out, sending emails saying things like: ‘I’ve arranged someone to come Friday’ when in fact it will take four weeks to get anything fixed. It took two months to get a faulty appliance replaced,” she said.

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Miller also felt arbitrary fees were a serious concern for tenants in the Oxford area. She recounted her experience of being forced to professionally clean the property on arrival, despite the fact that the outgoing tenant was obligated to do so.

“In their contracts, they levy hundreds of pounds in ‘cleaning fees’ against tenants who don’t leave the property in a professionally clean state; if they’d charged the previous tenant for these, they’d kept them for themselves instead of using them to clean my place.”

The incompetence of letting agencies was the main problem for postgraduate Martin Lester. He spoke of the difficulties he had had in claiming back deposits and about the difficulty caused by the timing of the letting agency’s demands, remarking, “My biggest complaints concern a series of disputes with them (now resolved) about the return of a ‘retainer’ of £300 paid yearly around December to reserve it for renewal the following August.

“Paying the retainer in the first place is concerning, as it obliges me to find new tenants to replace those moving out (or lose the money), but many students do not seek accommodation until April or later”.

All agreed that a lack of awareness among tenants of their rights, and a lack of time to investigate, was a key concern. Miller hoped that the new Tenants’ Union would address this point, as well as provide a support network and helping to act for tenants in difficulty. “I’d like to see an active Union who can stand in the tenant’s corner and redress the imbalance between tenants and far more powerful letting agencies,” she said.

Lester also highlighted students as a group particularly vulnerable to exploitation by landlords or letting agencies, given their quick turnover and constant supply. He recommended a website and the involvement of the council as potential ways of approaching the problem.

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“If we had a high-profile website that collected people’s experiences with letting agents, it might help people to avoid the bad ones. If the first result on Google for “Oxford letting agent” was a damning review of an agency, it might convince them to change. If letting agents were forced to register with a regulatory body, that might help”.

Tenants expressed hopes that OUSU, the Council, and local residents would provide continuity in quickly changing student population in order to keep the Union going.

Wriedt stressed the need to work together. “We need increased solidarity with other tenants in the face of rent hikes and letting agencies/landlords who care more about making money than about those who pay it – the tenants.”