Renting, Renters' Rights and Living With Damp - Is it Time for Change Yet?

13/01/2016 12:07 GMT | Updated 13/01/2017 10:12 GMT


My landlord is standing in my living room. He tells me I'm lucky he's not like the landlord downstairs. Otherwise, he says, he'd have me in tears, or he'd give me an eviction notice. What's prompted this? I've asked for a timeframe in which works at the flat I rent will be completed.


I blog a lot about my adventures, my free spiritedness, my aspirations, my health and other aspects of my life. What I tend not to touch on as much is that despite all the free spiritedness, I'm actually a sensible, pragmatic sort of a woman, and in spite of my ever-present wanderlust, I frequently long for a stable base.

I'm a renter in the UK. I've been renting for the last thirteen years (not always the current place). I've rented flats and lived in houseshares. Some have been good experiences, some terrible. There's an essential power imbalance involved in a homeowner/tenant relationship. In my experience, the best homeowners recognise this and don't exploit it. The less great ones either fail to recognise it or actively capitalise on it.

I have a pet cat, Isis, who has been with me for about five years now. She's much loved. She's the reason I only do housesits every so often and the reason I have never taken on a longer housesit than the short term ones I've done. When I first adopted her I was renting a lovely flat in Brighton from a decent, ethical landlady, and it was about as stable as a rental situation can ever be.

That landlady decided to sell the property (which is fair enough). Since then I have learnt firsthand the singular difficulty of finding a pleasant place or houseshare to rent which will accept a cat. Very occasionally I have managed it (e.g. the time a friend rented me a room in her beautiful house) but generally these have been intended as stopgaps rather than long term solutions.

When I moved down to Bristol (I was ready to leave Devon by then, and studying part time in Bristol,) I took the only property I could find that would accept pets. I never felt quite right about this particular flat, but I needed somewhere to live where my cat was welcome.

After I moved into the flat I noticed the smell of damp in the main hallway of the building. There's no ventilation in the hallway, so smells get trapped and come straight into my first floor flat. My landlord mentioned there'd been talk between the freeholders about putting ventilation in. In the year I have lived here, this smell of damp has almost constantly poured into my flat. (It was temporarily masked for a bit when the hallway was painted).

I asked about having the ventilation put in over and over. Nothing happened and things would get tense with my landlord when I enquired. The two walls by the front door in the building had rotted before I moved in. It took months for this to get fixed. The rot spread to the stairs in the main building. Before they got fixed I fell through the bottom stairs.

I guess I should have just moved a long time ago. I keep my eye on the rental market in Bristol (it's currently so fast paced properties frequently go within hours) but cat-friendly ones are almost impossibly few and far between. One is then really in a lottery for them, alongside every other prospective tenant out there. I'm currently wondering about rehoming my cat. I feel beyond guilty at the thought, but right now I feel I've swapped my health for cat-friendly accommodation.

Damp in the air, my health symptoms have worsened since I've lived here. (I have what was once classed as M.E. Since I've lived here it feels closer to fibromyalgia). The aches I'd sometimes have in my body have become almost constant and also spread round to my jaw in a syndrome called TMJ. Can I definitively say the damp is causing those symptoms? Nope. I only know what my body is telling me.

Back in December - the 21st or 22nd - the downstairs landlord had renovations done on the flat he owns. Since that point the damp smell in the air has gone from unpleasant to something quite different - something that feels completely toxic to me. In the days after, my breathing became constricted and I frequently felt dizzy and close to collapse. Only after that did I finally allow myself to read up on the symptoms of what living with damp (or mould spores in the air, which feels like the main problem) can do to a person.

The dizziness tends to ease the longer I'm away from the flat, but since then, when I am in the building in which I live, it is present and seems to be getting worse. I have constant headaches and migraines at present. The breathing constriction is ongoing. What I'm experiencing are - as far as I can tell - the symptoms of living with mould. Mould is obviously toxic and causes a whole variety of health risks. One of these is a risk of cancer. At its worst, mould can kill you.

Last week a damp specialist did an assessment of the property. He's written a report and suggested ventilation options for the main hallway. I've been talking to relevant bodies, seen the doctor (I'm due to have my lung function tested) and I'm planning to move as soon as I can find somewhere. I've also wept more these past few weeks than I probably had in the entire last year. I've been a whole mixture of upset, angry, and scared - really scared - about whatever this is doing to my health and the fact I'm left to live with it.

Legally, a homeowner shouldn't be allowing their tenant to live with damp. In reality, this is tricky to enforce, particularly as the primary problem here seems to be originating in the main part of the building (as opposed to my flat itself). Hopefully the ventilation will be put into the hallway soon. In fairness to my landlord, he seems to have been active in chasing this. However, that ventilation should never have been lacking in the first place.

Meanwhile, in the bigger picture, the Tory government have rejected Labour's proposed amendment to the housing and planning bill. This amendment would have ensured that all rental accommodation was fit for habitation. Its rejection looks an awful lot like class warfare.

I've been liaising with my local branch of the excellent Acorn Communities in Bristol. Acorn are a social justice union, representing tenants. I'm very glad they - and organisations like them - exist. I'm doing everything I can think of to make this situation as bearable as I can whilst I still live here. I'm staying away from home some nights at present, but my symptoms are sucking up so much of my energy, this isn't always possible.

I've felt horribly disempowered within this, and my rental situation is one that exists within the wider narrative. Yes, there are good homeowners out there. I'm sure there are also bad tenants. However, renters' rights in England are so utterly lacking. The story I'm telling isn't just mine. How many tenants have been left to live with damp or in other unhealthy environments, whilst paying rent for the pleasure? On this subject all I have is my voice, my words and the certainty something needs to change.