Fresh from a legal battle over application fees, Paul Loughran talks to TLR about the woeful Housing situation in South Belfast.
Since moving out of my parent’s home and later working in a job representing students, I have been a card-carrying member of the ALAB club (I’ll let you Google that). Students are consistently treated with sheer disrespect by many landlords and letting agencies, some of whom refuse to follow basic housing regulation. When working in the Student’s Union I saw students regularly having their deposits taken off them for scandalous reasons, landlords arriving at properties unannounced, landlords failing to register properties, landlords refusing to repair showers and heating in properties for weeks etc. In one case an International student came to me as her landlord had come in one day and converted her room in to two rooms, ignoring all HMO regulation and common decency in the process. And this isn’t even touching on the fact that housing in South Belfast is for the most part completely not fit for purpose and unaffordable.
A common tactic of letting agencies when signing up tenants is to spring charges out of nowhere and ascribe these a range of synonyms, usually either ‘admin fees’ or ‘application fees’ ranging from £20-£300 or more in some cases, all charged per person, per tenancy. This is a very Belfast-centric practice, with it occurring even more regularly in South Belfast due to the high level of transient housing in the area and a large supply of young people to fill that housing who’ll tend to be uneducated about their housing rights as it’s usually their first property. As it turns out this practice was banned a long time ago under The Commission on Disposals of Land (Northern Ireland) Order 1986 which was a piece of legislation enacted after lobbying from students, spearheaded by Ray Cashell during his term as Vice President of Queen’s Students’ Union in the 1970s, to end the practice of letting agencies charging these fees because if there was fees to be charged then these should clearly be paid for by the landlord as the landlord is the one getting the service (ie. selling the lease of his property through the letting agency). And so, the practice was indeed outlawed but what appeared to happen was that in the early 2000’s English letting agencies began influencing Northern Irish agencies (and setting shop up here too) either being under the impression that this practice was legal here as it was in England, or not caring that it wasn’t. Fast forward to 2016 and as Vice President of Queen’s Students’ Union I launched a legal challenge against this practice, with the support and representation of Queen’s Students’ Union, Shelter NI (of which Ray Cashell is now Chair), Housing Rights NI, and the Pro Bono Unit of the Bar Council of NI. Our case argued that the £30 I was charged for an ‘admin’ fee by a South Belfast letting agency was contradictory to the 1986 order and our fee should be returned and the fees declared illegal. The other side’s case was that they were acting both as an agent for the tenant and the landlord and so can charge both – the judge disagreed with this and ordered the return of my fee after a case that has so far lasted 17 months. The second stage of the case will be against a separate South Belfast letting agency who referred to their charges as ‘application fees’ – it will be heard on Friday 13th April 2018.
When in my first year as a VP of Queen’s Students’ Union I carried out a scoping study of the Holylands area of South Belfast in conjunction with local residents and checked it against the Landlord Registration Scheme, finding that nearly half of the properties were unregistered. Combined with a bit of investigative journalism from Brendan Hughes of the Irish News, it was found that some unregistered properties were owned by MLAs and Councillors – and better still, they had failed to declare these properties as interests in the Belfast City Council and/or Stormont Assembly declaration of interests. As a result of this, there were reviews in to how interests were declared as it appeared to be a very widespread problem. This is shocking as it means that these politicians may well have been participating in decision making that could benefit them as a landlord, without declaring they were as such (helps to have some friends to keep you on track, though).
Queen’s University currently offer accommodation in some locations such as Elms Village and will be opening a few thousand more beds in city centre-based accommodation come September 2018. The main problem with this accommodation is that it is completely unaffordable for the average student – priced around £500-£600 for an ensuite room, which for that price I could rent a four-bedroom house in my parent’s street. Though it’s quite apparent that this accommodation is aimed at International students, who traditionally have come to Queen’s and been unimpressed at the quality of housing in South Belfast. This goes hand in hand with Queen’s University’s Vision 2020 Strategic Plan which aims to have 1 in 5 International students by 2020 (students who they can charge up to near £50,000, compared to around £4,000 for NI students).
It’s not hard to see why 39% of Northern Ireland students have suffered mental health worries due to a lack of money/financial pressure. Couple this why how students how negatively portrayed in the media, good student stories ignored, and landlords let off the hook – it’s time for action. Though then again, it’s hard when we’ve no government. Even harder when the government are landlords themselves.