As well as celebrating the awe-inspiring work that Shelter does, this article has a deeply personal element. I will share with you precisely how Shelter’s housing advisors saved me months of misery. They might be able to rescue you from your rubbish rental situation too.
Without the volunteer angels at Shelter informing me, and empowering me, to exercise a little-known piece of consumer law called the Right to Unwind, I would still be stuck in a terrible rental contract and an inhabitable flat. I would still be riding out my woes until my contract released me from a horrible housing situation, believing that I was stuck even though there was no way that I could have known the true condition of our flat until after locking-in to the contract.
Shelter’s mission is to provide safe housing to everyone
Before I dig down into the dirty details of my personal situation, let’s first appreciate the beautiful work that Shelter does. I cannot say it better than the charity does itself on its main webpage:
Based on my personal experience, I couldn’t agree more. Shelter tackles housing problems from all angles, working with people from the ground up. They run campaigns that stem from community work, and grow this work to develop into nationwide movements. Shelter does all of this to fight for change and systematic housing justice. Their website is littered with heartfelt testimonials, and I can personally assure you that these are not exaggerations; their volunteers truly will do every single thing in their power to help you.
As well as instigating campaigns and movements, Shelter carries out pioneering research into issues from homelessness to eviction, so that they can work on developing policies that can truly make a change. They also collaborate with the press to make sure that all of our voices are heard, even those who feel the most powerless, and especially those without a home base to seek help from. All of this fantastic, beautiful work is in addition to the completely free advice and support services they offer, either locally in-person, online, or over the phone. This even extends to providing solicitors who help with the direst cases, such as those who have lost their homes or face eviction. Again, this is completely free of charge!
How my housing situation was saved
Shelter’s free housing advice is how I learnt the true extent of the beauty of the work they do, firsthand. Let me tell you a story about the lows (and the Shelter-assisted highs) of the London rental scene: For those of you who don’t know, renting in London is a dog-eat-dog battle, with good properties snapped up in no time, sometimes without tenants even viewing properties. This means you feel an immense pressure when you embark upon a frantic search for a place you can call home. Estate agents are known to add a little pressure of their own, pushing you to agree before you are ready.
This is precisely how my partner and I ended up in a flat that looked great on the surface (even though we did make sure to actually view the place)… but turned out to be riddled with damp that caused us health problems, with more and more problems emerging to the point that we could no longer bear to live there. However (at least in writing), the landlords were willing to ‘act’ to resolve these problems. This ‘acting’ constituted half-baked measures such as nailing an old plank over a damp-ridden wall. This clearly resolves nothing, but according to the letter of the law, this exonerates them, or at least makes it very hard to raise a dispute with a contract that had already been signed (or so we thought… Enter stage: Shelter’s guardian angle advisors).
After trying all available avenues known to us, including straight-out pleading with the landlord and property manager, and after becoming more and more anxious, stressed, and depressed. After becoming ever less hopeful of ever escaping our intolerable living conditions, we finally turned to Shelter, and thank the Lord that we did.
A way out of rental contracts: The Right to Unwind
After two simple phone calls, Shelter’s incredibly helpful advisors had assessed our case. The verdict that had previously looked insurmountable now looked like it might have faint markings pointing us towards an emergency exit. An emergency exit out of our contract, through using a small piece of consumer protection law that applies to contracts, called the Right to Unwind.
I know what you’re thinking: “consumer law in housing and rental jurisdiction – that doesn’t seem to make any sense!”, and this is exactly what we thought. However, through this piece of litigation, this beautiful piece of litigation, we were able to escape the contract that we thought we were locked in to, and that is why I want to share the secrets of this with you. For more information, please see Shelter’s own article on it too, here.
Landlords like to pretend that there is no way out once you have signed your contract, but don’t let them fool you. Do not despair. All that you have to be able to prove is ‘unfair practices’ in the letting process as it was sold to you. ‘Unfair practices’ means any misleading or aggressive practice, and you need to show that this was a key factor in making you decide to enter into the tenancy agreement. This can be from the landlords themselves or even from the estate agents, which turned out to be a crucial fact for us. The more evidence you have, the better, and for us the clincher was that we had emails from the estate agent rushing and pressuring us into signing the contract quickly, for fear that we would lose the property. I would add that, particularly in London, this is almost common practice, so finding evidence is not difficult.
What is a misleading or aggressive practice?
This could happen if, for example, an agent or landlord promised that certain repairs would be carried out before you moved into the property. Categories included are:
- false claims made by the agent or landlord,
- describing the property in a misleading way or
- being deliberately vague about the actual price of renting the property and
- hiding additional costs and charges from potential tenants.
Aggressive practices include certain behaviours which impact the consumer’s freedom of choice through harassment, coercion or undue influence.
Providing false information or deceiving consumers in how the property was presented would constitute a misleading practice. But, remember that it’s your responsibility to conduct a thorough inspection of the property during the viewing.
After weeks of back-and-forth, and hundreds of hours of being miserable in what should have been our lovely new home, with Shelter’s timely advice we were finally able to break out of our contract and get the landlord to release us from it. So – THANK YOU SHELTER, and a word of advice for you readers: There are ways out of seemingly impossible rental situations. I sincerely hope this advice can help others who feel trapped.
At the very least, I hope this has inspired you to fall a little in love with Shelter and their army of good Samaritans, battling every day with cases like mine, and far worse. Links to donate and how you can help are here.
I implore you to spread the word about Right to Unwind, so others can benefit from this glorious piece of legislation.