Student wins entire year's rent back after court battle against landlord and writes her dissertation on it

Meg Cole holding dissertation outside University of Birmingham
Meg Cole wrote her dissertation on her experience of the private rental sector Credit: Meg Cole

A university student from Cardiff took her landlord to court after discovering he was operating illegally.

Meg Cole was living in an eight-bedroom house in multiple occupation (HMO) - or shared house - in the Selly Oak area of Birmingham while studying at the university.

Meg and her housemates found a number of issues with the house right from the beginning when they moved in, in July 2019.

There were a series of notes, which previous tenants had hidden around the home warning of the landlord's "rogue behaviour" and problems with the property, including ants' nests, mould in bedrooms, leaky showers and broken ovens.

Meg Cole said there were a number of issues with the house as soon as she moved in Credit: Meg Cole

She said: "It wasn’t fun at all living in the house. The pandemic meant most of us only lived there between September and March but in that six-month period we had so much dodgy stuff happen."

Meg said the boiler did not work for the whole month of October, which meant she was forced to shower and friends' houses and at the university gym.

"We text and called our landlord many times, he’d always say he was sending someone but he never did.

"Bailiffs showed up once demanding to see our tenancy agreement when there was £1000 unpaid electricity and gas bill. If the mafia showed up one day I wouldn’t be surprised." 

Damp spread over the ceiling of Meg's house Credit: Meg Cole

The tenants decided to do some research and looked up their house on the HMO register. They discovered it was unlicensed, which meant their landlord was operating illegally.

There are minimum standards required for a house to be given a HMO license, including minimum room sizes, provision of toilet, bathroom and kitchen facilities and standards relating to the provision of adequate heating.

Meg and her housemates reported the issue to Birmingham City Council, who then carried out an assessment of the house. They found that one of the living room walls was around 90% damp.

Birmingham City Council advised the tenants that they could apply for a Rent Repayment Order (RRO) and that they can claim back a maximum of 12 months rent.

There were high levels of damp in the rented home Credit: Meg Cole

Meg and her housemates won the judgment after filing for RRO but they then had to go to a small claims court to get their rent payments back. They each spent between £200 and £300 of their own money to complete the process but despite winning the judgment in the small claims court, it is not enforceable so the students still have not received their money.

Going through this process inspired Meg to write her dissertation on her experiences and research on housing policy.

She said: "I’m a bit of nerd when it comes to academic research. There’s a lot on social housing and homelessness but not HMO housing and the private rental sector so I realised there was a research gap that could be explored and expanded upon...

"There seems to be an acceptance that rented housing is poor quality and we have to live with it."

The situation has motivated Meg to work for a charity like Shelter. She hopes to one day take on a policy researcher role and develop "new and radical" housing legislation.

A photo of Meg with her dissertation has been shared hundreds of times on Twitter.

"It surprised me how much it resonates with so many people. I’ve never gone viral on social media before but when I saw how many likes it had I thought I’d get loads of abuse... but there was so much support and solidarity with people going through similar situations."

 A spokesperson from the National Residential Landlords Association said:

 “Landlords have a clear responsibility to provide safe homes for renters. Addressing the problem of rogue landlords is a necessary step towards the building of a private rented sector which is fair and works for all.

“Local authorities have a range of powers at their disposal to address sub-standard accommodation, including civil penalties, the serving of improvement notices and taking over the management of properties. In our view these powers need to be used effectively so that criminal operators who bring the wider landlord community into disrepute can be dealt with in the appropriate way".  

Meg's landlord has been approached for comment.