“No DSS”

(I meant to write this post months ago, but I was busy, then I forgot all about it. Recently, I overheard a few people discussing some articles they had read in some piss-poor excuse for a newspaper, about benefit claimants, as if the story was factually accurate. While I held back from shouting “ABSOLUTE BOLLOCKS!” and/or laughing in their faces at the time, I’d like to use this opportunity to vent.)

A few months ago, I was looking for a new place to live. I was also unemployed.

Gumtree is always awash with people renting rooms. Hundreds and hundreds of them. And despite me seeing the same properties listed, and relisted, and relisted again – because the owners or occupants clearly can’t find anyone to move in, when I emailed asking politely if they would consider someone on benefits, and “either way could you let me know” – most of them completely ignored me. Which is rude, whichever way you look at it.

And that’s just the private ads. There was (and is) agencies listing and relisting and relisting (on Gumtree, Easyroommate, and other sites), like some form of house-based spam. Some of them pretend to be private landlords, for some reason. I was onto you “Lauren” and “Riccardo”. I’ve even seen “Lauren” advertising multiple properties in different locations with the same internal pictures. I emailed you twice and you couldn’t be bothered to reply to either. Well fuck you, fake “Lauren”.

Quite a lot of people/agencies-masquerading-as-people advertise rooms saying “no DSS” without a clue as to what that actually means. For one, it’s not “DSS”. There’s no such thing. From Wikipedia:

“The Department of Social Security (DSS) is the name of a defunct governmental agency in the United Kingdom.”

If you’re going to discriminate against people due to their financial status (those claiming Housing Benefit), maybe you should learn the correct terms.

But perhaps, consider this: IF you accept people claiming Housing Benefit, their rent is paid by the local authorities. If you provide a breakdown, their share of the council tax can be guaranteed. It does mean you have to declare you’re renting and earning from it though, so it’s no good for those of you committing fraud.

Actually, as a landlord you have a choice in this area. Typically, Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit are both paid to the claimant, who then pays it onto you. But if you don’t trust them, you can request the benefits department to pay this money directly to you, to stop the “workshy scroungers” spending it on drugs, or gambling, or whatever other stereotype you choose to believe, as if the unemployed are enjoying themselves, when they’re actually just trying to afford to eat, and get to/from occasional interviews – the reality of most.

When I was looking, I found that some who say they will accept ‘DSS’ want either a family member to guarantor (how about no?), or double the deposit (you can absolutely fuck off – why should you need that exactly? Once I’ve missed one payment, kick me out like any other tenant. How does me not having a job at the time of moving in, make me THAT much more of a risk than anyone else who does have a job at the time of moving in?
And I add “at the time of moving in” because any one of your current tenants living in any of your houses could lose their job tomorrow, and join the ranks of the unemployed. If you’re not a live-in landlord, you’d probably never even know about it. While communicating with tenants (some were advertising rooms in their houses, themselves), I found several who had been out of work, not told their landlords (because they didn’t want the hassle), and then either lived off their savings for a few months and thankfully found work again, before they ran out of money, or used their existing tenancy agreements to claim housing benefit, without telling their landlord. If you rent a property, your tenants might all be unemployed, right now. And if you’re going to be a twat about it, you don’t deserve to be kept in the loop about such things.)

And the employed are so much more reliable?

I think the most frustrating thing for me was that in the last big houseshare I lived in a few years ago, I handled all the communication with the landlord, and organised pretty much all the bills. For a period of that time, I was claiming benefits. In that house, one person I repeatedly spent a lot of time chasing for his share of the electricity bill, and another moved out when everyone else was out of the house one day, without paying his share of any of the bills. Both of these people were full-time employed people, who just couldn’t survive the month without pissing their entire income away on other stuff before they’d paid their bills. The sort of wankers who go out drinking one night, then complain they have no money the day after, while seemingly being unable to work out the simple equation of where their finances went. Every month. Not young people or students either – both well over 30 years old.

So don’t declare it!

The Housing Benefit people told me several times that you don’t have to declare your unemployment status when looking for a house. However, this doesn’t work. Because I’m under 35, male, have no children, etc., the most you can currently receive in Bristol, via Housing Benefit is £275 a month towards rent. My last houseshare in a tired property but in a reasonable location, was £285 a month, several years ago. And prices have increased since. Have a look on Gumtree/Easyroommate, etc. yourself if you like. You’ll see that £275 a month is *just* enough for a houseshare (those over 35 are entitled to ‘just enough’ for a bedsit), so long as you don’t mind living in a less-than-favourable area, and sharing with 3-4 other people. How exactly are you meant to fake employment, if you’re sharing a house with 4 other people? Are you supposed to never talk to anyone? Spend a lot of time hiding? Make up some lucrative form of self-employment? Go out every day and pretend you’re got a job? Between 9am and 5pm Monday to Friday you’re meant to just walk the bloody streets, presumably? (And then come home and tell fictional stories of what Jill in accounts did at the weekend, or who Dave in IT is rumoured to be shagging.)

And even that wouldn’t work. A lot of landlords and agents want references from employers. I found one agent that would let you declare as self-employed, IF you got a reference from your accountant. Fuck me. Just to rent a room? Are you kidding me? I could have bought a car with less proof-of-earnings.

Acceptance

After all this, when I found someone prepared to show me round, where I might have been able to rent a room, where she thought the landlord might not like people on benefits, but won’t actually bother to ask, I found out this little gem when on the phone to the Housing Benefits department:

In order to receive housing benefit (up to £275 a month for someone my age, in my area), and council tax benefit (whatever I should pay in addition to the above rent), the landlord must provide a breakdown of how much is rent, council tax, and ‘other’.

So anywhere that says “£375 per month, all bills inclusive” will have to produce a breakdown of what is spent where. Being the only tenant to ever care or ask for this breakdown, will almost certainly raise questions about why you should need such a thing, and you’re back to the start all over again.

AND it gets better:

If you are not named on the council tax bill (as some landlords do this in their own name to avoid having to keep constantly changing the details when people move in/out, you cannot receive any money towards council tax at all.

So even if the landlord provides a breakdown saying £45 a month of what you pay goes to council tax, you still can’t put in a claim for it, unless you’re named on the council tax bill. Worse, being named on the council tax bill also makes you joint liable for the *entire* bill, despite however bad your financial circumstances are. I know this from prior experience of being sent a court summons, after my housemates in a previous house were unwilling to contribute their fair share towards it.

I’m convinced that this “all bills inclusive” thing is just used by letting agents to screw more money out of you. A few now seem to charge a percentage of the all-inclusive amount as their fee (instead of a fixed amount), plus a month’s rent as deposit, plus a month rent up-front. So by making it £400 all-inclusive, instead of £300-rent, what might have been a move-in cost of £300(rent)+£300(deposit)+25% (of one month’s rent) fee (totaling £675) you needed to find, it now becomes £900, giving you another £225 to try and get from somewhere.

Three times, I nearly got as far as renting a room. The first said they wouldn’t mind renting me a room while on benefits, then got very confused when I asked for a written tenancy agreement, as they weren’t declaring this income. The second was a landlord who was lying to one of his insurance providers, who decided he didn’t want to put me on the tenancy agreement, because he’d have to admit there was more than 2 people living there (apparently makes some major difference to his buildings cover or something). Well there was 3 there when I looked round (he was letting the whole property to a couple who were subletting). I would have been the 4th. The couple currently renting from him have been renting from him for 14 years, but this counted for nothing, despite them requesting the change as they thought I’d be a good housemate. Without that change to the tenancy agreement, I couldn’t claim my housing benefit, so couldn’t move in.

A job!

I then got offered (and accepted) a job. Good news. No start date, but a job nonetheless. You might have thought this helped my situation, but it didn’t. I now got rejections from homeowners and landlords for not having “a stable job” or because I hadn’t actually started yet. Agencies still weren’t interested as they couldn’t seek references from my new employer, nor had my credit rating improved in any way.

I found someone who MIGHT rent me a room despite all this. “Might” being the operative word, as he was only one of the tenants (another was on holiday), and he thought the landlord ‘might not mind someone who wasn’t working’, but wasn’t actually sure. Several weeks later, they were still advertising the room. It was in a horrible part of the city, inconvenient for absolutely everything (friends, family, supermarkets, everything), but it was so cheap I was considering it. Or it WAS cheap, until I phoned my car insurance company. It turned out that the area in question has pretty much the highest crime rate in the whole of Bristol. Official police figures put it at more than double the crime rate for where I was living, in almost every category (including vehicle-related crime). So my ‘just about surviving’ budget wouldn’t stretch to ‘just about surviving, AND affording an insured car’. And that job I’d just been offered was based in an out-of-town area, starting before there were any buses running (and ~6miles from this location) – making a car pretty much essential unless I fancied a 90minute walk every morning, or having my bike nicked every other day.

The almost last resort

At the point where it was going to be a choice between a park bench, a friend’s living room floor, or moving back to my parents’ (which is in the middle of nowhere, with no jobs. Or a Job Centre. It would have cost me £5 a fortnight just to get to a Job Centre to sign on.), finally, I found someone who would accept my state of sorta-employment, and provide a written tenancy agreement with the details that the Housing Benefit department actually needed.

And it’s a dump. There’s lots of other words for it, but it’s the noisiest, most poorly-maintained house I’ve ever lived in. Ever.

There is an inch or more gap at the top of every single internal door. And they all rub at the sides on opening/closing. Every stair creaks (even if you walk slowly, and at the edges), so it’s impossible to leave or return a job of unsociable hours, without making noise. This is annoying to both me and my current housemates, as I start very early and they regularly finish quite late at night. I have to tell them to shut up so I can sleep, then I probably wake them all up at 5am.

There is no way of showering without getting water on the floor, thanks to a glass shower screen that will never sit straight, as the bath-top is not straight (it’s a 1980’s one, patterned like what is meant to be a shell, but might as well be a series of interconnected-arses, for all the resemblance it bears to anything you’d imagine seeing during a romantic trip to a deserted beach). And the shower was installed at the wrong end of the bath, so there’s a sloping foot-end making it difficult, should you want to.. I don’t know…say.. stand underneath the shower.

Two of the bedrooms have frosted glass doors, which is obviously brilliant for blocking out the light caused by other people in the house coming and going. And the internal soundproofing is so bad, that if I ever wanted to bring a woman back here, we might as well have sex in the living room during the Britain’s Got Talent finale, because you can hear every creak anyone makes from anywhere in the house, anyway.

It has a central heating and hot water system which runs via a combination of some ancient thing called a “back boiler”, and a water cylinder, which is in my bedroom. It’s incredibly noisy, and despite repeated requests for the landlords to do something about it, and visits from various tradesmen, it still has a faulty thermostat, so no matter what temperature you set it to, if you leave it running more than a few hours, it boils the water in the tank. I was convinced the first time it did it, it was about to explode. The whole thing shakes about as if it’s about to jump through the cupboard/wall and pour boiling water over everything in sight. The controls of all this (also in my bedroom) and the inability to leave it running without it trying to kill itself, means I have to be asked to switch the heating/water on/off as and when needed. Which is clearly the most stupid setup for a house-share in history. If I go away for a weekend, lock my bedroom door, and someone runs off the hot water doing the washing up, nobody can have a shower until the next time the timer kicks back in. With 5 people renting separate rooms, living separate lives, working different hours, it doesn’t matter what time of day the water comes on, it will never suit everybody.

When someone flushes a toilet, the water cylinder in my bedroom refills loudly (it’s like someone having a really long piss into a cauldron, while standing in my wardrobe), and when anyone showers or runs a tap to do the washing up, you get this noise in my bedroom. I haven’t managed more than 6 hours sleep before work, in over a month. And I need my sleep. Realistically, I need a good 8 hours at least half of the week, if I’m to stand any chance of functioning to my best. I’m currently surviving by falling asleep in the afternoons, and/or catching up by having an absurdly long lie-in on my days off. (Like….until gone noon? Yes, sometimes.). My body hates me, completely.

I was asked to sign an inventory list which included that there was a TV with Freeview in the dining room/kitchen/living room (it’s all the same room…not in a modern open-plan way, more of a “we’ve converted the actual living room into another bedroom, so this is what’s left” way.). When it turned out there was no aerial socket, and that the TV (which admittedly has built-in Freeview) did not have a remote (without which you cannot switch from analogue (where there is no longer any signal being broadcast) to Freeview), I complained about this. The eventual solution was to run an aerial extension from another aerial point in the house.
And can you guess where that was? Yes – the only aerial point is in my bedroom. So as well as the noisiest, and hottest room in the house, I now have to have an aerial signal booster plugged in permanently, so people downstairs can watch TV. Which would be fine. What am I moaning about? It’s just one device to plug in, for heaven’s sake! Yes – that’d be fine, but for the fact there are only two plug sockets in my room. No, not two sets of plug sockets. One box, with two sockets on it. That’s it. I’m not entirely sure how many extension-leads-off-extension-leads it’s safe to have, but I’m pretty sure I’m over that.

This is the reality of the sort of housing that a benefit claimant in 2012 can afford/get accepted into. The other possible places that fell through included extremely high crime areas, and two houses with serious damp/mould problems. I don’t believe that anyone would choose it, if they had other sensible options. As someone who has claimed benefits several times in my life, I don’t think benefit cheats even exist. Certainly not the sort that do it deliberately. Maybe there are some that don’t know any better, or think it’s their only option. But doing it on purpose? For what? A complete sense of failure? The inevitable depression that comes from never leaving the house, except to go to the supermarket, and fortnightly visits to one of the least motivating places on earth (Jobcentre Plus)? To live in a rickety old house, barely surviving? It’s no future anybody would choose.

P.S. While I now have a job, I signed a 6-month tenancy to live here, so I’m stuck here for the moment. Plus, I’m going to need to save money to afford that massive all-inclusive deposit to move out of this shithole before the winter, because the heating running all day and night will mean I have to survive on no sleep at all.

P.P.S. Yes I’ve tried earplugs. Both foam and wax. It’s still no good. If I can hear a smoke detector or my alarm clock, I can hear this absurdly loud heating/water system.