How We Beat the Landlord

Faced with illegal eviction by their unlicensed landlord, a group of flatmates launched a rent strike and sued him for repayment. They won – and here’s how you could, too.

Landlords cannot serve a section 8 or section 21 eviction notice (the most common) without having an HMO or the proper safety certificates. (Kerkez / Getty Images)

Renting can be difficult at the best of times, and things appear to be getting worse. Landlords are raising rent out of the blue while the cost of bills are going through the roof; housing associations and private landlords are competing to see who can let their properties fall into the worst disrepair.

So we want to share a positive story: how our shared house investigated our landlord, went on a rent strike, and eventually reached a settlement, winning compensation for all of us—and how others can, too.

In December last year, not long before Christmas, our landlord tried to evict us from our shared house. This was the catalyst for the whole sequence of events.

The State of Our House

We lived in a shared five-bedroom, one-bathroom flat in South East London. The flat was above our landlord’s business, a pharmacy. The rent was cheap, and it was spacious with high ceilings. Over time we put a lot of work into making it homely and in some ways a beautiful living space—think a jungle of house-plants, old Gumtree-reclaimed wooden furniture, and various tastes in art and photography.

But it was incredibly neglected. There were holes in the walls, damp (both new and old), leaks, and rotted window frames. Chunks sometimes fell from the ceilings. There were also dangerous plugs and sockets which sparked and caught fire, electrical appliances and wiring from the last century, and a hazardous network of extension cables plugged into extension cables in all the rooms.

Once, when a gas engineer came (at our request), he found an ‘emergency’ danger safety note by the gas metre, requiring an urgent check—dated eight years before. At one point our boiler itself wasn’t actually attached to the wall or the flue sealed. It just had some rough bricks placed around it.

There was also no central heating—just large, wasteful, and expensive electric heaters in all the rooms. In winter it was regularly below ten degrees in unheated spaces; you could see your breath.

The rotted window frames, in particular, were so bad that in places you could put your finger straight through them and into the outside air. After a year of us asking the landlord to fix them, he sent his contractor round, and we overheard the contractor telling a colleague to ‘do the absolute bare minimum’, ‘as cheaply and quickly as possible’.

While ‘fixing’ one of the top-floor windows they managed to seal it shut, and laughed off the suggestion that it was a fire hazard—despite there being no other way out of that room if the stairs were blocked. Later that day, the contractor let slip that he was building the same landlord a swimming pool at his house.

Our landlord rarely fixed things, unless it was really bad and we begged him to repeatedly. More often, he dithered and delayed until we just did things ourselves—or, where it was more skilled work, got someone in and took the cost out of the rent. We also didn’t have a proper written tenancy agreement, which he seemed comfortable with.

As a result, we suspected he was unlicensed. So when he let us know just before last Christmas that we had to leave ‘in the next few months’, we decided to push back. One of us studied law and has legal and litigation experience, including in housing. We got together to discuss our options and work out a strategy.

The Legal Situation

Landlords can’t legally evict you from an unlicensed property, so if you suspect or know that your tenancy is unlicensed, challenge any eviction notice—formal or informal—and stand your ground. We asked our landlord for a formal notice of eviction. He seemed embarrassed and unsure; he delayed and blustered, and we never received anything. That further confirmed our suspicions.

We then checked with the local council if there was a registered Houses of Multiple Occupation (HMO) licence for the property—a licence required for house- or flat-shares where multiple people, often four, five, or more, share facilities like a bathroom or kitchen. There wasn’t one for our flat.

We then looked up all the other licences and safety requirements our landlord should legally have had: gas, electricity, and fire safety, among others. We asked him for the details of these. He couldn’t provide them.

Rent Strike

That was the point at which we stopped paying rent. We had had enough of the multiple, serious safety issues. When we found out it was almost certain our landlord was unlicensed as well, we didn’t want to continue filling up his bank account—and we suspected he wouldn’t be in a position to challenge us.

We knew that without the HMO licence and the required safety checks it could take him up to a year to go through the proper legal channels to forcibly evict us. Landlords cannot serve a section 8 or section 21 eviction notice (the most common) without having an HMO or the proper safety certificates.

If we’d wanted to, we could have stayed in the property and not paid any rent for a long time before being removed. However, we didn’t know how heavy things might get, and didn’t want to risk having our stuff forcibly removed or the locks changed when we were out of the house, for example—as landlords often do to tenants.

We also decided to try and apply for a Rent Repayment Order (RRO). This is a process whereby you can seek redress for legal breaches by a landlord; in theory, if successful, you can be awarded up to twelve months’ rent back by a court. We researched online and checked out a few very helpful guides for Rent Repayment Orders—one from an organisation called Flat Justice, which helps renters ‘get rent back’, and another from Camden Council.

We decided to prepare an RRO, then write to our landlord to see if we could reach an agreement. We gathered up all the evidence of disrepair, neglect, the safety issues, and our landlord’s refusal to address these, including photos, screenshots of texts, and previous letters we’d sent him.

Several of us were members of the London Renters Union, so we asked them for advice, and they were very encouraging about our plan and action so far. Other housemates asked friends with legal expertise or who had experienced similar issues with their landlords—as so many people have. We also spoke to Shelter, who clarified our rights as tenants living in an unlicensed property.


After we prepared the RRO application, we decided to see if we could come to an agreement with our landlord. Legal processes can be very long—it can easily take a year for a Rent Repayment Order case to be heard, and sometimes longer. Some of the house were keen to get things done quickly, and put it behind us.

So we wrote to our landlord, setting out all the issues with the house, our evidence, and his refusal to address any of them. We said this justified compensation. We reminded him that an RRO can reward tenants up to twelve months’ rent, and also reminded him of the huge potential fines (£30,000 and more) for not having done the correct safety checks.

After our letter, he met with us. He was clearly nervous. He asked why we were ‘threatening him’ and called it ‘blackmail’. After all the actual danger and disrepair he’d put us through, he made us out to be the aggressors. We repeated our issues in person, and presented our collective demand for compensation. We had the evidence of the disrepair and neglect, and that he was renting illegally and unlicensed. For once, the law was on the tenants’ side.

Our negotiating position was made even stronger by the fact that it would have cost him time and money to legally remove us from the property. He wanted us out by a certain date, and we let him know that we would not leave of our own accord unless we were duly compensated.

After a lot of back and forth, he agreed to compensation. After further back and forth over amounts, and negotiation (he went low, we went high), he agreed to give us five months’ rent as a settlement, on the basis we left by the agreed date.

So that’s how we did it. In a difficult time for renters and tenants, this hopefully stands as a motivating story of tenant power over landlords.

If a landlord is trying to evict you, remember your rights and that you may have some power in the situation. Check that they have the right licences and safety requirements. See if you are eligible to apply for an RRO. Look up whether your landlord can legally evict you (can they serve you a legal eviction notice?) and how long it would take them to go through that process. You could have a few months longer in the property rent free—or you could use that as leverage to reach a settlement with them to get you to leave.

Above all, join a tenants’ union, if you’re not already in one, and ask their advice. And don’t take shit from landlords.