With this country’s housing currently in the kind of crisis it hasn’t reached since the aftermath of the Blitz, the lack of urgency and action on the part of government often beggars belief. One would imagine ensuring everyone has a roof over their head should be at the top of any administration’s agenda, but what is actually being done? A chronic absence of affordable homes; a pitifully low amount of new houses being built; purpose-built social housing virtually abolished; soaring rents also pricing people out of that market; mean-minded schemes such as depriving unemployed 18-21 year-olds of Housing Benefit – all paint a portrait of remarkable ineptitude and uncaring indifference on the part of our elected representatives.
And into this troubled arena returns the ominous, unwelcome spectre of the kind of landlord who gives landlords a bad name – not quite a throwback to either infamous property tycoon gangster Nicholas van Hoogstraten or the notorious slum tyrant of 50s Notting Hill, Peter Rachman; but certainly one bearing all the old ‘No Irish/No Dogs/No Blacks’ prejudices prevalent prior to the Rent Act of 1965.
Millionaire Fergus Wilson, often referred to as ‘Britain’s biggest landlord’ (having owned over a thousand properties at one point), has hit the headlines due to his attitudes towards certain types of potential tenants via a leaked list of his letting criteria supplied to the letting agents Evolution. This illuminating document reveals he and his company do not want tenants with children under 18, no single mums or single fathers, no tenants on Housing Benefits, no low-income workers and no single adults. That does narrow it down quite a bit; few with little choice but to seek rented accommodation don’t fall into any of those categories, after all. But Mr Wilson obviously has standards to maintain. He won’t accept victims of domestic abuse as tenants either; ‘battered wives’ are apparently more trouble than they’re worth.
As biased and bigoted as that list reveals Fergus Wilson to be, it is his antiquated racism that has made him a target for online abuse. According to this list, one of his other specifications regarding tenants is that he won’t let to – in his own words – ‘coloured people’ because of ‘the curry smell at the end of the tenancy’. Firstly, the assumption that what has long been the country’s No.1 dish of choice is only consumed by ‘coloured people’ is remarkably ill-informed; secondly, to attribute that particular dish as a main cause of damage to his properties when tenants move out suggests his judgement is severely impaired by his prejudices.
A friend of mine who rented out his former home when he couldn’t sell it experienced the unpleasant reality of trouble tenants, who left the property a tip when they did a runner, though they were neither ‘coloured’ nor used curry to reinforce their contempt for the tenancy agreement.
Fergus Wilson has reported the abuse he’s received to Kent Police, but has also been airing his opinions in the Sun, which make him sound like an even bigger idiot than the leaked list did. ‘It is a problem with certain types of coloured people – those who consume curry,’ he says. ‘It sticks to the carpet. You have to get some chemical thing that takes the smell out. In extreme cases you have to replace the carpet.’ He goes on to deny that which he has been accused of by saying: ‘My stance is that it is neither racist nor discrimination to refuse to take people from any ethnic background on the basis that there is a heightened risk of injury to the house.’
His denials are then contradicted by further statements such as: ‘To be honest, we’re getting overloaded with coloured people’ and ‘In a predominantly white English area, almost all landlords will not let to Indian or Pakistani tenants because of the smell of curry.’ He clearly has a problem with curry, that famed foodstuff favoured by those bloody ‘coloured people’. If only they stuck to fish and chips, how much easier Fergus Wilson’s life would be.
Evolution, recipients of Mr Wilson’s specifications, has distanced itself from his comments and has made it clear they do not endorse his attitudes. Other organisations dedicating to helping the homeless or representing the renting sector from both sides have followed suit. The online attacks he’s been subjected to since his criteria was made public are of an ilk that many who are nowhere near as bigoted, though have a habit of expressing unfashionable opinions, have suffered from recently; however, to hold up Fergus Wilson as some heroic beacon of anti-PC free speech misses the point.
As a landlord – and an extremely wealthy one – Mr Wilson is in a position where some of society’s most vulnerable citizens are forced to approach him for assistance. For him to discriminate on the grounds of social or racial status, rather than exclude the worst kind of tenants due to their lack of respect for the property, is lamentable at a time when so many are in such dire need, whether or not they have an appetite for curry. Desperation for a roof over one’s head doesn’t distinguish on any grounds. The tenancy agreement between landlord and tenant is a contract of mutual understanding; if both adhere to the terms, there’s no reason why the relationship cannot be a harmonious one.
Having lived in rented accommodation for over twenty years, I’ve experienced both bad landlords and good ones; I may have kept pets when I wasn’t supposed to, but I’ve always paid my rent on time and I’ve always left the properties as I found them when the time has come to move on. I even left a fridge freezer and a mattress behind at my last address, neither of which was there when I arrived, so I hope my successor made the most of them. Maybe it’s time Fergus Wilson retired to his inevitable yacht in Monaco and left his business in the hands of those who recognise that when so many in this country are so desperate for somewhere to live, landlords are uniquely qualified to do what government is so spectacularly failing to.
© The Editor