A day in the life of TRO Ben Reeve Lewis.
The case of the Bad Tempered Woman
Explanation: Tenancy Relations Officers (TROs) work for local council’s providing advice on landlord tenant law and investigating allegations of harassment and Illegal Eviction and prosecuting landlords.
All names are false but the stories are true.
One case has dominated my week and took 2 and half days to sort out, and the progress of it is fairly typical of the frustrations involved in getting a straight case to take action on.
Mrs T comes in to reception claiming her landlord, Mrs C has changed the locks to the front door where she lives. Mrs T has rented 1 room since April and her husband and 12 year old son are visiting on holiday from the West Indies when the lock change takes place.
I asked her if the landlord lived in the property and she said no and supplied me with a list of all the tenants names.
As usual I called the landlord to get her version of events. She is abusive and basically shouted at me breathlessly for 45 minutes (a trainer once taught me conflict management and told me to remain calm when a person is shouting because she said “Nobody can maintain that level of anger for more than a couple of minutes” !?!??!?!?!?! – obviously never worked in housing then).
At first she said she didn’t take any rent from her, but when I explained that I had her bank statements showing the rent going into her account as regular as clockwork and a letter from her to the tenant talking about rent payments she changed her story, without pause for breath or a hint of embarrassment about being caught out. – Standard tactics for some landlords is to just shout over you, never letting you answer a question, while they yell themselves into a frenzy of righteous indignation and re-cast themselves as the victim.
She then claimed to live in the property and said all the other people there were her family.
Legal Point: If she doesn’t live there then she has committed a criminal offence in illegally evicting Mrs T, if she does live there then it is likely that no offence has been committed because Mrs T was a lodger who had been told weeks ago to leave.
After I hang up with my ears burning I do a land registry search, an identity search with Experian and a council tax search that showed Mrs C owning 3 properties and listed at all of them as landlord and with various bank accounts and credit card accounts applied for from all 3 at various times – Once again, standard practice, for a landlord not wanting to be seen to live anywhere in particular to create a fog around themselves and avoid officialdom…..particularly the tax man..
I go and visit the other 2 properties first to see if I can talk to any unwitting tenants who will tell me where Mrs C actually lives but get nowhere. Finally I go to Mrs T’s property and one of the tenants opens the door. I take advantage of my good luck and play the innocent and ask him if Mrs C is there and he says no. I then ask him if she lives in the house and again he says no…..BINGO!!!!!! I also showed him the list of tenant’s names that Mrs T gave me and he read them and said they were indeed the other tenants. So now I have a bit of proof that will allow me to go to court for an injunction for re-instatement of Mrs T.
20 Minutes after returning to the office Mrs C calls in a right royal bad mood, shouting again about the injustice of it all and what a liar Mrs T is. I tell her about the result of my visit. She rings off abruptly and calls back 10 minutes later and advises that she spoke to the tenant I spoke to and that I misunderstood his reply and that he was now withdrawing what he said (presumably through fear of eviction himself).
So I have Mrs T saying the landlord doesn’t live there and Mrs C insisting she does and my only witness that could tip things my way has now changed his story. No true paper trail about where Mrs C actually lives because her name and whereabouts crop up at all addresses at different times and in different contexts.
My instant indignation makes me want to dig deeper and really ruin her day but there are only 2 of us TROs and with 16.000 private tenants on housing benefit alone I have to simply shrug, laugh and move on to the next case, which comes in about 10 minutes later leaving the homelessness unit to rehouse the family.
If the government hadn’t ditched the Rugg recommendations we might have been able to look towards preventing these problems across the board instead of relying on constant emergency responses that drain time and resources and don’t go anywhere.
About Ben Reeve-Lewis: Ben has worked in housing in one form or another since 1987. He has variously been a Homelessness caseworker, Head of Homelessness for a local authority, a Tenancy Relations Officer and Housing law trainer. He now divides his time between doing contract Tenancy Relations work and as a Freelance housing law training consultant for the CIH, Shelter, Sitra and many more.