A day in the life of TRO Ben Reeve Lewis.
The Case of the Shameful Admission
Explanation: Tenancy Relations Officers (TRO) 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.
There are some things you do in life that reveal the vindictive nature buried deep within us. Things we aren’t proud of, things we wouldn’t win an OBE for, but things that give a warm glow of satisfaction when we recall them in private.
I get a phone call in the morning from John. He says he and his student friends are all renting a room each in a house, paying their rent to the landlady who lives elsewhere. There have recently been arguments over the rent and she has just turned up at the house and thrown one of them out of his room with all his belongings.
He tells me she is still there, so I say “Keep her talking; I’m on my way around”.
I arrive half an hour later and find four friendly young fellas sitting in the living room amongst piles of bags and chatting. John tells me they are all from Cameroon and refers to the landlady as “Auntie”. I need to eliminate a family connection because that might cast a shadow over my actions in that sometimes, where a family relationship is at the heart of things you could argue that there was no intention to create a legal or contractual relationship, therefore they may not actually be tenants.
But John tells me that it is simply an affectionate name for an elder, with Mary, the landlady, also being from Cameroon.
All four lads insist that they have been there for several months paying their rent. They don’t know where she lives but she comes to the house regularly and collects the money. When Martin, the evictee, couldn’t pay she threw him out and has been sitting in his room ever since.
Now having been around the block a few times, my senses are telling me that something stinks here. I reckon there is more behind this than meets the eye but you have to start with what you’ve got and work from there, so its confrontation time.
I knock on the door and Mary lets me in. She sits on the bed looking slightly nervous and I ask for her version of events. She tells me that she has been renting rooms to three of the students but that they have let the fourth man in without her permission and have been taking rent from him themselves. She says she doesn’t even know his name. I ask her which room he has been occupying and she tells me the living room. She adds that they threatened her and that is why she is sitting in her room.
Either story could be true; they are just stories after all. I need more proof and provoke her by saying that I think she is lying. She quickly points to 5 or 6 unframed photos drawing-pinned to the walls as evidence of occupation, as if that would suffice. Without warning I spin around and like Sherlock Holmes exposing a murderer I swing open both wardrobe doors in a theatrical fashion revealing a totally empty unit…..not a stitch of clothing.
“A-HA!!!!!” I say. “If you live here, then where are your clothes?????” She stumbles around a bit and again I repeat that I think she is lying, adding “Through your teeth” for additional effect. And she says that she can prove it is her property, reaching for her handbag she produces a tenancy agreement, showing that she is a London & Quadrant housing association tenant.
Freeze frame at this point: social housing tenants are not allowed to sub-let their property. In my borough there are 1,400 social homes available at any one time and 17,000 people on the waiting list. Demand is huge, everyone wants social housing because the rents are half that of the private sector and the security far greater.
This woman has this valuable commodity, benefitting by living in a culture with a strong sense of communal, social welfare at its core and is living elsewhere whilst making a profit out of it and then chucking people out that she has an issue with.
It’s an immoral and deceitful thing to do. In fact the government is considering making unlawfully sub-letting a criminal offence, as an act of fraud. The Labour government even introduced a £500 reward for neighbours who report the practice……..…..but I have uncovered a can of worms here and paperwork is not my favourite pastime. I need a quick, paper-less solution that is not going to tie me up in all their lies.
So I say to Mary “Right. This is the deal. I am going back to the office now and at 3pm I am going to ring John. If you aren’t gone by then I will call L&Q and tell them that the property is being sub-let and you will lose it altogether.” She still complains, albeit half-heartedly now, that she is telling the truth but frankly I haven’t got the time.
I go to see the students and tell them about the situation. They don’t seem bothered that they are living in an unauthorised occupancy or by the morals of what is going on. I tell them of the arrangement I have come to.
At 3pm on the dot I call John from the office. He tells me that she has gone and the evicted student has his room back. Job done.
…………………………………..I call London and Quadrant anyway!
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 TRO 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. Read more about Ben here.