The business models of criminal landlord explained – Part 7
This short series is a guide to those landlords and professionals working in the PRS who might find it difficult to get their head around the vastly different way that the criminals view the market.
This is certainly the case in the four London boroughs that my outfit ‘Safer Renting’ operate in which is echoed by my experiences talking to officers in councils across Britain as a trainer.
Lesson #7: Tackling the problem
In this final piece examining the pathology of criminal landlord world, I will be looking at local authority enforcement of the problem.
Much has changed in government not all for the better
Despite the earlier dismissal, over the past couple of years government have accepted that there is a problem and introduced a staggering amount of legislation to curtail activities that surprised even me.
If I had seen this coming 10 years ago I would have been overjoyed but 10 years ago, the council I worked for had a full Housing Rights team, of two TROs, and a bank of general housing advisers, between us dealing with harassment and illegal eviction, mortgage repossession advice and advocacy, repairs and damages claims, even representation at rent tribunal hearings.
Now that we have all these shiny new laws do you know how many people are in that team? None. It doesn’t exist, all part of austerity-driven cuts. This is the situation in so many other authorities as well.
In a report published in March 2018 on staffing levels among council EHOs Dr Stephen Battersby reveals that there is only an estimated average of 2.46 EHOs in London per 10,000 PRS properties and only 2.2 outside the capital.
These figures were based on a survey of staffing levels in 2016/17 against figures on the number of PRS properties taken from the 2011 census, which it is known has increased 26% since that time and the report comments:-
“It would be difficult for these staffing levels to cope with complaints alone never mind take the initiative and seek out the criminal landlords”.
Stephen’s report also refers only to EHOs, not Trading standards, Planning enforcement, TROs or Building control, all responsible for various arms of rogue landlord enforcement.
There are also procedural problems with enforcement legislation, it’s not like handing out a parking ticket. The difficult legal hoops that have to be jumped through at each stage are staggering.
My case is proof of how hard it is to enforce
My project got an injunction against a landlord for illegally evicting two people, one with cancer and destroying all their possessions. He ignored it and we applied to have him committed to prison for contempt of court.
This was nearly twenty months ago and we are still awaiting a hearing date.
Thanks in part to the same political climate that rides the waves of austerity these cuts in services have also driven the increase in the PRS and the influx of criminals seeking fast money and easy pickings.
I said back in lesson 1 that being a criminal landlord is a largely risk-free endeavour because of the loss of officers that would previously have been in the post to tackle the problem.
Enforcement Officer numbers are reduced
The policing of the PRS is solely the preserve of the local authority, so with increased legislation to target criminals it is absolute madness to then cut the number of people doing the enforcing – but this is what happens in the race to the bottom line.
To buck this trend, Newham council in East London invested millions of pounds in creating a multi-agency team to proactively deal with the problem. Most councils baulk at this approach but even lack of investment isn’t fatal, we can work smarter with what we do have.
Pulling resources together can achieve results
Where a council might not have a team of 10 in housing rights anymore, by combining EHOs, TROs, Planning Enforcement, HB Fraud, Building control, ASB, and Trading Standards, all working together, an effective approach is still achievable, even though not on the Newham scale.
Some councils understand this, (come on down Northampton BC, Come on down LB Brent) and even without massive investment are trying to coordinate services into focusing on the same problem. But the majority of councils still don’t.
I say this loudly but respectfully. Most councils are absolutely rubbish at joined up working and thinking.
It can’t all be blamed on cuts. Much of it results from an entrenched, cultural resistance to information sharing and joined up working that goes back probably as long as councils have been in existence.
I know, I’ve worked in them for 28 years and I train loads of them all the time, up and down the country.
If we are to tackle these landlords we have to break out of the ‘Not my job, not my problem’ mentality.
Walking away from a recent joint visit, one EHO sighed dejectedly and said of a brazen and unapologetic landlord we had just had a row with,
“He’s taking the piss”,
to which I replied
“No he’s not…..we’re giving it away”
and we give it away every time we say its another team’s problem.
However being realistic
Being less harsh, I also acknowledge the low spirit of many in housing enforcement.
Thanks to the same cuts, their workloads are often completely unmanageable, their jobs regularly under threat.
Also, being re-interviewed for the post you’ve held for 10 years does have a wearing effect, as does the constant lack of support of most council’s legal departments who often seem to have their own cultural resistance to supporting enforcement work.
The good news
Is that more councils are finally waking up on this whole multi-team working idea. While still early days these things often grow unexpectedly and with great speed.
All it takes is a handful of councils to host a conference and report back on results and then other more cautious councils jump on-board, the waters having been tested.
And if you are an enforcement officer reading this, one who has not been completely worn down by all of the above, don’t wait for a corporate announcement or a manager’s approval. If you have a landlord or property of interest, call up your colleagues in different enforcement teams, ask them if they know anything about it.
Invite them on a visit, or get them to invite you on one of theirs. Make connections. Call your opposite number in neighbouring councils. Criminal landlords don’t just stick to borough boundaries.
Some will blank you or hide behind data protection but others won’t. Find those like-minded souls elsewhere and build a network of can-do people.
Don’t wait to be told its ok first. Change is best effected from the bottom up, not the top down.
I make my voice heard
This is why I write repeatedly about this and why I stand up at conferences and make the same criticisms myself. Not because I am council bashing but because I can see the change on the horizon and am just getting behind and pushing.
In fact, I have been pushing for 28 years and there are several of us out there doing the same thing in our own ways but ears are becoming more receptive lately.
I hope, in this short series on how they operate, that I have made clear that ‘Rogue’ is a woefully inadequate term for the worst end of the PRS and instead emphasised that the real slum properties that enforcement officers such as myself get into on a daily basis are run with conscious criminal intent.
These rogues are not Arthur Daley-esque charmers, they are often violent, organised criminals extorting huge amounts of cash from exploiting other human beings.