Laws and yet more laws
We’ve had a few years now to get our heads around the raft of enforcement laws that government have been ushering in.
The licensing and property standards issues attached to the Housing Act 2004 as well as deposit protection regulations covered by the same Act, the various time-bombs on section 21 notices, created by the Deregulation Act 2015 and the Housing and Planning Act 2016, including the strengthening of Rent Repayment Orders.
Spoilt for choice
Having spent most of my working life dealing with the meagre offerings of the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 I suddenly feel spoilt for choice but like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory, I’m starting to get a bit nauseous.
I have never seen a time in rogue landlord history when enforcement types like me have had so many weapons in our arsenal but whilst all this stuff might seem a gift to enforcement types, unlike Ronseal these new laws don’t always “Do what it says on the tin” and for two main reasons:-
- The first reason I’m not going to labour, simply because I have done before and it seems bleedin’ obvious – staffing levels. The job of policing the private rented sector is down to the local authorities and due to austerity cuts, there is simply not enough officers in a post to do the various jobs.
- Reason number two is not something I have seen mentioned much before but I’m going for it here, as one of the oldest hands in the business at 29 years, having got the T-shirt the hat and the matching underpants. The fact that the laws are written by educated people, from privileged middle-class backgrounds who take an academic approach to the subject, based on some spurious, middle England idea of the “Landlord on the Clapham omnibus” . This is a mile away from the 21 st century scammer.
There is so much money to be made from the private rented sector that the rogue end of the market is being dominated by organised criminal activity. These people don’t give a toss about laws or criminal records or notions of fair play. They know they can evade capture by simply exploiting loopholes in legislation and the fact that the enforcing authorities, the councils, don’t have the resources to cope even when offences are evident.
In a recent article on Property Industry Eye, it was revealed that despite bringing in a law to prevent agents from assisting with client money laundering there hasn’t been a single prosecution under the Act.
A district Police organised crime unit recently approached Safer Renting because they became aware that whenever they are raiding brothels or properties where people trafficking is going on, that there is nearly always a local letting agent involved and they don’t know how to deal with that.
This is a world away from mundane matters like not serving the How to Rent Booklet or just not being a member of a redress scheme. I use all the seminal housing law books every single day of my working life but you can see this simplistic approach reflected in the text and examples.
They help me easily identify the relevant laws and case law sure enough but I never find answers on what to do about applying for an injunction where the perpetrator is hiding behind five different names, ten companies that swap directors several times a year and different spelling versions of the aliases they are using in different contexts. Which is pretty much standard practice.
I am currently trying to spirit through a Rent Repayment Order for a tenant as fast as I can before the letting agent responsible for the breaches, dissolves the company, leaving no liability, in the full knowledge that they will crop up under a different name a few weeks down the line.
If they haven’t already.
Is there hope?
You get little glimmers that the draughtsmen of laws might have a little sense of what goes on to subvert them. I was impressed when I read section 27 of the Housing and Planning Act 2016 which deals with landlords or agents under banning orders from transferring the property to:-
- A person associated with the landlord,
- A business partner of the landlord,
- A person associated with a business partner of the landlord,
- A business partner of a person associated with the landlord,
- A body corporate of which the landlord or a person mentioned in paragraph (a) to (d) is an officer,
- A body corporate in which the landlord has a shareholding or other financial interest, or
- In a case where the landlord is a body corporate, any body corporate that has an officer in common with
Which is exactly the kind of thing the criminal scammer would do.
Not watertight I grant you and they will find ways to get around it but the fact that someone sat in a room and thought of these possibilities gives me heart.
My plea to the people who come up with these laws is this. Instead of focussing solely on age-old legal principles and what a decent person would do, consider each section from the perspective of how people would look to subvert that bit of it and then also consider the practicalities of enforcement.
Rogue landlords can commit a variety of offences in plain sight but still be entitled to receive housing benefit, simply because the offences they commit aren’t covered in the housing benefit regulations. So why not just add to those regulations?
We have recently seen a very handy amendment to Rent Repayment Orders for tenants, where they can be used for a wider range of offences than just failing to licence a property and without the council having to prosecute first. So why not continue that theme?
There are Interim Management Orders, allowing the council to take over management control and therefore rental income, for 12 months – but this is only for licensing breaches. Why can’t we have IMOs for harassment, illegal eviction, and unfair trading, by way of the aliases and fake companies I wrote about above, where neither tenant nor enforcement officer can even tell who the landlord or agent actually is?
None of these changes would affect normal landlords and agents, just the criminal ones.
Don’t give us more laws, just give us more practical tools. And when considering new regulations don’t just sit in a room and swap academic viewpoints based on Marquis of Queensbury rules. Talk to enforcement officers who deal with this stuff day in day out or hell, even a reformed rogue landlord or agent to explain how they would get around something.