And how the law is unable to stop them
I read this article recently on an FOI request conducted by the National Landlord’s Association, revealing that 53% of local authorities have not prosecuted any letting agents and that 32% have prosecuted only three or fewer letting agents.
CEO Richard Lambert said
“This must stop”.
Regular readers, perhaps Richard himself, might fall off their chairs when I say
“I completely agree with the NLA”.
Perhaps the biggest change I have seen in three decades is the explosion in the past 8 years or so, in the number of letting agents and in particular, the worst kinds of dodgy shysters that you can imagine.
At the bottom end of renting this type of letting agents absolutely dominate the market where people are the most desperate to rent and the downmarket landlords happy to pay cheaper fees, where all transactions are done on a nod and wink.
Letting agents – a growing trend
Last year the lovely Marion Money, herself of the NLA, pointed an officer from the Serious Crime Squad to Safer Renting, who were seeking some input on a problem they noticed, that whenever raiding a brothel, or a property used for people trafficking, nine times out of ten there was a letting agent involved in it.
My crew has been working for three years in five London boroughs, dealing with around 350 referred families, usually in illegal rent to rent scams and in virtually every single case a dodgy letting agent was at the heart of the shenanigans. Back when I started, you usually had the odd one or two agents, who you dealt with on a weekly basis, now its nearly every case and there’s an army of them.
So why are so few letting agents being prosecuted?
Well, I’ll give you the view from the frontline, as a someone who has to get up at 5am and raid these properties under warrants with the police.
Enforcement staffing issues
The legislation used to tackle rogue agents is down to Trading Standards, not housing. Whilst I regularly bemoan the problem of lack of staff and resources in housing enforcement, the stark fact is there are even fewer Trading Standards officers than there is of us.
Also, unlike housing enforcement, a TS officer’s role isn’t just housing, or even letting agents. They are responsible for under-age sales, counterfeit tobacco, fake booze, DVD factories, fraud and as I am reliably informed, their biggest problem, doorstep crime. The sort of people who fleece your granny out of her pension.
Thanks to the complexity of letting agent regulations, they are well down the list of achievable goals. Most London boroughs will have several hundred letting agents, most of the newer crop, complete crooks. Dealing with all of this is perhaps two Trading Standards officers in your borough if you are lucky.
I recently attended a meeting of the Lettings Industry Council where around 150 concerned letting agents gathered to share information on the criminals who blight their industry. There were more individuals in that room than the entire Trading Standards compliment of every London borough combined.
The law is not designed to deal with the sorts of outright frauds being perpetrated by the rogue agents. Laws are, as usual, designed for the average Joe, the person who obeys them and would be horrified to know they had broken them.
Running a fraudulent agency is a lucrative business, that’s why it attracts those sorts of people and the law doesn’t matter to them.
The public often woefully misunderstand enforcement of any type, presuming that the council can just hand out tickets, like parking offences and that’s the end of it.
But, in reality, every sanction given to Trading Standards and housing comes with a complex set of appeal procedures, caveats, standards of proof and get out of jail free cards, rendering the road to a successful prosecution, as fraught with pitfalls as a game of Snakes and Ladders.
When you read a story in a paper of a rogue landlord or agents being fined it doesn’t go anywhere near explaining how much work, how many hours went in to even a small result. Hours that are not available, given the size of the problem and the few remaining people left doing the job.
It can sometimes take literally years to put a full case together, while new ones come through the door on a daily basis.
The dodgy letting agents who just shut down
The other huge problem faced when dealing with rogue agents is what happens when you do finally get them on the ropes.
They simply shut up shop.
If they are a limited company they dissolve and any liabilities evaporate along with the limited company status. Many of them are so brazen they don’t even bother to move offices, simply having a shop front makeover and a new name and start all over again.
Of course, all enforcement officers know who they are and were but the slow wheels of bureaucracy have to be put into gear once more. If they weren’t even a limited company it is even easier for them to disappear in a puff of smoke.
Or maybe they are part of the increasing trend of being an online agency based in another country, using Facebook, Gumtree and Spareroom.com to procure tenants from Spain, Georgia or Bulgaria to occupy cheap rooms in London, located in overcrowded, unlicensed, unauthorised death traps, until the council cotton on and the illegal evictions start.
The problem is the law itself. It just doesn’t work.
The use of aliases is standard practice and you can’t get a successful prosecution unless you can prove, to the court’s satisfaction, that the person subject to the action is genuinely the person who breached the vast range of laws, which all have their own standards of proof.
Then trying to gather information for a prosecution, every witness you talk to has been given a different name by the same employees of the agency and if you do manage to cobble together two accounts where the same name has been used, you call the agents and get told:
“They no longer work here”
The law is a complete joke. It is not designed to protect anyone from the exploitation of it by criminals, who operate in the bottom end of the market to such an extent that they are literally an epidemic, similar to Ebola.
So what can we do?
The NLA are right. It must be stopped but the legal machinery put in place to stop it is an illusion and where tiny rays of light might exist the councils lack the resources to enforce because the government hates local authorities and have been attacking them for years.
Blaming councils is the same lazy ploy being used by so many these days, including the NLA in this instance.
Look to the law-makers and to government as well as a rental system gone mad for profit and investment over the notion of homes. The bottom end of the private rented sector is dominated by letting agents who are no more than thugs, drug dealers, fraudsters and people traffickers. Which wasn’t the case before austerity measures kicked in.
I’ve been involved in it since the 2nd February 1990 and I’m still there.