As some readers will know, three years ago my ex-Lewisham council colleague Roz Spencer and I started “Safer Renting”.
Based at Cambridge House in south London, we are a tenant’s rights advice and advocacy service working in partnership as contract Tenancy Relations Officers, with licensing and enforcement teams for the London boroughs of Hounslow, Enfield, Waltham Forest, Westminster and Havering.
Acting as TRO across more than one borough puts us in the unique position of daily exposure to sharp practices of criminal landlords in different types of housing stock, from luxury, double glazed beds in sheds in West London, through six-storey, off-shore company-owned properties in the West End and Victorian slums carved up into massive multi lets with stud walling in the East End, and even the odd 16 cubicle derelict petrol station being used to house victims of people trafficking on the leafy fringes of London where we were last month.
A new report
All of which makes us fully conversant with the different loopholes that are exploited by rogue landlords and agents among different client communities. We are using this unique perspective in compiling a report overseen by York university’s Dr. Julie Rugg, funded by Trust for London to be published next year, called
“A journey through the shadow private rented sector”.
The report exposes the mechanics of the common scams used by rogue landlords and agents and charts the experiences of renters, enforcement teams and lawyers, working at the bottom end of the business, accommodating the people that the much relied upon English Housing Survey doesn’t record.
The human beings crammed into lofts and outbuildings, being ripped off for what little they have and forced to live in death-trap conditions, bullied by thugs and let down by a largely unsympathetic and over-stretched judicial system.
At this mid-stage, we have turned our attention to creating a list of recommendations for the report, which are essentially small (and some not so small) changes to law and procedure that will make it harder for rogue operators to exploit the system and to right some of the imbalances.
Easier said than done
Whilst not a lawyer, after 29 years of dealing rogue landlord laws I do know that re-writing a law isn’t as easy as people think. Which is why we are concentrating wherever we can on tweaks, which are easier to campaign for and to achieve.
For instance, many of the properties routinely dealt with by enforcement teams are of such staggeringly poor and dangerous conditions that they present serious safety threats to the occupiers and on occasion to the neighbours.
Where these conditions are identified the council has the powers and in some instances, the duty, to set them right, through service of a variety of notices. In all instances the landlords running these places are encouraged to put the problems right first and bring the properties up to standard but what happens when the landlord’s dismissal of an offer to resolve a problem is batted away and the council has to serve a notice?
The news is awash with such stories, where rogue landlords have ignored serious fire safety issues or simply removed the roof.
Firstly, the occupiers become homeless as a result. Not such a bad thing when you consider the properties they are being airlifted from but the duty is on the local authority to provide assistance to the displaced family, including provisions of temporary accommodation.
Going through this process alone is no joke for families. And to add insult to injury, it’s you the taxpayer that has to pay for this, while the rogue landlord bears no financial cost of the relocation.
Secondly, where a council is forced by circumstance to serve these notices – Part III of the Land Compensation Act 1973, requires the council to compensate the tenant with ‘Disturbance payments’ to cover their moving and relocation costs. Yet other regulations require the council to provide further ‘Home Loss’ compensation to the tenant, with a whopping £6,100 being merely the starting point.
So the council steps in to protect the occupier and has to use public money to pay for doing so, while the landlord running the slums and death traps that the council has been forced to close down, aren’t responsible for a single penny for re-housing the family.
Because of this unfair practice, we tweak the system, so that when a notice has to be served because the landlord is not keeping up with their repairing obligations to such a degree that a notice has to be served, the offender should be the one forced to pay the Home Loss and Disturbance payments.
Of course, the same rogue landlord can be fined for non-compliance with notices further down the line. But why should the enforcing authority, who at the end of the day, is all of us, pay even one penny for the rogue to wash their hands of responsibility?
Safer Renting has a similar public costs recommendation, where a council has been forced to step in following an illegal eviction, to push for damages for the cost of providing temporary accommodation and rehousing.
Again, why should public money be used so that the offender doesn’t have to go through the hassle of obtaining a court order like anyone else?
The ability to make large sums of money from exploiting the most vulnerable in the worst possible properties is tremendously appealing to criminals. Especially when it is so easy to hide illegal conversions and outbuildings by renting out to people without recourse to public funds and on very low wages, against a background of understaffed enforcement teams and the logistical problems of actually finding the properties in question.
Criminal landlords and agents are proliferating not because existing agents or landlords turned to the dark side. The industry is attracting criminals who wouldn’t otherwise be landlords but for the amount of money that can be made at the moment, from the desperate need for accommodation, coupling up with rubbish laws with too many get out of jail free cards and lack of funding for housing enforcement.
In the same way that gangsters previously running betting scams and loan sharking, turned to making booze following prohibition.
If money is the incentive to play fast and loose, then money has to also be the disincentive. If being punished for every infraction ends up costing them more than the money they were making on the sly then that is the one thing that will push the criminals into other lines of business.
We aren’t so naïve as to think that we will destroy criminal activity but we can help make the rogue landlord game a less attractive one and force the people exploiting the system into a different line of criminality, such as fake Olive Oil production then its Jamie Oliver’s problem not ours.