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Safer Renting: The Extraordinary Internship

By Sarah Collins.

When you discover that you’ve landed an internship, you expect to be photocopying, making coffee, sending emails, writing the occasional document if you’re lucky. On the first day of my paid internship at the Safer Renting project, my manager informed that I would be getting up at five o’clock the next morning to enter a property with a warrant from the magistrate’s court. I soon realised that this was no ordinary internship.

The Safer Renting Project is a new start-up tackling the exploitation of the London Private Rented Sector by ‘Rogue’ or criminal landlords. Operating as part of the long established social action centre Cambridge House and Talbot, Safer Renting is the only service of its kind. It provides access to justice for tenants of criminal Landlords, advocating for them in partnership with 5 London boroughs.

Spearheaded by Roz Spencer and Ben Reeve-Lewis, of Channel 5 TV fame in the series Slum Landlords and Nightmare tenants, the Safer Renting advocates are experts in the field. The project aims to prevent clients from becoming homeless, to enable them to obtain compensation from criminal landlords and to negotiate their tenancies from a stronger position.

After just two weeks on the job, my eyes have already been opened to the murky underworld of what has been dubbed, the ‘Shadow Private Rented Sector’ where rogue landlords operate, cramming whole families into single rooms, throwing tenants onto the street and using smoke and mirrors to evade attempts to track them down. Beware of bedbugs, was the warning I received before going to visit my first property, as Ben Reeve-Lewis described his approach to my induction as the ‘sheep dipping method’. Throw me in at the deep end and get me learning on the job.

This has been enormously refreshing, as after 4 years of studying law at University, I wanted to get out of the books and into the world to see how the law really applies. However, I can’t say I wasn’t a little nervous as the locksmith took his tools to the front door of the property. Funnily enough, breaking and entering was not a module on my reading list during my degree at Cambridge.

From the baffling to the just plain bad, the tactics adopted by landlords operating in the shadow private rented sector are remarkable to those of us who have always imagined landlord and tenant law to be routine affair. When shadowing a council officer, I met a landlord who tried to pass his licensing requirements by putting some AstroTurf on the living room floor and calling it a ‘Garden Room’. Though this may be laughable, the consequences of criminal behaviour by landlords on tenants is grave, with the ending of a private tenancy now the biggest single cause of homelessness, accounting for 27% of all households accepted as homeless in the last year . The behaviour of criminal landlords has a devastating impact not only on the individuals who are turfed out of their homes, but also for wider society, by contributing significantly to the growing homelessness crisis.

What has particularly affected me, during my first few weeks with Safer Renting has been just how easy it is to imagine myself in the position with my clients-often hard-working people, supporting families who are made to feel unsafe in their own homes by landlords pursuing them with unenforceable legal threats. I can’t imagine feeling more intimidated than if my landlord was entering my room without my consent, asserting legal rights that don’t exist, forcing me to look elsewhere for accommodation with no warning in the expensive London rental market.

Many of our clients will find their electricity and gas supply randomly cut off, their landlord refusing to provide a tenancy agreement, a perplexing chain of dubious agents responsible for their residence so that they can never be quite sure who they are dealing with .The specific dynamic of the tenant landlord relationship creates a real power imbalance, especially when the concept of ‘property ownership’ is institutionally embedded into society.

There are however a host of laws that rectify this imbalance, such as the Protection From Eviction Act 1977, The Housing Acts 2004 and 2016 that create the opportunity for a tenant to have their rent repaid to them where a landlord has committed an offence. The longstanding precedent of Street v Mountford establishes that you can be a tenant with rights, even if you have no written agreement, or an agreement that says otherwise. The problem is that tenants are often not aware of these rights, have no opportunity to access them or are just too intimidated to enforce them, meaning that rogue landlords routinely get away with shocking practice.

I am already gaining a sense of the immense challenge that the tackling of exploitative landlords in the London private rented market presents for local authorities. When council Licensing and Enforcement teams go out to prosecute landlords and bring them to task, the landlords often react by evicting their tenants. This means that tenants can potentially end up homeless because of their landlord’s failure to comply with the law. This creates a catch 22 for local authorities, when enforcement action they take to crack down on the problem can lead to more individuals at their door requiring temporary housing or homelessness assistance.

In my new role, I’ve already made a host of mistakes, including calling the landlords number instead of the tenant’s and launching into an introduction of our service to tackle rogue landlords. Memorably, in my third week, I realised halfway through a meeting at Westminster City Council that my shirt had been inside out for the whole morning. I am getting to grips with irritatingly complex statues and the fiddly business of determining when a s.21 no fault eviction notice is and isn’t valid. My internship has involved, traipsing around streets knocking on doors at six o’clock in the morning, attending landlord forums that have become heated and taking criminal witness statements. Worlds away from the closeted walls of a Cambridge library I’m beginning to see the vast chasm between the law in a textbook and the law on the ground, where barriers to justice such as a lack of resources mean that a wronged party can often be left with no remedy.

In these first weeks of my extraordinary internship, I have experienced a number of firsts. Some have been exciting like writing my first advice letter and signing it off with my name. Some have been humbling, like having to walk away from a frightened family living in one room, like talking over the phone to a tenant who asked me to estimate how long it would be before bailiffs would come to evict him.

People through no fault of their own can fall victim to unscrupulous landlords for whom money is the bottom line, no matter who has to suffer in the process. However, working with the team at Safer Renting has given me hope that rogue landlords are not going to get away with it forever.

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