Safer Renting have had four and a half years now of monitoring trends and scams among the criminal landlord community in London and comparing notes with TROs, EHOs, Trading Standards officers, planning enforcement, licensing officers, solicitors etc.
Watching how these trends play out, the weaknesses in the legal systems they expose and the loopholes exploited have prompted us to come up with a list of recommendations that we are campaigning for over the coming year.
It’s doubtful they will get any mainstream news coverage, focused as they are mainly on minute changes in law rather than great popular appeal but these tweaks, if brought in, would have a massive impact on restricting the activities of criminal landlords that is out of all proportion to the size of the proposed changes.
Here is a quick run through and brief explanation.
1. Changing sentencing guidelines for Magistrates to ensure that the possibility of unlimited fines and 2 years in prison for harassment and illegal eviction set out in the Protection from Eviction Act prompts them to do more than issue paltry fines and community service, which a landlord facing prosecution can expect as a response from the criminal judiciary. Criminal penalties are way out of alignment with civil penalties
2. Extend the Safer Renting devised police training course on dealing with harassment and illegal eviction currently available to all officers in London, should be made a mandatory part of police training and extended to all constabularies in the UK, to prevent them from automatically siding with the landlord and in many cases, acting illegally themselves.
3. Making the property owner liable for breaches of HMO regs, overcrowding, lack of licensing etc. in too many cases enforcement of different kinds is all but impossible because of the criminals using aliases, and chains of fake companies to exploit loopholes in existing laws employed to evade detection and prosecution. Making the owner the back-stop will end these criminal practices overnight and encourage due diligence on the part of owners when picking who to manage their property.
4. Interim Management Orders, currently only available for unlicensed properties, to be extended to include cases of serious harassment and illegal eviction. IMOs allow the local authority to take over control of a property for 12 months and receive the rent.
5. Firm up the fit and proper person test. S64 of the Housing Act 2004 deems that a licence applications may be refused or a licence revoked if the person is not a “fit and proper person” to hold one. Schedule 2 of the Housing and Planning Act 2016 added being subjected to a banning order leading to a failure against the “fit and proper person” test, yet otherwise the test has no statutory definition. We argue that it should have a clear statutory definition and that a person who has committed an offence of illegal eviction be expressly excluded from qualifying as ‘fit and proper’ indefinitely.
6. A dedicated legal route for damages to be established for councils to be able to recoup any and ALL costs for having to process people under homelessness legislation where the reason for having had to do it is the result of the person having been illegally evicted. Why should the public purse be forced to pay for a landlord to ignore their responsibilities and commit a criminal offence?
7. Placing the burden of compensation payments where a council have been forced to shut down a property under a prohibition order on the landlord not the local authority. Even many enforcement officers are unaware of s39 of the Land Compensation Act 1973 that provides for the authority to make payments, starting at £6,400 when they have closed a building down because of dangerous conditions but why should the council have to pay for the landlord’s lack of repairs? Make the person responsible pay.
8. Extending the 4 year planning rule to 10, to bring it in line with prohibitions on change of use. Criminal landlords will typically argue that an unauthorised conversion or outbuilding has been in place for over 4 years in an attempt to thwart planning rules and hang onto multi-let properties. Detecting these conversions and outbuildings is one of the biggest challenges facing housing enforcement officers as so much of this goes on outside of plain sight and when discovered can often be out of time when it comes to ordering re-conversion or demolition.
9. Online property portals such as Spareroom and Gumtree to be made to carry warning stickers on adverts. Many renters who find themselves subject to fraud and exploitation, procured their accommodation from online sources who do little of real practical use to highlight abuses of their platforms. Work is underway to introduce regulation of online trading and advertising; the improvements we recommend may not be possible to mandate until that work is completed. Our recommended improvements could be the subject of ‘nudge’ measures in the meantime.
10. Improving access to justice for victims of criminal landlords. Provisions should be made for lay representatives to have rights of audience in routine housing cases, such as possession applications, where adjournments or suspensions are being sought awaiting qualified representation, tenancy deposit penalty applications and applications for injunctions in cases of harassment and illegal eviction. Legal aid is on it’s knees and so often the problem isn’t eligibility for legal aid in harassment and illegal eviction cases but sourcing a solicitor, leaving people with nobody to help them in court and many of the people worst affected by criminal landlord activity are from migrant communities who have a poor command of English or even no spoken English at all.
11. Extending Rent Repayment Orders to include planning breaches. Criminal landlords illegally convert properties into small units and build beds in sheds in order to overcrowd properties and maximise income. In the process dooming occupants to live in tiny and unsuitable accommodation . make this an offence for which they have to compensate the renters.
12. Extend the reasons a tenant can unwind a tenancy to include situations where the property is in poor state of repair, which isn’t always evident when signing up for a tenancy. Tenants may only unwind their tenancy if they can show that the Consumer Protection regulations have been breached. Extending these powers could allow renters to back out of a letting where it is discovered that the conditions are poor from the outset.
13. Amend s235 – s238 of the Housing Act 2004 to allow caseworkers performing the Tenancy Relations Officer Function to be an authorised person. S235 is an incredibly powerful investigation tool that provides for a designated officer to make demands for a wide variety of information relating to the letting of a residential property to everyone from owner, licence holder, managing agent and tenant which enables the investigating officer to clarify contractual arrangements and chains of responsibility connected to the renting of accommodation. At this point in time, only Environmental Health Officers are empowered by the legislation.
14. Establish local authority escrow bank accounts, into which rent can be paid where the landlord is failing on their repairing obligation. The money to be released only when the job is done. The one bit of direct power a renter has is their rent and yet this is the one thing they are never allowed to withhold, even if the landlord is not carrying out repairs. This would address that power imbalance. The money would be released from the account to the landlord once the repairs have been completed and signed off.
Some of these recommendation will be easier to achieve than others. Many precedents have already been set, where similar extensions and additions to legislation have been brought in. They wont all be popular, some of them wont even be popular with local authorities but we have looked closely at the gaps and loopholes that criminal landlords exploit at the moment and how to close them.
The more of them that are adopted, the less attractive being a criminal landlord will be. Being a criminal landlord is all about the money, so you need to choke off that source of income and make penalties too much of a deterrent to bother risking.