Wednesday 2nd Feb marks 32 years since an less cynical 27 year old, fresh out of a failed career as a Bass Guitarist signed up to be the Tenancy Relations Officer for the London Borough of Lewisham.
Every time this anniversary comes around I ponder on what has changed in rogue landlord world since the quaint old days of one man and his baseball bat, that formed my daily lot back in 1990 to the kind of mind bending nonsense I was dealing with yesterday for Safer Renting, which perfectly illustrates how the modern market operates and how really, today’s TRO needs not only a good knowledge of housing law but also a qualification in fraud detection, as well as a quality that after all this time I cant tell is either extreme patience or just a grim determination to get the bastards.
When I post the odd story on Twitter many commentators offer up “But what about the police?”….”Surely this is illegal?”…..”Cant the council do something?”….well….read on.
This is an ongoing case so names have been changed to protect….well….me!
First in our cast of characters is property owners Prince Properties who play little part in this daft drama and who sign over management responsibility to Chase Investments Ltd who further devolve some form of unknown responsibility to Chase Rooms Ltd.
OpenCorporates, my usual go-to website tells me that Chase Investments Ltd are registered in Pakistan. Chase Rooms Ltd is British registered, so I can see the names of the directors but I cant cross reference that with the directors of Chase Investments because OpenCorporates doesn’t reveal the names, although it seems reasonable to presume, given the similar business names, that they are connected, even though I cant prove it on paper yet.
Enter Harry stage left. He finds a room in an HMO on Spareroom (You can see it unravelling already cant you?) He gets given a tenancy agreement by Chase Rooms. Interestingly although their name is on the agreement it doesn’t say whether they are landlord or agent but Harry paid his rent into their account.
All goes fine for Harry for the first few months, until he discovers that his property has been identified as an unlicensed, mandatory HMO. Due to extreme denial by all involved the council takes over management control in July 2021 under an Interim Management Order, used in this case, where a property doesn’t have a licence and there is no realistic prospect of it getting one in the near future, so for a while there, the council are Harry’s landlord and he pays rent to them.
Someone in the chain of responsibility goes to work on Harry’s 4 housemates and they all leave, whether by fair means or foul we don’t know as they didn’t approach us for help.
With just Harry left in situ the property is no longer a mandatory HMO, so the council revokes the IMO and notifies Prince Properties, Chase Investments, who hold the selective licence and Chase Rooms.
You still with me?
Chase Rooms tell Harry that they are no longer involved with the property and have handed it over to Valued Properties, so he doesn’t know who to now pay his rent to.
Now Joseph enters the picture, who in a brief conversation with Harry explaining he is from Valued Properties, promptly changes the locks to Harry’s room and the front door while he is out of work. Joseph also takes Harry’s meagre possessions and places them in storage at Yellow Box. When Harry calls Joseph he tells him that he has already let the property to a single family but by coincidence, an unannounced visit by the environmental health officer reveals no sign of occupation whatsoever.
Harry is single, mid 30s, not eligible for emergency temporary accommodation and sleeps in his front garden for 2 nights before the council refer him to Safer Renting.
We search for Valued Properties but they don’t exist and we only have the name Joseph to go on. We call Chase Rooms Ltd who say they handed the property to Joseph and know no more than we do (yeah right!), so we call in our locksmith, trusty old Richard who changes the locks and gets Harry back in.
Our caseworker Kaush calls Joseph and tells him what we have done. He aint pleased but then he aint supposed to be. Harry calls later that evening and says another Locksmith turned up to change the locks back but ran off when Harry opened the door.
We don’t normally change the lock to the front door of an HMO because you cant exclude the landlord from the common parts but in this case we took the view that the illegal eviction was by person’s unknown and in such cases we contact the landlord and tell them that we have had to change the locks to protect the tenant and we have a copy of the keys for them if they want to attend our office and collect them, where we will of course read them the riot Act.
The problem is, who now is the landlord?
We don’t know if Chase Rooms were ever the landlord or agent on the contract because it didn’t say. Although Harry was certainly paying rent to them until the IMO this doesn’t automatically make them the landlord and with the revocation of the IMO who is going to be stepping forward to fess up?
Now s3 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 tells us that where a landlord assigns their interest to a new landlord, that new landlord has to notify the tenants in writing of their name and address. This didn’t happen. Chase Rooms just told Harry it was now over to Valued Properties and Joseph reared his ugly head with no official notification whatsoever.
The interesting bit of s3 is that where the new landlord does not officially notify the tenant, any breaches can be pursued against the old landlord which could be Chase rooms IF they are or were the landlord but if they were merely the agents, s3 wouldn’t apply.
To get out of the spotlight Chase Rooms could say they were only managing the property, in which event we would have to see the business contract between Chase Rooms, Chase Investments and Prince Properties in order track down the landlord for our purposes and nobody is going to just offer up that information.
We can apply for a Norwich Pharmacal Order to serve on Yellow Box storage to reveal the details of the account holder, which is likely to be Joseph. NPOs are used to get information from third parties where that party is not subject to investigation but they have info needed for the investigation.
The council can serve notices on all owner/landlords/agents under the Housing Act 2004 and the Local Government Act requiring pretty much any information connected with the property, including the business management contracts but the recipients have a certain amount of time to respond and we are concerned what is going to happen to Harry in the coming week.
All the old players are looking away and saying “Nothing to do with us” and the main threat to Harry’s security and peace of mind is an individual whose identity we don’t know and a mobile number with which to contact him that he is no longer answering.
It isn’t over by a long way. Both Safer Renting and the council have more detection work to do but while all this is going on Harry is living on tenterhooks and concerned that if he goes out the locks will be changed again.
A classic case of a bunch of crooks hiding behind bewildering chains of management responsibility, deliberately creating confusion to evade detection and avoid sanction. An Injunction is a possibility to protect Harry but who from? We don’t even know if Joseph is really his name, although a Norwich Pharmacal Order might just nail that one for us.
Routine TRO work 2022 style.
POST SCRIPT: Kaush just called me 9:30am Saturday Morning. Joseph has been to the property and changed the locks yet again. Harry now street homeless for second time this week
By Ben Reeve Lewis