by | Oct 5, 2020 | Safer Renting

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The conventional landlord community, including organisations like the NRLA, RLA, and ARLA have, for some time, been making sterling efforts to distance themselves from criminal landlord activity.

Stressing the difference between their responsible members from the kinds of criminals that bedevil the shadow private rented sector and who form the 24/7 of Safer Renting’s casework.

I have never said that the criminal fraternity account for more than a relatively small percentage of landlords and agents but what Safer Renting have always been at pains to point out, is that nobody knows what that percentage is and even if given the notion that it is in single figures, the chaos and misery they create far outstrips their potentially low numbers.

I’m well aware that in repeatedly speaking at a variety of conferences and events, tirelessly raising awareness of criminal activities in the PRS, that I come across as Chicken Little, constantly harping on about how the sky is falling.

Mr Doom and Gloom, when so many rentals are running smoothly and amicably but when you spend your life working in a niche market, you can be forgiven for thinking that this is all that is going on and even I, Mr Zero Tolerance, can grasp the notion that there is a difference between normal landlords and their criminal counterparts.

Which is why I am so flummoxed by stories and comments I am reading online, that given durations of 6 months on s21 notices, reactivation notices and the general procedural difficulties of obtaining a possession order through conventional and legal routes, that the landlord community normally at such pains to distance themselves from criminals and join in with a righteous condemnation of their actions, should be widely predicting an increase in illegal evictions in response.

Voices like Paul Shamplina from Landlord Action or David Smith, lawyer and former policy head of the RLA are making the same predictions as me but I’m Chicken Little remember? I expect this stuff and I am surprised that people more used to writing about how their client groups are as far removed from criminal landlords as a sea shanty is from Rammstein’s  “Du Hast”, should be making predictions that their people will have no alternative but to become criminals.

18 months ago the government report “English Private Landlord Survey”, revealed that 4 out of 5 PRS landlords see themselves primarily as investors.

The CAB commenting on this report pointed out:-

“Only 13% viewed their role as that of a residential landlord.”

If that is the case, then it is no wonder that industry insiders see landlords making a business investment decision to illegally evict their tenants as a financial expedient, even if it means breaking the law.

Look at it from their perspective, you buy a property as an alternative to a pension. Tenants run into arrears, you cant get possession in a lawful way. The only way to protect your investment is to circumvent the law and take your chances, that cash and resource strapped councils are likely not going to be able to prosecute you and given the parlous situation with magistrates penalties on breaches of the Protection from Eviction Act 1977, even if they do,  is likely to be a cost effective alternative to possession proceedings, what with Magistrates predilection for penalties of a few hundred pounds, as opposed to the unlimited fines and 2 year prison sentences available to them.

Its an investment risk, pure and simple, which is presumably why landlord’s own spokespeople are predicting that normal landlords will be willing to jump the fence and become criminals at a moment’s notice, albeit it with an embarrassed look over their shoulder that their criminal counterparts don’t bother themselves with.

Is it inevitable that Timothy and Letitia, simply guarding their pension, will become criminals? I was reading recently about a pandemic that afflicted Athens in 430BC, where Philosopher Thucydides commented on the thin veneer that constitutes the social fabric:-

“The catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law.”

If Thucydides was right, then the predictions of landlord industry insiders will likely be correct and illegal evictions will go through the roof as Chicken Little here is already predicting.

If this happens then what will dissolve is the landlord industry argument that they are housing providers, concerned about their tenants and not just investors focussing on the bottom line.

Despite how cynical this might read, I don’t blame landlords, anymore than blaming people buying flats in tower blocks before Grenfell. They bought into a social promise that in buying properties to rent out it was a sound and responsible thing to do, the same way that council tenants bought their properties 25 years ago, not to deprive a younger generation of properties but just because this was what they were encouraged to do at the time, as a grown up way to protect their futures and those of their children.

Who wouldn’t?

But the basic and fundamental inequities of the rental business, as with so many other forms of human endeavour, like the gig economy, have been thrown into stark relief by the pandemic.

A landlord can only maintain their investment if their tenant pays them and if their tenant has no means to pay, then the whole thin edifice collapses. Faced with a choice between feeding and clothing children and paying rent to prop up someone else’s pension, where will a renter’s priorities lie? Also faced with losing their investment and future if their tenant cant pay, what way will a landlord fall?

The houses wont disappear of course. Landlords are not and have never been, housing providers. They just bought properties that were there already and turned them into investments, creating a market excluding others who might have had access to them in other ways.

Six months ago, everyone was shrugging their shoulders at the pandemic and lockdown, sensing that if we could just get through a  few annoying months, bolstered by the novelty of home working and the prospect of binge watching Netflix,  we could all get back to business as usual but this is not proving to be the case. This is real now, mass unemployment, the disappearance of well known brands and employers with no reliable end in sight, is creating something else and in housing world, which is where I operate, all eyes are on the PRS, its landlords and inbuilt fragility of the rental market that was always there.

Will the words of Thucydides come back to haunt us? I’ve said so for a while but now I’m being joined by industry insiders. I sense they will qualify this with “What do you expect?” and I echo those words, albeit from a more ironic perspective..

  by Ben Reeve Lewis

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About Cambridge House Safer Renting

The Cambridge House Safer Renting team present the ‘go-to’ blog on the world of the Shadow Private Rented Sector.

We monitor the world of rogue landlord and agent activity, publicise developments, circulate innovative ideas, keep readers abreast of changes in laws and regulations, raising awareness of criminal trends and scams, celebrate successful actions and interview people working in the field, connecting up anyone involved, from tenants and their advisers, to enforcement officers, lawyers and journalists.

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