I came to Safer Renting from a university background. The prospect of being a trainee TRO wasn’t something I had even thought of but I wanted to something that made a difference.
There aren’t any training courses for this. There’s no way into doing this work other than to jump in and learn on the job.
About a week into starting, my phone rang. I picked up, not realising that this phone call would lead to an all-hands-on-deck mission for several members of my team, countless people at the council and several members of the police force.
The man on the other line explained to me that he had no gas or electricity because they had been cut off by his landlord. He went on to account multiple times he had been threatened with illegal eviction and explained how he had been targeted by the landlord for months in an attempt to silence him after he raised concerns about the rats, the mould and the hole in the wall of his room. In what I’ve come to learn is a common narrative, he had been punished for complaining.
Soon after this call, he and his housemates (one of whom is in his seventies) were illegally evicted twice in a week. Twice? Yes, twice:
Climbing in with a neighbour’s ladder the first time, and then climbing in again the next night ‑ only to find the door couldn’t be opened from the inside now either. And they did all this to enter a house that still didn’t have gas or electricity.
Thankfully, due to the hard work of members of the council and police, the tenants are now restored to the house and have their utilities working again. But can you imagine the stress of living in a house which could at any moment be entered by a landlord who has been intentionally violating your sense of wellbeing, or, in short, your legal rights?
I know I can’t. My first thought when reflecting on this saga was just: how can anyone stand this?
This is an interesting one, as I found myself quickly realising that this is the same kind of question that has been exposed as problematic in cases of domestic abuse: people asking victims “why do you stay?”
The answer, of course, is that when a crime destabilises an integral part of your life, it’s never that simple. In saying this, I am not intending to conflate domestic abuse and criminal landlord behaviour.
I more intend to illustrate what I have come to realise – that harassment by a landlord is an all-consuming crime, creating a level of insecurity that can make action impossible due to fear and stress. To compound this, pre-existing vulnerabilities can be targeted by rogue landlords: low income, inexperience of renting, unstable immigration status.
Having said this, there is no one thing that makes someone vulnerable to criminal landlord behaviour. In fact, the people I have worked with are so diverse they might be categorised under the group ‘normal people’.
The man I referred to above is a bus driver, a person who might now be referred to as a ‘key worker’. Other clients I have had have include carers, shop-owners, students, builders and teachers. In short, these are people whose common trait is that they have, through no fault of their own, simply had the misfortune of being abused: abused not only by individual criminal landlords, but in many ways systematically abused by housing policies that leave cracks wide open for fraudulent behaviour. As my manager Ben Reeve-Lewis likes to point out: landlords don’t become criminals, criminals are attracted to being landlords because there are loopholes to exploit. Just to emphatically repeat the point, this means that anybody could potentially be a victim of a criminal landlord, because they are everywhere.
As such, in many ways I like to think of my new job as a sort of anti-decorating job, unpeeling the manicured façade of legality surrounding houses built on illegality. Finding a criminal landlord or letting agent feels like putting on glasses and realising that a brick wall is actually just that novelty wallpaper made to look like exposed brick. My glasses are getting better and better but recognising criminality is only the first step.
Within my month and a half, I’ve already had my fair share of disappointments and I already feel hardened to a reality whereby my desire for justice constantly comes up against what’s possible within the current legislative framework. In my first week, I had to tell a man who had been sleeping in his car for months that there was nothing we could do for him because he was a lodger. I think it will take me a while to forget the feeling I had when I realised that what I thought was his laughter was intense sobbing.
Today, the team found out that there are currently no sentencing guidelines for illegal eviction, exposing a wide gap between the intensity of the crime and the way it is dealt with. What we need is an urgent call to arms for treating illegal eviction as the violating crime that it is so that criminals are not attracted to dressing up as landlords and putting so many people at risk in the process.
By Alice Devoy
back to the Safer Renting Blog.