I wrote recently about how the notion of the rogue landlord needs updating to reflect the criminal element infesting the market looking for a fast buck, in response to the growing housing crisis and out of control rent levels.
For a start, letting agents need to be added to the term as a matter of routine.
In the experience of Safer Renting, letting via a letting agency often increases a tenant’s vulnerability to sharp practice and illegality. These practices, at the most extreme, include outright fraud where individuals pose as online letting agents, post fake property details and secure up-front payments from the tenant with no intention of arranging a letting.
When putting together Safer Renting’s report, “Journeys in the shadow private rented sector” due for its official launch on the 2nd Sept we pondered long and hard about the difference between the terms rogue and criminal and what we might mean when referring to their activities.
We had numerous discussions among the team and with stakeholders that we interviewed for the report about the behaviours commonly observed and how to create a useful and accurate profile that explained different types.
Our report identifies the following types and their motivations. These edited extracts from the report itself.
Wilful ignorance of the law Roughly 17 per cent of landlords were small-scale, 1-2 property landlords who tended not to use managing agents. Research has suggested that knowledge of the law can be low amongst ‘sideline’ landlords, but in these cases it was clear that landlords and agents had no intention of acting within legal frameworks and so tended to operate largely informally without tenancy agreements and were happy to let property in poor condition. One outer London enforcement officer commented:
“They don’t see themselves as criminals. What they see themselves as are entrepreneurs and business people and they don’t recognise any standards that apply to them and I think they see other people doing it and they think “if other people are doing it, why can’t I do it?” And then when they get caught, they come up with all sorts of excuses: “Oh, I didn’t realise my property needed an HMO licence”.
Around 25 per cent of the landlord sample had larger portfolios and was routinely breaching regulations across a number of fronts:
However, these landlords were factoring into their business model the possibility that they might occasionally be caught and fined. It is notable that this group also included letting agents, operating ‘rent-to-rent’ schemes, who – in the view of one Enforcement Officer – “Saw fines relating to ‘licensing or even mandatory licensing as an occupational hazard”.
This group also relied on the probability that tenants would not pursue action against the landlord. Tenants may not understand their rights, and often the prospect of retention of an illegally held cash deposit could act as a deterrent.
This group, which comprised 36 per cent of the sample, approached their letting using a deliberately exploitative model which relied on obfuscation and false identity to evade prosecution.
Operators with this profile are more likely to use more complex portfolio management models including rent-to-rent scams, the ‘London lockdown’ model of high-density one-person studios and to regularly ‘phoenix’ their property companies to evade capture. Scammers often target students and other economic migrants. Again, this group tended to have a more extensive portfolio than either of the first two groups.
One enforcement officer interviewed on the subject said:-
“Some landlords and agents are setting up complex ownership arrangements so that they’re hard to track down. I don’t know how much of it is deliberate and how much is casual but I certainly have clients where their landlord is called “Mike” and they’ve got a mobile number and then the landlord signs the tenancy saying that their name is “Tom”. You know that you’ll never get anything enforced against them.”
Twenty per cent of the sample fell into the category of prolific offenders, who made no attempt to conceal their offenses or their identity. Individuals in this group could be confident about their ability to challenge any court case and tended to carry on regardless. Often their behaviour could be unpleasant and threatening and range across a number of regulatory infractions and illegal behaviours, the least of which might be not lodging deposits with a government scheme.
This group of landlords and agents routinely rule by fear and intimidation and harvest the most vulnerable of renters. People with drink, drug or mental health issues, migrant workers, people with limited to no spoken English.
Their methods are systematic and organised, the intention from the outset is to maximise income with minimal outgoings, including the avoidance of expenses related to fire safety or regulations on overcrowding.
They are often the boldest group when approached by authorities and display an air of disinterest in whether their lies are challenged or accepted.
An estimated three per cent of the sample was individuals who were probably involved in more complex organised crime which went beyond housing offenses and might include trafficking, running cannabis farms and large-scale financial fraud.
This proportion is considered to be an under-estimate.
The landlords and agents in this sample of cases have been identified as a consequence of licensing and enforcement breaches. It is likely that where residential letting is linked to serious crime then landlords and agents will be more ruthless in their methods for avoiding detection, and slip more effectively under the radar.
Tenants trapped in these circumstances may well be moved on by the landlord to frustrate possible enforcement action. Further, local authorities are not in a position to investigate serious crime connected to housing offences. The stakeholders who were interviewed for this report were generally agreed that slavery and trafficking does exist within the PRS. Some types of ‘tied’ accommodation clearly pushed at the boundaries of slavery definition.
One law centre worker said:-
“It’s very widespread […] It’s obviously the issues like the ‘Right to Rent’ and their fears of their immigration status being uncovered and the fact that our government doesn’t treat victims of human trafficking with great sympathy. But as illegal [migrants], many people are afraid to come forward and go into a law clinic and complain about housing conditions. So I suspect there are a lot of people completely under the radar living in abominable conditions”
So there you have it. A nuanced description of today’s criminal landlord and letting agent, going beyond the standard term “Rogue landlord”.
These definitions were created from not only the experience of the Safer Renting team but also the experiences and expressed views of others working in frontline housing advocacy and enforcement.
Hopefully you will recognise these types but just as hopefully, not from your own personal experience.
By Ben Reeve Lewis