When addressing complaints of poor property conditions and exploited renters, voices active in the landlord community will often point to the English Housing Survey, which maps trends and experiences in housing world and will in particular, point to the oft quoted figure, that 84% of renters when questioned, say they are happy with their landlord and their letting.
When I tell people what we do at Safer Renting, people nod and say “Ah, so you work with the 16% of people who aren’t happy”. To which I always reply “No. We work with the untold number of people that the English Housing Survey doesn’t talk to and go into the homes where these unfortunate people are forced to live.
To date, such people have been largely ignored by statisticians and researchers but their lives and the conditions in which they live are well known to environmental health officers, planning enforcement officers, tenancy relations officers and anyone who goes into their properties on a daily basis.
Trouble is, for the most part these officers aren’t charged with gathering academic data and writing reports ,being just another day at the coalface as it were, although several individuals do manage to get their observations out there from time to time.
Safer Renting, using funding from Trust for London, have spent the past 2 years gathering as much data as we can, to inform our report “Journeys in the shadow private rented sector”, written about in last week’s Observer newspaper and to be officially launched on the 2nd Sept.
The academic rigour of the report has been overseen by Dr Julie Rugg of York University and we have been busy interviewing renters, housing enforcement officers, representatives of the lettings industry, solicitors and MPs, to provide a full picture of what life is like at the bottom end of renting.
Giving voice to the residents and their various advocates, identifying common scams used by criminal landlords and letting agents to exploit the unwary. Something nobody has so far done.
As a senior and very experienced academic, Julie is, as you would imagine, very hot on data and stats. In addition to the wealth of interviews conducted we have also been delving deeply into other people’s research but have found such information very thin on the ground when trying to map criminality, for the very reason that so often this world is unmapped.
Nobody is counting.
At a recent zoom meeting with MHCLG, Julie said something off the cuff but which summed up exactly what the problem is:-
“If you don’t count something, it gives the impression that it doesn’t count”.
As fine a motto for a badge or T shirt as I’ve heard.
Illegal evictions are one such problem.
They go on all the time. Safer Renting’s database reveals that our team have dealt with 154 illegal evictions in 15 months, in just 5 London boroughs for that period, although we now provide TRO services for 7, having added another 2 just recently.
There are 32 London boroughs in total, which suggests that across London alone, during that same period, there may well have been around 985 illegal evictions. Factor in Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool etc, plus larger towns such as Bournemouth or Watford and you can easily see the size of just the illegal eviction problem and bear in mind that in many illegal evictions the perpetrators steal the renter’s possessions, which often include passports and documentation needed for work and claiming benefits and yet there is virtually nothing in the way of a centralised database monitoring what is going on.
Consulting H-Clic, which is the system used to collate homelessness figures, reveals 900+ cases of statutory homelessness acceptances off the back of illegal evictions nationally, among well over 300 local authorities, which doesn’t match up with the London figures alone that we have been working with.
Also bear in mind that H-Clic merely records accepted cases but many victims of illegal eviction wouldn’t be owed a full housing duty in a homelessness application anyway, so wouldn’t show up on the system in that way.
Last Tuesday Safer Renting attended a property with 7 people under threat of illegal eviction, living in a converted garage, who would get very little in the way of statutory help from a homelessness unit, so wouldn’t show up.
Homelessness units also do a wealth of other work around illegal evictions, such as negotiating with a landlord to get them to back off or clearing rent arrears to avert a lock change but such work isn’t included in the homelessness acceptance figures.
In search of big data for our report we contacted the Ministry of Justice to obtain numbers of landlords who have been prosecuted for illegal eviction but they don’t keep such records.
Similarly we approached the Police to get information about officers being called to illegal evictions but again, they don’t keep any records of these incidents.
This is just illegal eviction we are looking at here. We aren’t even looking at harassment, trespass to goods, how many times a landlord or agent disconnects a renter’s utilities, refuses to give tenancy agreements or receipts for rent; basically the whole panoply of criminal landlord and agent activities which often go on all at the same time with the same letting.
Victims of criminal landlords rarely experience just one type of breach to their rights. We have a saying in Safer Renting “If they are doing one thing, they are doing everything” and this view is brought about by what we see on a daily basis.
Criminal landlord activity is often deliberate, systematic, organized and calculated from the outset. People hiding their income from HMRC have no compunction about also charging rent inclusive of bills whilst using stolen electricity meters or cramming four people into one bedroom with no fire precautions.
For them, the rental business is a simple equation of how much cash income you can squeeze out of one property with minimal outlay and how to get rid of people and evidence if anyone from officialdom comes knocking.
But nobody is counting…………….because when it comes to our system of governance, these renters don’t count.
By Ben Reeve Lewis