One of the biggest frustrations Safer Renting faces on a daily basis, is explaining the ways that criminals exploit the private rented sector to anyone not familiar with it, when so much of what goes on seems to fly in the face of logic.
Why would you let your investment property deteriorate to such an extent, that the council has to close it down?
Why would you evict someone who was paying their rent on time?
I have the same energy sapping conversations regularity with various people on the landlord/agent side of the business on Linkedin, Twitter or just conferences I attend.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that last year I appeared on BBC2’s Victoria Derbyshire programme, when the shooting director asked me if I could not repeatedly use the term “Criminal landlord”, because their viewers would have a problem equating landlords with criminals.
Each time I have to breathe in slowly and explain patiently, that criminals operate with a different business model in mind, that seems unfeasible if you operate in a conventional way
Anyone in housing enforcement understands how it works, because we spend all day, every day, nosing around in it, but if you watch programmes like BBC1’s “Homes under the Hammer” (coincidentally on in the background as I write this) you could easily be forgiven for presuming that its all just husbands and wives, fathers and sons, mates from work, clubbing together to buy properties, do them up and make an alternative pension investment.
A couple of times I have seen people known to me on the programme but I have no doubt the vast majority are just normal and law abiding.
First thing to understand is that for the criminal element, its all about cash in hand. This is what drives so much of it and why so many of those unfortunate enough to have to live under them, are working poor rather than those on benefits.
Benefits means paperwork and paperwork means a paper-trail that can lead the authorities to your door, particularly HMRC, which is to be avoided at all cost.
Bearing in mind that being a criminal landlord is only one aspect of broader criminal activity, which they also don’t want to attract attention to. Little things like people trafficking, gangmaster scams, property fraud, energy theft, tax evasion etc.
This is why when a renter who loses their job and asks the landlord to sign a form so they can claim benefits and meet the rent, often finds the response to be a swift illegal eviction. Its not so much about the rent as its about the “Cash” rent and anonymity.
For these same reasons many dodgy landlords try to avoid licensing. Its not so much the fee but not wanting authorities to know anything about their properties that might encourage nosiness.
This is also partly why courts are so often avoided when it comes to possession, although there are other factors.
Cost of gaining possession in the normal way. Whilst cash income is one angle, the obvious flip-side is minimum cash outlay, not to mention the time it takes. Time that is better spent where a different unlucky soul could be in the property paying cash in hand.
Why are they not scared of detection and prosecution for harassment and illegal eviction?
Fear and intimidation is one element. Many evicted renters are just too scared to take action against them, if they are aggressive enough. Also as we have seen a lot of the occupants of the shadow PRS are working poor and often migrants, whose low paid, zero hours jobs are procured through the same migrant communities as their home and to complain means you could lose your job as well.
Plus many thug landlords tell the renters that if they involve the authorities they could be deported.
Complete rubbish in most cases but this claim is often all it takes to intimidate them into staying quiet.
Whilst unannounced property raids are entirely necessary, one of the things I dislike about them is the look of genuine fear on some people’s faces, many of whom are refugees from the sorts of countries where a 7am visit by officials, backed up by police means you never get seen again.
We put a lot of effort into building relationships and assuring these people but that fear can be re-triggered easily by a landlord manipulating them.
We have also known landlords to tell families that if they complain to the council about them, then they will be evicted and the council will take their children into care.
Complete bollocks of course but its quite a primal fear to invoke.
In addition, these landlords know just how stripped to the bone housing enforcement services are in so many local authorities and the routine use of aliases create so many smoke and mirrors that identifying perpetrators is fraught with problems, when trying to enforce laws that are written from the perspective of people who actually care about breaking them, a massive weakness in the way legislation is created.
I suggest employing criminals to work with lawyers to draft laws if you want something that works…..but I digress.
Then there is the big issue that many conventional landlords struggle with, why would a property owner let the condition of their property deteriorate?
One reason is costs again. Sure it’s a very narrow view of self interest but for many this is where their priorities lie. Any enforcement officer could show you untold numbers of photographs of properties who’s conditions defy logic.
Then there is the fact that many of the owners never visit and the properties are actually run into the ground by dodgy agents. You see this in areas of high value, like Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea, where the actual owners are so often offshore companies with massive portfolios, where its entirely possible they don’t even know what they own. Even at the lower end of the spectrum you can find the owner simply living abroad.
Then there are simply the landlords and agents who view the property as their personal fiefdom and cant bear anyone else exercising any legal rights. Their view being “Its my house” and nothing else counts.
The mindset that they are doing tenants a favour by letting them stay there and that any complaint means to unleash the hounds of hell, even if it actually works against them.
I was once involved in the closing down of a property where the landlord had ripped out the inside to renovate, leaving a woman and 3 kids occupying a room on the top floor with no bathroom or kitchen and cooking family meals on a 1 ring electric hob on the floor at the top of the stairs.
When she complained and withheld the rent, he stopped the works and left her for 9 months living in a building site. This property was featured in series 1 of Channel 5’s “Nightmare tenants, slum landlords”, where Lola and her family were seen living in squalor.
He wasn’t getting any rent, he refused to evict her, he refused to comply with council works notices.
He lost money, he was prosecuted, for no other reason than he couldnt bear to be told what he could and couldn’t do with his own property. He was also prosecuted by trading standards for selling alcohol to kids from his shop in another borough. No doubt he thought this was his entitlement as well.
That’s a broad sweep of how criminals operate, written out of annoyance at some recent clueless pronouncements from landlords on social media. If you want to read detailed research into the phenomenon of the criminal landlord mindset, you should read our report “Journeys in the shadow private rented sector” published in September.
In the meantime, look at it from the criminal perspective. A property and it’s occupants are cash cows, to be milked dry of every possible profit source and with minimal outlay and with no regard for safety or legislation
That’s it!…….those are the spectacles they wear. They don’t care about long term investment, they dance to a different tunes.
By Ben Reeve Lewis