At the end of March 2020, government issued its document “Coronavirus, guidance for landlords and tenants” An unsurprisingly hastily put together set of ideas, alongside all of the other hastily compiled documents for similar fields that were meant to cover all aspects of British life during the pandemic.
Its not a brilliant piece of work but that is to be expected given the speed at which the virus expanded and affected everyone. Had government had more time, they would perhaps have been able to compile more specific guidelines on not flying to your Greek Villa for a holiday, not travelling to your second home when you are a senior health adviser and how not to drive to Barnard Castle to have your eyes tested but there you go. It is what it is.
The main thrust of the guidelines is for landlords and tenants to be reasonable with each other when dealing with situations such as entry to people’s homes and rent arrears, encouraging the two sides to talk and try to muddle through.
I’m sure many will be able to attest that there has been reasonable give and take but in the Shadow Private Rented Sector where Safer Renting spend their days rogue landlords are daily showing no signs that they are paying any more attention to government guidance than Dominic Cummings or Boris Johnson’s dad.
Illegal eviction and forced entry are still pretty much de rigeur as in normal times and there is evidence from our data and numerous discussions with other housing enforcement types, that illegal eviction has significantly increased since Lockdown and the reasons for it being Covid related, centering on an ability to meet the rent because of loss of income, met with a zero tolerance attitude.
Some people say to me that they think they stay on evictions is driving people into illegal eviction but I’m not entirely convinced, not just yet anyway.
Criminal landlords operating at the bottom end of renting generally don’t go anywhere near a court at the best of times. Its not even that they cant be bothered. Court proceedings don’t exist in their business model, where everything is summary and King Herod style.
What does concern me are the 2 cases we’ve dealt with in the past week where the landlords have been trying to force the tenants from the property in order to make a quick sale and hit the temporary relief on stamp duty, which requires completion by the end of March 2021.
One particular specimen that our case worker Sarah managed to talk out of an illegal eviction on Thursday night, bemoaning his lot for half an hour, in a tirade where he protested that the tenant, a pregnant single mum with a 4 years old, was ”Making life hard” because she wouldn’t just move out, where he needs to sell.
The other case involved a landlord from regionally locked down Leicester no less, who has been travelling down to London, insisting that his tenant allow access for viewings and decorating, something that given fears of infection, he is unhappy with and in direct contravention of government guidelines urging remote viewings but then if people in government don’t think the Covid guidance applies to them, why should a rogue landlord?.
To my mind, which is rapidly retuning itself to think like a criminal landlord when predicting trends, the stamp duty window might just escalate to a prime driver for illegal evictions, for landlords who were mulling over the possibility of selling anyway.
I hope I’m wrong but that’s what I shall be keeping personal tabs on during the coming months.
Will the extended stay on evictions and the time it takes to clear through the backlog post 24th August push some borderline landlords over the edge, into taking a risk on getting away with a crafty illegal eviction? Possibly but I’ve yet to see a convincing sign of it but then as I say above, the stamp duty relief might just be the fairy dust that makes the risk a more attractive prospect. We shall see.
In terms of reasonable responses to tenants in rent arrears due to loss of income, the guidance notes say “An early conversation between landlord and tenant can help both parties to agree a plan if tenants are struggling to pay their rent.”
A reasonable enough suggestion which is, as usual completely disregarded by criminal landlords and agents, whose normally very swift response is to change the locks.
Most of the illegal evictions we have been dealing with since March have been driven tenants losing income and making the mistake of trying to appeal to their landlord’s reasonable sides and not just for Safer Renting clients.
I read with interest this week of the story of a group of tenants at Somerford Grove in Hackney who approached their landlord under the government guidelines, asking for a rent reduction of 20% during these difficult times.
The first response was to agree but only for 2 months after which they would have to start paying the difference with 20% interest.
When the tenants began to campaign and make this calumny more widely known, the landlord’s solicitors threatened them with a £20,000 lawsuit. The landlord in question being a billionaire with a public interest in philanthropy, particularly homelessness.
A man whose immense bank account is not matched by his sense of irony.
It is becoming clear that trying to protect tenants and avert a looming homelessness spike, is not best achieved by simply urging landlords to be reasonable.
Of course there are the fall back powers of the Protection from Eviction Act but as I wrote in a recent piece, it’s a bit of a leaky ship, when so few councils have TROs anymore, the police don’t regard it as a criminal offence and the criminal judiciary view it as a lesser crime than downloading the latest Stormzy album without paying for it.
This gap needs to be plugged and not just in relation to punishments. Its about prevention. Councils need TROs, the police, whilst not being duty bound to prosecute under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 still have powers to arrest anyone they suspect of committing a criminal offence and both arrest and prosecute people for forcing entry, which is a necessary component in all illegal evictions.
Illegal evictions are going to become more numerous as the months go on and the victims of them will often end up being rehoused by an already overstretched homelessness unit at vast public expense if there aren’t enough people working to stop the evictions and get people back into their homes quickly.
 S24 Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984
 S6 Criminal Law Act 1977
By Ben Reeve Lewis