I’ll be honest. When Lockdown was announced and Safer Renting’s mothership Cambridge House shut the front doors, I looked to my immediate future and predicted a fair bit of Netflix, or even improving my guitar playing but nothing could be further from the truth.
While my travel agent wife, obviously stripped of income for now, has been beavering away turning our 60 foot patch of South London grass into the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, I’ve never been busier dealing with harassment and illegal eviction cases.
Safer Renting keeps data on a range of issues, age, ethnic groups affected, specific scams, trends, even Covid related issues and our data reveals that we have dealt with 151 illegal evictions in 14 months and have seen a 42% increase in illegal evictions during lockdown, on what we were seeing this time last year.
Clear evidence that the landlords and increasingly the letting agents in rogue world, are completely ignoring government guidelines to be reasonable in dealing with their tenants in these difficult times and in the process, turning the title of the truly deplorable poverty porn TV Series “Cant pay, we’ll take it away” into an industry motto.
This doesn’t seem to be in any way isolated either.
During the 4 years we’ve been operational, we’ve accrued 6 partner local authorities for whom we provide a non-profit, ‘buy-in’ TRO service. We are about to add Newham to the list on Monday and are in talks with 4 other local authorities who have approached us, in the past few weeks, similarly seeing a rise in reported cases of harassment and illegal eviction.
It sounds an odd thing to say but things are getting so bad in rogue landlord world, that we are having to take on extra staff to cope. Not something that would normally cause a new start up to complain about.
I’ve been in the TRO game since 1990 and noticed a sea change around 10 years ago, when London rents began to rise wildly and the money to be made started to attract organized criminal activity.
Attending a London Trading Standards Conference in 2018 The head of one local authority team told the assembled throng that they had conducted a head count of letting agents in their borough in 2014 and identified 48. Conducting the same head count just three years later revealed over 280.
That’s the extent to which the rogue PRS is expanding.
Unfortunately, it was exactly during this time that local authorities had to make the biggest cuts for decades due to austerity policies and in front line housing services, it was often the TRO posts that were axed, because council’s aren’t under a duty to prosecute breaches of the Protection from Eviction Act, they just have the power to and those powers were viewed by many local authorities as luxuries they couldn’t afford when trimming the wages bill.
Myself and colleague Roz Spencer were caught up in these cuts but we knew that TRO services are part of the whole housing enforcement picture and you cant go around identifying overcrowded, unlicensed HMOs and taking enforcement action, without having TROs to stop the harassment and illegal evictions that inevitably result.
I also noticed as a trainer going around the various council’s in England, that I was increasingly being asked to deliver TRO skills courses to a polite but reluctant bunch of EHOs, homelessness case workers and admin staff who were being expected to add being a TRO to their other duties and usually without much enthusiasm for what is not only a legally complex job but also one of the most confrontational and intimidating in frontline services, involving as it does, dealing with some aggressive and often violent individuals most days.
Roz and I were genuinely concerned that if the role of TRO disappeared from the housing enforcement landscape, rogue landlords would find it even easier to proliferate and again with my training hat on, I couldn’t help noticing that many of the standard courses I had been delivering for 20 years were disappearing from the lists of organisations like the CIH and Shelter.
Cuts in housing advice style jobs means no demand for the training courses and the loss of the skills and knowledge from the industry means it can disappear for good.
In order to keep the embers glowing, Safer Renting embarked on a paid graduate intern programme, bringing in young, committed people to learn the ropes.
We currently have 5 and are shortly to recruit more. Ideally they would be trained in housing law from the outset but as I say, those training courses have generally dropped out of training providers syllabus and I’m the only person being called in to deliver them.
So our interns often find they are being dumped right in the deep end from day one. learning on the job with mentoring and support that gets progressively less hands-on as they find their feet.
Its been a joy watching them move from the dread of initiating that first phone call to a rogue landlord or agent, knowing its going to become heated and confrontational and seeing how their sense of moral outrage takes over as the weeks progress and their voices become more confident and determined.
As one of our newest recruits JB said to me the other day, with a mixture of disappointment, frustration, anger and determination, “When I started I thought its best to be reasonable and hear them out. Now I realise you cant be reasonable with these people and any attempts to be fair and give the benefit of the doubt, is taken as a sign of weakness”.
I have no doubts that JB will go far.
Its an odd thing though to be at once pleased and proud to see Safer Renting expanding whilst simultaneously shaking my head that an outfit like ours should even be needed, let alone growing.
As a professional photographer friend of mine, as denuded of work as my wife, said to me yesterday “Its alright for you mate. Harassment, illegal eviction and homelessness are virus proof jobs”.
How depressingly true is that?
By Ben Reeve-Lewis
By Ben Reeve Lewis