When housing law solutions dont work

by | Jul 12, 2020 | Safer Renting

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A conundrum for you.

I want to scotch the idea that dealing with landlord tenant disputes always has a clear, legal solution you can work towards. Often they are messy, frustrating affairs.

Safer Renting currently have just such a case that is stuck in a groove and going nowhere.

Margaret is 90. Mentally alert but largely blind.

She has been living in private rented property since January 1960 so is clearly a Protected Tenant with stronger rights than most, including having a registered rent, beyond which the landlord cannot go, so Margaret is renting in an area where the landlord could easily get around £1,500 per month or more, if he was able to rent the property out at a market rent to an assured shorthold tenant.

The current landlord, there have several in the past 60 years, has been served with improvement notices by the local authority, amounting to around 15 different repairing obligations.

He isn’t refusing to do the work but says that in order to do them, Margaret will have to move out. We have reminded him of her protected status and argued that if she were to move out it would purely be on a temporary basis, after which she would be able to move back in.

The EHO who served the notices is of the opinion that the works can be done with Margaret in occupation and the landlord working around her, room by room. Not ideal but minimizing disruption and avoiding what we suspect, that if Margaret does move out, she wont get back in again.

Something we have seen many, many times. The old “Its only temporary” trick, where the property gets re-let at a higher rent, leaving the homelessness unit to mop up. You wont get an injunction for re-entry where the property has been re-let[1] but you could prosecute for illegal eviction, if the local authority has the resources and the evicted tenant could take a civil claim, if they can source a legal aid solicitor.

Chances of either? Very slim, so it’s a calculated ploy that often pays off for the landlord.

If the local authority tries to enforce for non-compliance, his defence will be that he wants to do the works and the court would have to then consider complex logistical arguments about whether or not Margaret does indeed have to temporarily relocate to facilitate the works.

It could go either way and in any event, wouldn’t be quick, given court and tribunal closures and the backlogs they have to get through post August 2020.

Seeing  a protracted legal battle ahead and aware of Margaret’s age and frailties, we suggested cutting to the chase and getting sheltered accommodation for her as a matter of urgency. Why put her through the stress of protracted legal arguments? But then we hit the next problem.

Margaret is partially sighted and she is adamant that she doesn’t want to relocate, temporarily or otherwise, because even with limited sight she can navigate around her flat through the familiarity of 60 years in occupation.

Despite the poor conditions she feels safe and can live independently for what years remain to her, so who is going to argue with that?

Where the local authority are going with the improvement notice angle is not known at the moment. The EHO is scratching her head over the same issues, given the landlord isn’t refusing to do the works as such.

We discussed whether works in default might be a way forward, where the council do the improvements and bill the landlord, chucking in an admin fee into the bargain but the scope of the works would probably put it beyond the possibility, given the expense, which includes new windows and doors.

This route is not exactly a dead duck but is going to require a commissioning manager with deep pockets and strong sense of outrage.

Another possibility of course is working with Margaret to take out a private prosecution under the new Homes Fitness for Human Habitation Act that allows a renter to directly sue their landlord for poor property conditions but we are back to the reality of a 90 year old blind woman who just wants to be left in peace.

So where to go?

Margaret is living in poor property conditions at a time in life when you want comfort and security. The available routes to address the condition will inevitably interfere with Margaret’s quiet enjoyment.

Should the council back off of ensuring that Margaret can live safely and comfortably? She may be 90 but its not unfeasible that she could live another 10 years and she shouldn’t be left to live in those conditions for that length of time, which will inevitably deteriorate even further if left.

Of course the overarching solution that would tick all boxes, would be for the landlord to step forward, acknowledge Margaret’s vulnerability and do the works slowly and sensitively, without being so much of a hard-arse about it but if he cant find his own moral compass in the dark, you cant impose one on him.

The peace and comfort of a 90 year old woman is going to be affected whatever route gets applied but could have been avoided altogether, if the landlord had kept the property in good repair but I’m sure he feels less of an incentive for a tenant on a registered rent than a market one.

  [1] Love v. Herrity (1991)

By Ben Reeve Lewis

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About Cambridge House Safer Renting

The Cambridge House Safer Renting team present the ‘go-to’ blog on the world of the Shadow Private Rented Sector.

We monitor the world of rogue landlord and agent activity, publicise developments, circulate innovative ideas, keep readers abreast of changes in laws and regulations, raising awareness of criminal trends and scams, celebrate successful actions and interview people working in the field, connecting up anyone involved, from tenants and their advisers, to enforcement officers, lawyers and journalists.

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