In a chat with a journalist recently she was asking me to clarify the official number of rogue and criminal landlords out there. I did some research, as did she and we unsurprisingly drew a blank.
In fact you cant even get agreement on the amount of landlords and tenants there are, regardless of any dubious activities they may engage in.
To start with is the definition. We never have been able to get past the term “Rogue landlord”, which Shelter devised in 2011 as a means of raising general public awareness of these people but which never stood up to scrutiny when trying apply it to specific areas of landlord activity.
The essential questions surrounding rogue landlordism remain. What constitutes such behaviour?:-
· Landlords breaking laws they didn’t know were there?
· Landlords convicted of an offence?
· If so, what offences?
· Civil? Criminal?
And what about criminal landlords? Are they different from rogues?
In Safer Renting’s 2020 report “Journeys in the Shadow Private Rented Sector” we attempted to codify rogue and criminal behaviour into more nuanced degrees. Closely monitoring the hundreds of cases we deal with each year we came up with the following:-
· Wilfully ignorant landlords who tended to have small portfolios and were letting with no intention of meeting their statutory obligations;
· Corner cutters had larger portfolios and maximised their rental income through noncompliance, factoring penalties and fines into their business model;
· Scammers remained hidden, and often used the internet to swindle tenants – and landlords – through securing and then stealing deposits, or renting property that was immediately sublet or let on the short-let market;
· Prolific offenders showed a blatant disregard for the law, often acting unpleasantly and with impunity, and were confident about their ability to challenge any attempt at prosecution; and
· Letting linked to organised crime in which letting might be associated with labour and sex trafficking and the use of rented property as cannabis farms
A more nuanced expansion of the concept of rogue and criminal landlords but which still doesn’t tell you how many of them there are.
In 2017 the MHCLG estimated that there were 10,500 landlords out there breaking the law but this figure does not define which of these 150 laws that the old RLA always maintained are out there, were being broken, nor whether these were just likely offenders or those successfully prosecuted.
Criminal activity is by its very nature clandestine. You can collate figures of complaints, you can collate figures of prosecutions but you cant collate reliable figures based on suspicions of how many are up to no good, against whom there have been no complaints or legal action.
You also have to factor in the amount of renters who dont complain, even when they have been threatened or evicted, especially in a world where renters often fear summary eviction for standing up for their rights, especially when it comes to poor conditions.
Regular readers will know that for some time, Safer Renting have been conducting a count of illegal evictions in London, picked up by a variety of statutory and advice agencies and having a hell of a job doing so, simply because hardly anyone who encounters the problem is counting the incidents or complaints.
We have been talking extensively to Shelter, law centres, CABs etc, who do count approaches but whilst many council departments do see incidents, for the want of having a tenancy relations service have few places to signpost onto.
It’s also important to bear in mind that when you are in this game, you cant help noticing with these crooks, something that has turned into a Safer Renting motto “If they are doing one thing, they are doing everything”.
The people in our profile see renting a property as a method of wringing as much cash as possible out of the accommodation, so cramming in more occupants to increase rental yield is only one thing. If they can charge rent inclusive of utilities and then tamper with the meters for bills that aren’t being paid, then that will increase profits, as will not carrying out repairs or paying for a licence, or registering for tax on the rental income.
To be called in on a single complaint usually reveals a whole host of other things when you start investigating.
So where did government get that 10,500 figure from?
I’ve also heard the figure of 5% bandied about, where does that come from?
In a recent Ludlow Thompson report based in part on figures from HMRC in 2018, they estimated that there were 2.5 million landlords operating in the UK but don’t say where they came up with this number.
5% of 2.5 million would mean 125,000 rogue landlords and if you bear in mind that the worst of them prefer running HMOs and were to take the basic mandatory HMO requirement at 5 renters and usually its far more and many of these crooks have large portfolios that they may not even own but manage as crooked agents. This indicates that on any one given day, hundreds of thousands of renters are living in unsafe, illegal properties, often in fear of complaining. Being ripped off, pushed around, illegally evicted and threatened.
Several hundred thousand human beings, including children, right now, today and every day of the year.
So whilst I don’t know where this 5% figure comes from and I personally think it’s a low estimate, based on our figures of working for 11 London Boroughs, it still looks like enough of a national scandal to warrant a more concerted effort on the part of government.
When I witter on about such things, which I flatly refuse to stop doing, the landlord lobby repeatedly point to the English Housing Survey, which regularly reports that 84% of renters are happy with their lot.
When I tell people what I do they say “Oh so you deal with the 16% who are unhappy” to which I answer “No. I deal with the untold number of people the EHS doesn’t even talk to”.
As I keep repeating, the EHS doesn’t go into the kinds of properties that EHO, planning enforcement and TROs go into every day.
They don’t talk to the kinds of renters so desperate as to have no alternative but to rent from these crooks. Many of them migrant workers on below minimum wage, zero hours contracts.
So guessing the amount of rogue and criminal landlords and agents is not an easy task, maybe even impossible, given that criminal activity is meant to be hidden. The ones we do know about were the ones who failed to hide what they were up to but maybe one unconsidered element of any such count would be workload and staffing levels in housing enforcement. There are around 330 local authorities in the UK, all of which have housing enforcement workers of different stripes who are kept very busy.
In five years Safer Renting has grown from 3 people working for 3 London authorities to a team of 10 working for 11 councils and in talks with several more.
While many business are going to the wall, including major high street chains, tackling rogue landlords is a growth industry, simply because the people of interest are growing in number.
With demand for rented property at an all time high and rents to go with it, coupled with an overstretched and under resourced policing service in the local authority, the possibility of a fast buck with minimal risk is the perfect attraction for criminals, whatever field that may be in.
A national landlord register and increased commitment to local authority resourcing would not only go far in dealing with these people but also providing a clearer picture of how many of them there are.
By Ben Reeve Lewis