by | Mar 26, 2021 | Safer Renting

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Many of us will have at some point in our lives lived in a shared house with a bunch of strangers. University is a common one. In my case it was Sanford Housing Coop in Deptford (seen in the title picture), right next door to the old Millwall football ground, the infamous “Den”, before they moved to Zampa Road.

144 mainly Anarchist, Activist souls in the street, 10 per house. Whilst everyone naturally becomes friends of sorts you learn a lot about group dynamics, a fancy way of describing who most gets on your tits with very little provocation.

Countless thousands of people these days, are crammed into what we now call HMOs, Houses in Multiple Occupation (why do journalists so often call them “Houses of Multiple Occupation”?….really annoying) Unlike me they don’t do so out of any lifestyle or political choice, they live cheek by jowl because they cant afford anywhere self-contained, which is most sane people’s first choice.

HMOs have for long been an increasingly attractive business model for landlords, mainly because it maximises the overall rental income but also because void periods tend to be restricted to occasional rooms, rather than the whole property, so the rent keeps coming in steadily, even though the residents change.

I have been in some quite impressive HMOs, really well done up and maintained, wifi throughout but it has to be said that in my not inconsiderable experience, the vast majority of HMOs are, what we in the housing enforcement profession refer to as “Shitholes”.

Adding pressure to the already less than relaxing environment is the fact that so many HMO landlords and managing agents prefer to stand well back, chuck in a gas card and electricity key and leave everyone to argue amongst themselves about how much to put on the meter.

A preferred method that we are seeing more of lately and which is becoming increasingly prevalent among the growing Property Guardian industry, is for the landlord/property manager, to install what we are all coming to call a “Lead Tenant”.

I’m not talking about one of the house mates deciding that they are the self-appointed lead tenant, mum and dad of the house. That’s often happens anyway in a group setting, we are talking about one of the residents being appointed the landlord’s ‘Agent’ in the house, reporting back on activities and in some cases also being the landlord’s enforcer.

Just before lockdown I attended a mass illegal eviction of 12 households in Westminster. Upon interviewing one particularly angry character he revealed that he had worked for the managing agent for the past 6 years. I asked in what capacity and he said that in return for rent free accommodation he would throw people out if the agent ordered it.

I don’t think Irony was one of his natural character traits

This is a bit of a shady, ill defined world. You don’t see job adverts or job descriptions for this. From the minimal information you can glean when dealing with disputes in HMOs and Property Guardian accommodation, the lead tenant either gets a rent reduction or in the odd case, gets to live there rent free in order to perform their function and often gets the biggest room in the house.

This lead tenant model usually creates enormous havoc and discord.

In one recent Safer Renting case, a lead tenant stuck a poster up in the kitchen, imposing shifts for the different housemates to use the kitchen at different times to promote self-isolation. Sounds reasonable in a sense but it didn’t help to promote group harmony by heading the poster in large, bold letters “Declaration of War”.

I mean, how would you like to live with someone who you knew was reporting back to the landlord every time you leave a dirty plate on the draining board or had an overnight guest? Breaking the unwritten house rules. Such rules often being devised in the mind of the lead tenant alone.

The difficulty we have from a housing law perspective, is trying to ascertain whether the lead tenant is acting independently or with the sanction of the landlord/agent and there is a genuine legal problem with this.

Harassment, as defined under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977, differentiates between acts done by landlord or agent and acts by “Any other person”, the former being acts that are done that are likely to cause the residential occupier to give up their accommodation, whereas harassment by “Any other person” is defined in the PFEA, as acts that are done with the intention of causing the residential occupier to give up their accommodation.

It is usually far from clear if the lead tenant can be seen as the agent of the landlord or is simply “Another person”, where the evidential standard is far more stringent, so housing law as a solution to the reported problems, isn’t that helpful when you cant clearly identify the legal status of the lead tenant.

s7 of the Protection from Eviction Act defines an agent as “Someone named as such in a rent book or similar document or someone who receives rent on behalf of the landlord”, none of which really applies to lead tenants, who in harassment terms would be regarded as being “Any other person”, in other words, just another housemate with delusions of grandeur but supported by the landlord or agent.

Property Guardian lettings is where you see the lead tenant concept being more structured. The management company clearly identify the lead tenant to the housemates and they are advised to report repairs or any other issues to them to be fed back to the agents but again, in terms of the PFEA their role doesnt really have a proper definition.

In practice the lead tenants will often feel that they can throw their weight about in ways that might not have been intended by the company, although it is difficult to impossible to be able to tell how much of a hand the company has in the activities that are causing disruption.

Housemates often feeling intimidated by the lead tenant without knowing if it is at the instructions of the Property Guardian company, who would obviously deny it if asked directly.

So the growing trend in HMO management seems to be shifting away from the old model and towards this knew normal of installing a lead tenant, which generally creates more miserable conditions than the traditional “Leave them to get on with it” management style.

HMOs and Property Guardian lettings can be lucrative business models for landlords and agents but with the problems and pressures unique to this type of accommodation a more hands-on and socially deft management style is important if the tenants are to be safe and happy.

Using a lead tenant is not the way to achieve this, it generally creates utter misery for the occupants and can lead to serious disputes, even altercations. Who needs CCTV when you have a spy in the house?

  by Ben Reeve Lewis

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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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