It is customary at this time of year to look back on the outgoing year and forward to the incoming one but right now, for most people its been a horrible 2020 and only a fool or a cabinet minister would make confident predictions about 2021.
Despite the general chaos and god-awfulness of 2020, Safer Renting have had some highlights. We have swelled our ranks to a team of 10 and have added Both Lambeth and Newham council’s to our TRO partnership and enter the new year in immanent talks with another 2 London borough, which will make 9 out of 32 London councils in total.
We’ve even gone outside London, providing a phone service for Folkestone & Hythe, down on the south coast.
On Xmas Eve we heard we had also been awarded further significant core funding for the next 2 years, from the Tudor Trust and then there was the little matter of the publication of our long awaited report into criminality in the private rented sector, “Journey’s in the shadow PRS”, which came out in September to enthusiastic and supportive responses from all quarters.
The importance of the report being acknowledged by funders Trust for London, who promptly saw fit to fund report number 2, which we have just started, examining the different licensing schemes of local authorities in London to highlight what works best and least best about various approaches.
Our training programme for Met Police officers on illegal eviction devised over the previous year went live in May and since then around 4,000 officers have completed it and we are starting to see a difference. Patchy but in some areas you can really tell the officers who have done it from the ones who haven’t.
Concerned at the almost complete lack of data on the numbers of illegal evictions, Safer Renting’s case worker and policy officer Molly and myself have begun an unofficial and as yet unfunded project, doing our best to count incident’s of illegal eviction in London, assisted again by Dr Julie Rugg and the good folk at the GLA.
We are still in stage 1 at the moment, gathering like minded souls to the clarion call, through a range of meetings and presentations. Early in 2021 we start moving into stage 2 and finding out who is counting and what they are recording.
The team, like so many others have had to learn the art of home working, which proved not to be the disaster I first thought it would be in March, although there have been some significant barriers.
The huge limit on our ability to visit properties does present problems. Many illegal evictions would normally be averted simply by our attendance, arguing face to face with people trying to chuck renter’s out and being there to explain matters with attending police officers.
Another problem thrown up by self isolation that many might not have thought of, we certainly didn’t, is dealing with disputes about property that has been carved up into bedsits and flats in eccentric ways. It’s surprisingly difficult to understand precisely what disputes are, without being able to stand in a building and see which bits have been carved up. Photographs don’t always capture it.
Another similar problem are the common reports of utility disconnection, where you cant ascertain how it has been done without shining a torch on a meter or wiring, to see if it’s a fault or a deliberate job.
Court closures have also posed very difficult problems for renters needing injunctions for re-entry or to end harassment.
The usual dearth of legal aid housing lawyers has meant we have had to continue helping people obtain their own injunctions but with telephone hearings and us not being qualified representatives, we haven’t been able to blag rights of audience, in the way we do when we are there in person, explaining to the DJ that the claimant doesn’t speak English and we can set out the background to the matter, including the council’s involvement to save them time.
In fact I would say this has been one of our biggest problems this year. Injunctions are always an option but we have had to discount them in so many instances.
What about the landlords in times of Covid?
Well as you would expect, our usual suspects had no intention whatsoever of following government guidelines to be reasonable or understanding and we saw a 40% increase in illegal evictions, which is probably closer to 60% given the different ways that our database records a range of incidents that doesn’t include multiple evictions of households in HMOs, something we will be working on in 2021.
It might be me but also the incidents we have been involved in seem to be getting more violent and unpleasant but maybe that’s just the wearing effect that Lockdown is having on all of us.
We have been seeing a rise in landlords and agents not only illegally evicting people but also stealing their possessions. You always get them here and there but it seems to be becoming more of a routine tactic, which has catastrophic ramifications, particularly where people are losing passports and other essential documents, affecting their ability to obtain benefits or homelessness assistance..
I’ve also been watching a small but growing spike in harassment and illegal eviction driven by the landlord wanting to sell and I’m presuming that these incidents are prompted by attempts to beat the stamp duty window. Time will tell of this is a genuine trend.
What about 2021?
Well like I say, I’m not going to make any predictions, given how things change by the day, in particular government’s Friday afternoon emergency rush jobs, banged out in response to each week’s crisis and letters of dubious provenance sent to bailiffs.
Instead I’ll just hope.
The Renter’s Reform Bill is being put together very slowly in the background with no implementation date, for the same reason that I’m making no predictions but look at the title on that baby, it will be the RENTER’S REFORM ACT. A bold claim indeed.
Will it’s implementation be met with a celebratory firework display or a single party popper?
Most housing legislation comes with more prosaic titles like the Landlord and Tenant Act or the Housing Act. This one suggests genuine life changing legal machinery, like the National Assistance Act, or the Land Enclosures Act, it speaks of big things, a once in a generation chance to address social inequality that has existed since the Housing Act 1988 was ushered in on the dreaded 15th January 1989 and renter’s rights started to head for Antarctica.
Just before Xmas Safer Renting joined in with a range of other concerned groups forming the Renter’s Reform Coalition, to promote debate and hopefully influence government to really ensure that this new Act does what it says on the tin and reform the experiences of millions of renter’s of all ages, whose lives have been blighted by endemic insecurity dressed up as “Tenant choice” and spiralling rent levels.
If this pandemic is doing one thing, it is throwing into daylight, awareness of the perils of inequality and the shortcomings of so many of our systems, including zero hours contracts and the vicissitudes of self-employment, creating a new social phenomenon, the “Precariat”, to be shunned by the landlord community for not living stable enough lives to be a reliable bet as a possible tenant.
Despite a landmark case in summer, making it clear that landlords and agents must not discriminate over would-be tenants on benefits, this doesn’t seem to be having any effect, if our clients seeking to relocate are anything to go by. Three in the week before Xmas refused accommodation for that very reason, including by one landlord signed up to the ‘Capital letters’ housing programme to assist with housing homeless people….shame on you.
I tweeted out this somewhat cynical prediction at the time and got criticized on various fora and I am genuinely sorry for having had to say “I told you so” but………………… these people don’t even bother to hide their reasons in emails, they openly flout the law, justifying it as sound business practices that only an idiot would ignore.
So there it is. I cant find it in myself hopping up and down with excitement about 2021. Safer Renting will continue it’s long hard slog through the coming year and will, as always, be able to help individuals out in difficult times in some surprising ways, even when we don’t manage to save a person’s home or completely protect them.
One of the most common case closing comments we get is that it was really important just for people to feel like they weren’t alone with it all.
Which is great and we all appreciate it but to be honest I’d rather see sweeping legislative changes that make a difference to all, as opposed to spending our day chasing problems with a legal baseball bat in one hand and a brush & dustpan in the other to clear up the mess at the same time.
by Ben Reeve Lewis