A day in the life of TRO Ben Reeve Lewis.
The case of catch me if you can
Explanation: Tenancy Relations Officers (TRO) work for local council’s providing advice on landlord tenant law and investigating allegations of harassment and Illegal Eviction and prosecuting landlords. All names are false but the stories are true.
Illegal letting agents
I have had a flare up lately of a group of local letting agents involved in fraud and unlawful activity. Mention of the name of one company MD elicits groans and rolled eyes from everyone who has to deal with him. I saw him driving through town the other day in a Bentley, clearly doing rather well for himself.
It reminded me of an old company from many years back that I had the misfortune to deal with, National Properties Ltd.
Lets do it
Two guys met in prison and decided to form a company and raid the local landlord and tenant business by forming an unapologetically dodgy agency, with their girlfriend.
They started out in a front room of a house and within 18 months they had 1,500 tenants in 5 London Boroughs.
Extra services rendered
They were also heroin dealers and managed, through their property empire, to improve the lot of addicts in our area in making the drug more readily available to them.
In the brief time of their existence, as well as spreading the drug problem liberally around they also completely changed the demographic of the borough in a way that hasn’t changed since. Before they came on the scene most of the HMOs (Houses in multiple occupation…..or bedsits) were in the north of the borough but by the time they had finished they were liberally spread throughout.
Just leave it to us, Sir …
It was during the last recession. Many home owners were running into trouble with their mortgages, as now, and so NPL took their properties off of them and told them to relax, they would pay the mortgage and what was left on top was theirs and if the tenant didn’t pay the rent, they would cover it. A tempting offer.
They then proceeded to go into 3 bedroom houses, put up stud walling and turn the properties into 5 and 6 bedroom HMOs. They then rented out to people that most other agencies wouldn’t touch at the time, namely ex offenders, single people on benefits and people with drink, drug and mental health problems.
A charitable act? No! they are just the easiest group to push around.
Ben takes a stand
On one occasion a woman with mental health problems handed over £400 as a registration fee, which has been unlawful for 60 years. When she didn’t like the first property they showed her they refused to give her the money back. I had to walk into their office and create a scene in front of people sitting there signing up with them. This embarrassed the guy so much he handed over the cash just to get rid of me.
We had so many complaints from tenants about bullying, harassment and illegal eviction that the council felt moved to form a task force to close them down. Housing benefit had overpaid them to the tune of £50,000 where they kept paying for tenants who were no longer there and hadn’t been informed by NPL who just kept the extra money.
Every few weeks I would sit in a conference room with our legal department, housing benefit fraud, trading standards, environmental health and occasionally the police trying to decide what to do with them.
Months rolled by and in true council, bureaucratic style, nothing happened apart from hot air being expelled, whilst NPL simply carried on about their business.
A little factoid for you; Council’s are legal entities, they are accountable to the public and to central government. This means that when an emergency situation arrives nobody is keen to take emergency action that might blow up in their faces. Even a dedicated committee like ours was moves slower than a glacier and with as much spontaneity and recklessness as a Swiss watchmaker..
Let grabbit and run
Some wag once said that a camel was a horse designed by a committee. That is what it is like to work for the council. Scammers like NPL and the latest crop I have, know this and utilise that knowledge to the hilt, running around raking in cash faster than anyone can close them down.
Reader? Despite the concerted efforts of an entire team we didn’t get one single victory over them apart from me door stepping them for that woman’s £400.
We knew trouble was brewing when we started to get complaints from landlords that NPL weren’t handing over the rent money to them. I guessed, accurately as it turned out, that NPL were getting ready to close down and run with every penny they could get their hands on. Lo and behold, one bright Monday morning I was walking into work and as I passed their office I saw overturned chairs, paperwork strewn across the floor and filing cabinet drawers left half open. They had done a moonlight flit.
Dealing with the fallout
We were then deluged with approaches from landlords wondering what had happened and tenants who suddenly had nobody to pay their rent to. Illegal eviction also became an epidemic when panic stricken landlords who had realised what had gone down took the shortest route to getting their property back, and I had some sympathy with them for that, despite their criminal actions.
I visited a number of properties with them where heartbroken landlords gained access only to find radiators removed and in a couple of cases even their large copper storage boilers had been nicked and sold off.
It was the housing equivalent of a Viking raid, leaving the rental community in a state of total devastation that took a couple of years to recover from. Many landlords lost their homes through mortgage repossession.
Second time around
Having been a part of that fiasco I am concerned for the coming year. What we have growing locally is not simply one dodgy agent this time but several who work collaboratively. They pattern is very familiar, not just in the bold way that they are flouting the law but in the response of the council again.
Yesterday I door stepped one of them over allegation from a woman and her 5 kids that 3 men had gone to the property the night before and terrified the life out of her and the children. The agent knew I was trying to intimidate them and didn’t back down. He told me that all problems are caused by the tenants and that tenants were scum. I told him that I thought that was a lovely attitude to have for an accommodation agent.
The problems of working within the law
Everyone in our new task force means well but the problem is a legal one which requires a legal solution and you can’t do that overnight. However the dodgy agents out their move at the speed of light knowing we will struggle to catch up.
Even just one alias has to be checked out thoroughly. Before you can serve any form of injunction or notice on a person you have to know exactly who that person is and where they can be contacted. One of my current dodgy agents uses 7 different names and is networked to around 40 properties in our borough alone and with properties in 4 others.
The unforseen effects of public sector cuts
Although there are a variety of internal and external agencies involved in trying to put an end to what is going on, we are resource led. I try to do my bit but my co-TRO Sean and I have to deal with the complaints of 16,000 private tenants on housing benefit alone, not counting those who are working, and the mortgage repossession cases we have to prevent. There isn’t the time to do the job properly. This is one of the unseen effects of public sector cuts. Eighteen months ago we were a team of eight, now we are two, and unless we get lucky, our lawless agents will continue to run the game.
Al Capone all over again
The famous gangster Al Capone also used boldness to stay in the clear, eventually he was put in prison but only for tax evasion, they never did get him for the crimes they knew he committed.
I am torn between on the one hand a sense of injustice that our new lot are ripping landlords and tenants off, and growing sense of de ja vous and the worrying thought that despite the efforts of some good and concerned people nothing will happen and our agents will simply jet off to their holiday homes in Florida without so much as backwards glance.