A day in the life of TRO Ben Reeve Lewis.
The Case of the Devious TRO
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.
We have a lot of HMOs in our borough (Houses in Multiple Occupation – bed sits basically). Around 13,400 to be precise, all multi tenanted (obviously….der!!!!) and for the most part absolutely dire in terms of property conditions and standards of management.
A proper licensed HMO should have a number of things in place, such as fire doors and escapes and even simple things like the landlords name displayed in a prominent part of the building.
Please don’t shoot the messenger!
Tenants in HMOs are usually at the sharp end of letting and will tend to get pushed around a fair bit by their landlords. They are often the most difficult to defend as well because of what we call in the housing advice world “Chaotic Lifestyles” that arise through common difficulties with drink and drugs and mental health issues (and PLEEEEASE don’t write in saying I am tarring all HMO tenants with the same brush – of course I know that there are many who don’t have those problems) and many are refugees and asylum seekers on the margin of the community.
HMO tenants in trouble
I get called by the Wondji brothers from Ethiopia, decidedly in the latter camp. They are foreign students with no recourse to public funds so are having to fend for themselves. They are having problems with the landlord who they are paying rent to which is inclusive of money for gas and electricity but he keeps disconnecting the supplies for unknown reasons.
They aren’t any arrears of rent but they have threatened to stop paying him if he keeps leaving them in the cold. He retaliated by slapping the younger brother about a bit and that is when they called for assistance.
The property in question is a 4 floor property stacked up above the landlord’s business which is a convenience store on the ground floor. The Landlord is a Nigerian national but with the name Tom Brown.
I have found over the years that it is best, if at all possible, to do as much background checking on a landlord and the tenant’s story before you go in feet first. That way there is less chance of you being taken in by lies or unexpected information, and I find that if a rogue landlord knows you have already been doing a bit of digging it tends to worry them a bit and gives you an edge.
I called the energy company and found that he hadn’t been paying his bills and there were £1,200 arrears on both gas and electricity, so they had disconnected the supplies.
Legal point (and a little known one at that): When tenants are paying their rent inclusive of money for utilities and the supply is disconnected because of non payment, the council can step and use it’s powers under a ludicrously titled piece of legislation known as Section 33 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976, and pay off the outstanding bills to get supply reconnected (or to prevent disconnection if it is threatened). The tenant then pays their rent to the council until the debt is discharged and the landlord isn’t allowed to treat the missing monies as rent arrears.
I then called Tom Brown and asked him what was going on. He told me there was a problem with the utility supply and he had tried to fix it but the engineer didn’t manage it. I did my usual trick and asked several detailed questions about the problem which he lied his way through before I dropped the bombshell that he was a lying little toe-rag because I had called the energy companies and they had told me it had been disconnected because of non payment. He hung up on me.
I allowed myself a few minutes of pleasant gloating before grabbing my jacket and shooting around to the property.
A charming residence, all mod cons
The Wondji boys were the only occupants in what looked to be a derelict building. The first floor had once been a dentists and still had the chair screwed to the floor. Dust and detritus, and probably the odd tooth, were strewn around.
The lads then took me to the top floor where their room was. There was no balustrade outside their door. So if they got up for a wee in the night, and took more than one step from their door they would drop 4 floors.
They also showed me the bathroom. The plumbing arrangements were ingenious. There was no waste pipe for the bath, instead a brick had been knocked out of the wall so that when you pulled the plug, the water ran onto the floor and slowly drained out through the wall where it landed on the roof of the store room for the shop on the ground floor.
Another illegal eviction
I went back to the office and called environmental health. While all this was going on Tom Brown had become incensed that the tenants had gotten the council involved, and went to the property and assaulted the same brother again, (obviously the one with the lucky face). He then threw them out and locked the building with a padlock.
I called him and advised him that he had committed both harassment and illegal eviction and that if he didn’t relent we would go to court and obtain an injunction for re-entry and to restrain his behaviour. His reply was lost in the shouting.
Ben goes to Court
So I toddled off with the Wondji boys to our local court and got one. I called him and asked him when he was going to come in and collect it.
His reply was lost in the shouting again.
The problem of service
Then the problem started because I had to then serve it and he now knows I have a court order out on him, so if I bump into the man who I think is him and introduce myself he will know what I am there to do and will simply deny who he is (this happens a lot).
I launch myself off to the address regardless, to wing it and as I am approaching I see an African guy unloading supplies for the shop from a green Mercedes parked outside. I presume that this is Tom Brown but don’t want to blow my cover. I have to get him to admit to being Mr Brown though. That’s my problem.
A lightbulb moment
I then come up with a genius idea and approach him pretending to be someone looking to buy his car. I tell him that I have seen the details in the local paper. He looks mystified and tells me it isn’t for sale and then goes back into the shop with an arm full of toilet rolls.
When he comes back out I pretend to be scrutinising a piece of paper and pick up the conversation again, saying “But this doesn’t make sense, there is a photo of the car with the same registration number and contact details, name and everything”. He then walks towards me, distinctly curious now saying “Name?”, I reply swiftly “Yeah, are you Tom Brown?”, to which he instantly replies “Yes, but……”.
I smile broadly and hit him with the injunction.
Sometimes I feel like Columbo, Jim Rockford and Sherlock Holmes all rolled into one!!!!!
About Ben Reeve-Lewis: Ben has worked in housing in one form or another since 1987. He has variously been a Homelessness caseworker, Head of Homelessness for a local authority, a TRO and Housing law trainer. He now divides his time between doing contract Tenancy Relations work and as a Freelance housing law training consultant for the CIH, Shelter, Sitra and many more. Read more about Ben here.