A day in the life of TRO Ben Reeve Lewis.
The case of the long goodbye
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.
For ages now I have been variously entertaining and annoying people with my tales of derring-do and complete nonsense from the front line of housing advice, from the horse in the kitchen to the throat cutting incident by the gangster. It has been fun documenting anecdotes as they come in but it is time for me to take a break and write about something else for now, although the series may return in the future.
Not just another day in the life
I hope most readers have been entertained and educated by the tales of daily madness. What I enjoyed about it was realising what a strange and mad job I have, and also, how much I actually enjoy it, even the ones where I was seriously concerned for my safety. When we do something everyday we tend to not think that deeply about it. Even the most bizarre events are just another day in the life.
Writing TRO Confidential made me aware of not only the humour in so much of what I do but also the fact that, it is really important work.
I wanted to end with my thoughts and worries for the future of this area.
The problem of rogue landlords
At the risk of starting arguments again where I get accused of demonising landlords, the actions of rogue landlords are a genuinely major, but hidden problem.
I’ve said it before, the vast majority of landlords I meet are decent, law abiding persons. Even the ones who take the law into their own hands do it mostly through ignorance of the legal obligations and sometimes just through sheer frustration at the actions of their tenants. They often apologise profusely after the event.
But there is that tiny percentage, the thugs and the bullies, who act in full knowledge of what they are doing and with serious criminal intent. The ones who don’t give a toss about the law and are bold enough to tell you that when you doorstep them. Although a small percentage, in terms of numbers there are literally thousands of them out there.
My co-TRO and I deal with between 3 and 5 illegal evictions in a week on average. Usually one of them is of the outright bullying kind. Also we get about the same number of complaints of harassment. Some turn out to be nonsense but enough of them warrant further action to keep us run off our feet and struggling to cope.
In the first 3 weeks of December 2010 the two of us were in court 13 times, mainly getting injunctions against landlords either for illegal eviction or for return of goods that the landlord had taken in lieu of rent arrears. Admittedly this was a strange spike in activity but it gives you an idea of how big the problem is. Not a single week goes by when we aren’t in court at least once trying to get illegally evicted tenants re-instated in their homes or their goods returned.
TROs in all but name
TROs aren’t the only people who do this kind of work either. There is no statutory requirement for a local authority to have a TRO service, many don’t. In fact to my knowledge I think there is only around 110 TROs in the UK.
Landlord and tenant disputes are dealt with very capably by a variety of different housing advisers working for councils. Solicitors obviously get involved and much excellent work is done by law centres around the country.
Concerns about the cuts
The trouble is the proposed cuts in legal aid and funding to law centres, which is going to mean that tenants who are in trouble with rogue landlords will have very few places to turn.
Yes I know London is obviously going to have more than it’s fair share of rogue landlords, simply because it is the biggest city in the UK with a population of around 12 million, and South East London is the roughest part so I am bound to see more than housing advisers in for instance, Worcester or Liskeard but think on this. If we see 2 genuine thugs a week, that’s 100 in a year. There are around 30 London Boroughs. If they do the same then that is 3,000 rogues in London alone.
Add the other major cities of Manchester, Birmingham etc to the equation and you can see what I am getting at. Where are those thousands of tenants going to go, once the law centres have closed and legal has been cut for these cases?
When my partner, the lovely Frazzy Cox, drops me off at work in her car on Monday mornings there is usually a queue of around 15 people waiting for the doors to open. I can tell which ones are going to be for me by the ones with black bin liners in their hands. There is usually at least 1 for me to start my week with. Where are they going to find justice in the future?
Problems with the police
Much has been written on Tessa’s excellent website about the problem with police involvement, or rather the lack of it. I know from my own past experience that training is the key.
Police will act appropriately if they know what they can do and what the legal breaches are. It is after all only ignorance of housing law that causes the problem, not their wilfulness but I cant see every officer in the land getting this training and programmes continuing as new officers join up.
Maybe it is David Cameron’s Big Society view that the citizens of the land will be empowering themselves to take their own action against their landlords, when they have been beaten up and thrown onto the street but when you look at the complexities of housing law I cant see that being practicable.
The need for a new approach
Those of us working in this field need new resources and a new approach if we are to not end up with a future that looks very grim. I know many people who, like me and Tessa and some people who post on this site are seeing the writing on the wall and looking at new ways to tackle these problems. Let’s hope it works.
(Don’t worry everyone, TRO Confidential may be finished (for now), but Ben will be back next week with a brand new column …)
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 and visit his website here.