Ben Reeve Lewis is an independent local authority housing enforcement officer.
I was out on a case yesterday, talking to a tenant and listening to their complaints about their letting agent’s behaviour. I asked them who the landlord was and they didn’t know, which is so common it doesn’t even get a raised eyebrow from me.
Just as common is the response I get when I ask if their deposit was protected and just get a blank look back.
…and guess what….
And I’ll tell you what else is really common but does still baffle me, when the tenants tell you that they have been there for 2 years and never been given a single receipt for rent paid.
Why would anyone hand over £1,500 and not ask or expect a receipt for it?
The kinds of landlords I’m talking about don’t want anything on paper that might point anyone from the local authority or HMRC at them, which is why they don’t give out receipts or even tenancy agreements in many instances.
I can actually understand the criminal logic of that but not the tenant’s fatalistic acceptance of the situation.
It gets worse…..
I was talking to another tenant last week who pays £1,300 per month rent and he complained that in the 6 months he had been living in the property 5 different people had turned up to collect the rent in person saying that they worked for the agency.
He did not ask for proof of who they were and simply paid them, again without a receipt.
I asked him if he was worried that this was all a scam and he shrugged his shoulders and replied: “What can you do?” Going on to explain that he had asked for receipts but threatened with eviction if he made such insistences.
Dumb or desperate?
Part of me thinks, well if you are dumb enough to just hand over the money then that’s your problem mate.
But in London, it’s a mark of how desperate people are for rented accommodation that they are scared of rocking the boat – a fact known and wilfully exploited by rogue landlords and agents.
Foreign tenants and different cultures
I would say that 90% of the time the tenants in this position are not British and come from countries where their housing law system is probably very different from ours.
It is also common for ex-pat communities to congregate together, just as Brits abroad do, it’s human nature. So Romanian tenants often rent from Romanian landlords, hang around with other Romanians and work for each other.
Same with Vietnamese, Portuguese, Somalians, whatever.
With some nationals, Church groups will often be a factor as well so in rental terms for people like me trying to ensure that people are safe and being treated fairly we are often presented with a closed circle running on rules we neither know nor understand.
Occasionally you get glimpses into how these other cultures work, when you get to know tenants better and they talk of not bringing shame on their community or a cultural loyalty that endures even though they are being treated badly – but there is still the standard power structure behind it.
Tenants unaware of their rights
The tenants of these kinds of landlords and agents fear being made homeless when they might not be able to make a homelessness application and not having family in the UK. I often feel, in explaining the legal niceties of landlord and tenant law that I might as well be talking Japanese Arithmetic for all the sense it makes to their lives.
The fact that they could sue their landlord for not protecting their deposit is not of interest to them when they might not only lose their home but also their job – for example if they are working for the landlord, the landlord’s brother or just somebody else in the community network.
Right to Rent
All of this being further compounded by the Right To Rent rules, making so many normal landlords reluctant to rent to anyone from abroad and consequently the perceived limitation of choices if they are evicted.
The fact that without a written tenancy agreement their landlord can’t use the accelerated procedure following service of a section 21 notice is also neither here nor there.
In most cases the landlord has no intention of applying for a possession order anyway, preferring bully boy tactics to either evict them, force them to move or just relocate them to other accommodation as the whim suits.
Fear is the driving force
The fact that any possession proceedings brought for rent arrears will probably fail if they have no accounting records to show there are rent arrears is also a non-starter for the same reasons above.
People not asking for rent receipts is not stupidity and I’m sure that even in Somalia or Kazakhstan people get receipts for things. It’s fear, pure and simple.
Don’t rock the boat….
People don’t want to rock the boat because they know their situation is perilous and tenuous.
They know why the landlord or agent won’t give them a receipt but like desperate people in any situation they live on tenterhooks and crossed fingers and there is always a pack of wolves all too happy to exploit that desperation for their own financial gain.
From an enforcement perspective, I am convinced that for the large part the route to follow is the building not the landlord tenant law solution
Building v. prosecution solutions
To do a landlord for harassment or illegal eviction needs willing witnesses who will still be contactable in a year’s time when it gets to court. For the most part and for the reasons I give above the tenants are anything but willing to cooperate.
Building is a different matter.
A slum with a range of health issues doesn’t need willing witnesses, it can’t be intimidated or covered up. Once it has been visited and identified the distress flare is launched.
It’s too late for me to change now but I think, if I could wind back the clock 20 years I would have retrained as an EHO not a TRO, as the potential for success is greater.