Ben Reeve Lewis gives away some tricks of the enforcement officers trade
As a companion piece to my previous one on the benefits of landlord licensing for enforcement teams, I thought I would share some tricks of the trade.
I didn’t mind giving secrets away because the sorts of rogue landlord we deal with don’t read blogs like this.
Evidence is key
As you would expect, trying to find overcrowded and dangerous properties run by crooks is a difficult business, for the most part. You have to actually get inside to find the evidence and you really need to have the people in situ. Three mattresses on the floor of one room is only proof that there are 3 mattresses on the floor, in terms of sound evidence.
Early Morning raids
This is why so many visits are done early in the morning before people go about their day.
In the early months of Lewisham’s rogue landlord enforcement initiative, we relied on what we used to call the “DCT”, short for “Dirty Curtain Test” which relied on spotting dirty curtains, old duvets, bits of cardboard covering up windows.
We would simply knock on the door, flash our badges and ask if we could come in and look around. 99% of the time the occupants were only too happy.
Cannabis farms and booby traps ….. all in a day’s work
Personal safety was an issue here. Several times we fell across cannabis farms, some of which were booby trapped and on one occasion after coming away from one property we were grabbed by police surveillance who were watching the house which contained guns, drugs and gangsters that we were oblivious of.
The DCT is still effective and continues to be a major identification tool used by enforcement officers but its best to call your contacts in the Met to get an all clear first.
No central database
Intelligence gathering is hampered by the fact that there isn’t a single piece of software that everyone uses to collate information.
Whether it be planning enforcement, environmental health, Tenancy Relations, Building control etc, everyone has different data to record and consequently different systems to record it with. Only by pulling together all of it can you get a full picture. But the software doesn’t talk to each other to allow a central person to pull out the info that might tell you that a property is overcrowded or dangerous.
Inspector Clouseau tactics
So the work is, getting a first clue that there may be a problem, through a method such as the DCT and then grabbing everyone involved to see if they know anything about the property or have spotted any signs that things don’t look 100% Kosher.
I’ve picked up properties simply by sitting on the top deck of the bus going home and spotting bunk beds behind net curtains or the tell tale sign of stud walling running down the middle of a window where the room has been sub-divided. One tenant having half the window and his neighbour having the other half.
Then it’s a case of talking to other teams to find out if anyone has been to the property but not mentioned it to any other teams.
Seriously overcrowded wheelie-bins are another good indicator and some council refuse crews are trained to report this to housing teams along with requests for more bins that come into their offices.
All the clues start to add up…..
Complaints from neighbours are another common source of intel gathering. Not just noisy parties reported to the Anti-Social Behaviour teams but more often than not, concerned folk reporting that numerous people are seen coming and going from a property in a normal residential street.
Another helpful tool is talking to builders when you see works being carried out. They can be quite loose lipped about who has asked them to do the work and why. You know you have a candidate when you spot 4 new toilet bowls in the front garden. The conversion ain’t gonna be no family home! And most London boroughs don’t grant planning permission to turn family homes into smaller units.
So much housing stock in London is large Victorian buildings that once converted are like rabbit warrens when you get inside, carved up with stud walling in astonishingly creative patterns where you sometimes can’t even tell which part of the building you are standing in.
Often comically sticking your head out of a window and shouting for a colleague who sticks his head out of another one while you try to figure out where you are.
Most tenants are happy to assist
For the most part gaining entry is done by just knocking on the door and chatting to the occupiers. When you explain that you are there for their safety they are mostly happy to allow access. I leave the technical officers running up and down stairs measuring things while I sit in the kitchen with the tenants hearing their tales of harassment and threats of eviction, which I then take on and start dealing with landlord or agent on that front.
I leave the technical officers running up and down stairs measuring things while I sit in the kitchen with the tenants hearing their tales of harassment and threats of eviction, which I then take on and start dealing with landlord or agent on that front.
However, sometimes you can’t get in……
Either because nobody is there when you visit or the occupants just don’t let you.
You can’t force entry without a magistrates court warrant and to get one of those you have to persuade the judge that you have enough reason to believe that urgent entry is necessary, for which you’re intel must be good. Back to the previous problem of compiling it from different sources.
Armed with a warrant you attend with police and a locksmith and if necessary you get in that way.
It doesn’t always go smoothly though…..
One day I was invited out by the Police to raid a cannabis farm in a rented property under a warrant granted on evidence from a neighbour that gave sufficient proof to allow a magistrate to grant one.
The police had one of those metal battering rams you see on TV. The door wouldn’t budge. We all had a go at it until we were tired out.
After literally half an hour of battering away the whole door and frame collapsed in and we trudged over the wreckage into the house.
……not a single plant. It was just someone’s home.
Thankfully it was the Met’s warrant, not mine. I slunk off back to the office, leaving the attending Police to deal with the ridicule from the street urchins who had gathered outside to watch the show.
It can be an inexact science sometimes.