Rogue Landlord hits press again
In recent months the press have been aghast at the activities of millionaire rogue landlord Bernard McGowan who despite being convicted of various housing-related offences, continues to be paid housing benefit to the tune of £500,000.
Anyone of housing-related-of sense asks “Why”?
Why indeed. The trouble is, despite being guilty of all manner of nonsense, the nonsense in question does not actually bar him from receiving the benefit because the legislation is different. This is so often the case.
A frustrating example
A couple of years back I was involved in a shutdown of a property housing 23 people, where the source of the problem wasn’t the owner but the managing agent, not only creating seriously overcrowded and unlicensed conditions but also allegedly guilty of drug dealing and prostitution.
The occupants we interviewed told us that “A trip in the van to B&Q” was a euphemism for sleeping with the girls he was housing, often directly from a care background.
Wresting control of this property from him, required obtaining 6 separate magistrates courts warrants to shut down operations, a specialist team in the homelessness unit to deal with the relocation of the displaced residential occupiers on the day, a gang of police officers and the booking of removal vans and taxis to ferry the occupiers to the crews set up to help them.
In the midst of this D-Day style enforcement action, I ended up sitting on a wall chatting to one of the cab drivers who had been ferrying people back and forth. He asked me what was going on and I explained the full story to him and what we were doing. He replied:-
“Why don’t the council just stop paying him housing benefit”?
Ah, the emperor’s new clothes!
Laws v staff
In the past three or four years, enforcement officers of all stripes have had a cornucopia of enforcement laws dumped in their laps.
Having enough staff to enforce them in a time of austerity cuts is a significant issue that I don’t intend to go into here but more often than not the bureaucracy, red tape and procedures mean so many criminal landlords evade prosecution.
Any enforcement officer will tell you that for every single, successful prosecution of a landlord in the courts there are the other 9 things that they managed to wriggle out of on a technicality.
I once dealt with a criminal landlord facing prosecution who admitted that whilst he was “Alan Smith”, the subject of the enforcement action, he wasn’t “THAT Alan Smith” and as a result, the courts let him walk, even though everyone involved knew exactly who he was.
And more recently(this week) I had a “flush your own head down the toilet” moment, when discovering that a landlord who had illegally evicted two tenants and destroyed their belongings, one of whom had cancer, who subsequently failed to allow the re-entry that was ordered under the injunction we obtained against him, evaded being committed to prison for contempt of court on the application because nobody turned up for the hearing in August 2018.
Because the courts sent the hearing date and paperwork to the address that the tenants had been illegally evicted from 18 months before.
Daily life in rogue landlord enforcement world is peppered with such frustrations
Take for instance the concept of ‘Retaliatory eviction’, which was introduced under the Deregulation Act to much fanfare, the general consensus being “That’ll fix it”. It does nothing of the kind.
Section 33 of the Act that sets out the procedure for invalidating s21 notices where the offence is identified, is so prescriptive and full of caveats that I don’t personally know of a single case where it has been found and I work in 5 different London boroughs.
Firstly the landlord must be put on notice of the repair “In writing”, so if a notification wasn’t in writing the entire process doesn’t even get triggered. Then the effective sanction can only be used where the council serves a ‘Relevant notice’ and there are only three types, so any other of the plethora of notices available for enforcement don’t even count.
Getting an effective sanction under s33 requires the successful conjunction of more elements than a sacrificial Aztec eclipse ceremony. When any form of action is in the offing the procedures quite rightly require the offending landlord or agent be notified and given various chances to appeal or correct the problem.
Trouble is, the wheels of justice grind very slowly and the committed rogue landlord or agent knows exactly how to play the long game.
Playing the system
As with the agent I mentioned above, he managed to drag out procedures before we obtained the 6 magistrates courts warrants, for a year, all the while netting a further £40 – £50,000 in housing benefit. Every week he stretched it out put more money in his bank account, even though he knew that ultimately he would lose.
The committed rogue may not have a high level of housing law knowledge, trust me, they don’t but they do know how to play the red-tape system to their advantage and at the end of the day, even if enforcement is successful, they have still pocketed loads more dosh while enforcement officers fill in endless forms to take them down.
Proceeds of crime act sanctions are useful but not in every case. Rent Repayment Orders coupled with Interim Management Orders are very much the way forward but they aren’t without their practical problems.
Even housing benefit sanctions have little effect on the real bottom end of criminal PRS where the target renter is someone not able to claim HB, which is where the people trafficking and sexploitation stuff goes on.
This is alien to honest landlords
Whenever I try to explain this stuff to normal landlords they just don’t get it.
As law abiding citizens they don’t think that way – but with the bottom feeders I deal with, playing cat and mouse in a run to the line is the standard business model and even when shut down they use aliases and the protection of limited company status to shut up shop and re-open again a few weeks later.
Enforcement laws have gotten a lot better but until the way that they are drafted gets more street-wise the committed villains will still give the runaround.
Working on a report
To this end, Safer Renting is currently working on a research project funded by Trust for London, with Dr. Julie Rugg of York University to produce a report shining a light on how these little scamps ply their trade, the aim of which is to influence debate and hopefully policy, bringing more general awareness to how criminals use the PRS.
The English Housing Survey, a source of so much commonly accepted data, doesn’t talk to the people we talk to and they don’t go into the properties either. Our report will be filling that gap.
What’s YOUR story?
If any Landlord Law Blog readers have any stories about being victims of activities of letting agents that were overtly criminal and organised in nature, or were perhaps unwitting victims of Rent 2 Rent scamming then contact Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org