Nearly three years ago my colleague Roz and I, having been made redundant from running Lewisham council’s rogue landlord enforcement team as a result of cuts in funding, established ‘Safer Renting’ with £3,000 of seed funding and encouragement from Cambridge House in Camberwell, south London, an organisation dedicated to alleviating poverty and its related problems, established in 1889.
Councils being so strapped for cash that they tend to axe roles that they aren’t required to have by law, in order to keep wobbling along.
Many operational managers across London also knew that despite cuts they couldn’t run services without having people skilled in landlord and tenant law, able to protect tenants from the activities of criminal landlords.
As a result, we now provide advice and advocacy services for the licensing and enforcement teams of five London boroughs at the time of writing, with a few others in talks. We work with councils, not ‘For’ them and so aren’t on the payroll.
We are growing
Many charitable funders have also cottoned on to what we do and have put us in a position where we are employing staff, ironically some of whom are Cambridge law graduates, which is how Cambridge House started 130 years ago. Hence the name.
Trust for London provided funding for us to carry out two year’s research and produce a report on the hidden world of renting where we spend all our days. To do this we commissioned York University’s Dr Julie Rugg, of ‘Rugg report’ fame to guide us along with the academic side of things.
What we do
The Rugg Report 2018 drew much of its conclusions from the English Housing Survey, which produces figures that you see repeated all over the place, the 84% of tenants who are happy with their letting.
When I tell people what we do at Safer Renting they usually say
“Oh so you deal with the 16% who are unhappy”
I always have to correct them. We don’t. We deal with the unknown amount of people that the English Housing Survey doesn’t even talk to and go into properties they don’t know exist.
We deal with privately rented properties that are used for people trafficking, benefit fraud, tax evasion, brothels, massive overcrowding, and the occasional cannabis farm. A world away from the English Housing Survey.
Julie gave our report the title:-
“A journey through the shadow PRS”.
It should be out early in 2020.
In putting together information for our report I recently came across another, from the Legal Education Fund (who we also receive funding from) called “The Legal Problems of Renters”, published in 2015.
The aim of the research was to look into how lack of knowledge or awareness of even basic landlord and tenant law, impacts upon tenants – and its quite a read.
Perhaps the most astonishing figure from the findings is that when encountering a problem with their letting, 47% of renters put the situation merely down to ‘Bad luck’, without even realising there was any legal element to their problems whatsoever.
40% of renters hit difficulties as a result of ‘Social welfare problems’, for that, read ‘Universal Credit’ and this was before it really kicked in.
Interestingly, only 5% of people in trouble sought advice from solicitors. Most didn’t even know solicitors could help. More worryingly only 5% sought advice from the “advice sector”, not specifically defined but certainly where Safer Renting sits and whose existence owes itself to the fact that so many advice agencies have closed down because of austerity cuts.
I think, had renters even realised that solicitors could help and were eligible for legal aid, the figure would still remain low, however, I was recently given a list of legal aid firms doing housing work in London and it amounts to just 17 names.
In a city of roughly 10 million, a third of whom are private renters.
Also, bear in mind that the LEF report is still unlikely to have spoken to the demographic that the Safer Renting report is plugged into. I would imagine our figures, when published will be even more stark with ignorance of the law probably one of the biggest problems and which always gives criminal landlords an edge.
Ignorance or Innocence?
Back in the autumn, I did a presentation to a group of everyday tenants, not Safer Renting’s usual clients, at the behest of Cambridge City Council. (that Cambridge connection again) and I mentioned s21 notices in passing.
One woman put up her hand and asked what a s21 notice was. I thought she was joking but asked the group if anyone else didn’t know about them. Every single hand in the room went up.
Mind you, many landlords are similarly ignorant. I was arguing with a London letting agent just last week, who wanted all the tenants in a house to leave because the council had identified it as unlicensed. He said in an offended tone:-
“Don’t tell me my job, I’m a professional, I known what I’m doing”,
before promptly serving all occupants with a s33 notice to evict. Fine if you are in Scotland where they are valid but not in Walthamstow, where his high street office is based.
So what was the LEF report’s conclusion?
That not enough use is made of the internet to disseminate legal information for tenants.
I have to say I find this a bit of a limp conclusion as a cure to all ills raised in the findings. The internet is awash with free and quite accurate information for tenants and landlords, such as this blog [and the Tenant-Law site too, Ed].
The problem doesn’t lie with the availability of information but its comprehension to ordinary people.
Let’s face it, in terms of ease of use, housing law is on par with Japanese Arithmetic, as a comment from the report notes:-
“Respondents (4,000 tenants) found legal problems related to rented housing, harder to understand than other types of problem”.
The availability and accessibility of legal advice on renting is not the problem. Its everywhere but the question is, how do you educate people to first understand that illegal eviction, harassment, poor treatment, disrepair are legal issues, not simply ‘Bad Luck’?
Secondly, you need to address how you get people to realise that there is help out there and thirdly, how do people who produce these blogs and websites make what they write, understandable to people who aren’t lawyers?
And this only deals with one aspect of the problems raised in the LEF report. It doesn’t represent where our report is going.
The LEF cites the main ‘At-Risk’ groups being young, single parents and unmarried couples with children.
Get the demographic right
We already know that our demographic of ‘At – risk’ renters is foreign nationals, low paid workers, young professionals, black and ethnic minority tenants and those with drink, drug and mental health problems.
Again, not the usual cases that surveys talk to or deal with in the rental market but a target group for criminals, depending on the type of scam being run.
The aim of all reports is to influence public debate and hopefully policy. The Safer Renting report will fill the data gap that currently exists in the shadow world of the PRS.