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The abusive world of the shadow rental market

11 min read

Andrew Kersley reports on the growing number of victims of the shadow renting sector – the informal, unregulated area of the United Kingdom housing market, where landlords can be financially and physically abusive to tenants who have no other options

Maria’s* landlord wanted her to lie to the police. She had just illegally evicted one of the other tenants in her flat and confiscated a lot of his things.

“After he called the police, she wanted me to tell them that the other tenant was aggressive and tried to beat her up. But I refused because it was absolutely not true,” she says. “From that day, she said that the door was open for me.” Her landlord, a licensed therapist, then began an illegal campaign of physical and emotional abuse in an attempt to force her to leave.

“She comes here when she wants, she does what she wants. She takes and throws away my things, even my food from the kitchen. If I’m eating there she will move my plate, stand beside me, assault me and call me horrible names,” the 55-year-old tells The House, through tears.

“I’m scared of this woman to be honest. I’ve been very strong, she doesn’t know how much she affects me. But I don’t want to live like this anymore.” She adds that she hid the harassment from her family to stop them from worrying.

In one recording, the landlord can be heard screaming, pushing and hurling abuse at her for entering her kitchen. At one point, the constant harassment and assaults got so bad that charity caseworkers supporting her applied for emergency council housing under the same clause used by victims of domestic violence. While she has now been placed in a new home by the council, no action was ever taken against the landlord.

She is just one of a growing number of people made a victim of the shadow renting sector – the informal, unmonitored, and often cash-in hand rentals that exist on the most precarious end of the UK housing market, where landlords are often financially and physically abusive to tenants who have little to no alternative.

Speaking to caseworkers and victims, The House heard stories of landlords taking passports from tenants or acting as loan sharks to keep them trapped, dead tenants left in flats that landlords refuse to call the police over, landlords physically assaulting tenants, or permanently cutting off power.

They act with impunity – police and councils rarely intervene, even when incidents are captured on video. Meanwhile, for the human beings being thrown into this housing meat grinder, it permanently ruins lives.

Working out exactly how big the sector is a struggle – hardly unexpected given the name – but we have some figures. Take illegal eviction – the best data suggests that there are almost as many illegal evictions (7,778 as of 2021) as there are legal no-fault evictions, though even the charities involved say this will be a massive underestimate. The figure is also rising rapidly year-on-year.

“Demand for property at the very bottom of the sector is only going to increase because more people are falling through the cracks of what you might call the normal market,” says Julie Rugg, a senior research fellow at York University’s Centre for Housing Policy.

In many ways illegal eviction – where a landlord forcefully removes a tenant from their home without a court order or even a legal reason – represents the worst end of the shadow renting sector. Often tenants will see their possessions stolen by landlords in the disputes.

“It is really the single worst thing that can happen to a private renter short of dying or getting sick from black mould or disrepair,” says Roz Spencer, the director of Safer Renting. “It is the ultimate threat. And we’re seeing it as increasingly aligned to and in fact fitting the definition of domestic violence.”

So how has the problem been able to spin so far out of control? In theory, illegal eviction, landlord harassment and major disrepair are governed by laws like the 1977 Protection from Eviction Act. Both police and local councils have a responsibility to help, with councils taking the lead on prosecuting landlords who break the rules. But the reality is that housing law for those at the poorest end of the spectrum is poorly enforced.

Tenancy Relation Officers (TROs), the council staff charged with policing landlords’ conduct, weren’t classed as essential services during the austerity years, so their jobs were heavily cut by many cash-strapped councils that needed to make up for a 37 per cent cut in central government funding between 2010 and 2020. An investigation by this reporter for a different publication found that half the boroughs in London either do not employ or would not say if they employed any TROs. Even if they do have the staff, prosecutions are a lengthy, labour-intensive and costly process, which more often than not end with landlords receiving minuscule fines.

I’ve had a client before where he was illegally evicted and beaten up

The ability to enforce the laws varies by region. One team in South Yorkshire makes up as much as a quarter of all the prosecutions and convictions for illegal eviction and harassment nationwide in any given year. Nationwide, just 12 landlords were convicted for harassing or illegally evicting their tenants in 2020 of at least 6,930 illegal evictions that year. That conviction rate of less than 0.1 per cent is one of the lowest rates for any crime in the country.

And while police forces themselves do not have the responsibility for prosecuting illegal eviction or harassment cases, they do have a legal responsibility to intervene during an illegal eviction and keep the tenant in the home. However, across 2019, 2020 and 2021, The Met referred just one case of illegal eviction or landlord harassment of thousands to an “external agency” – likely a local council – who could take further action.

Most victims and charity staff The House spoke to said they don’t even bother to call the police any more – more often than not they will side with the landlord, they said, often aiding them in the commission of an illegal eviction.

The kind of hurdles faced by victims can hit Kafkaesque levels. “I’ve had a client before where he was illegally evicted and beaten up. His job was as a painter so he couldn’t work because he was injured. I was trying to get him on benefits but because he was illegally evicted he didn’t have access to any of his documents so he couldn’t apply,” says John-Luke Bolton, a caseworker for Safer Renting.

“Because he couldn’t access benefits, he couldn’t access homelessness assistance because you need to be either in work or on benefits.” Bolton tried to get legal aid for the client to fight it, but because he didn’t speak fluent English, he had to access a specific type of aid that would provide translation – but to get access to that he had to answer a long list of questions in English. The landlord in question was never prosecuted as the local council said they had no staff who could deal with illegal evictions.

Generally, the financial penalties are lower than you would get the illegal downloading music off the internet or shoplifting

That helps explain why, for many of those on the front lines of the housing crisis, there is little hope in sight. Even the much-delayed Renters’ Reform Bill, which aims to outlaw section 21 no-fault evictions and has been lauded by housing charities like Shelter, is viewed cynically by many we spoke to. Their fear is that without a total upheaval of frontline enforcement, the law will just drive more landlords to illegally evict their tenants with impunity. “Generally, the financial penalties are lower than you would get the illegal downloading music off the internet or shoplifting,” says Spencer. “If I was a landlord, why wouldn’t I just change the locks?”

In Tooting, Daniela shares her one-bedroom flat with her five mostly teenage children. “It’s small, really small, but what else can I do?” she asks – the £650 a month single room is all she can afford on her income as a hotel cleaner. Late last year her landlord decided he wanted her to move midway through her current contract – when she refused to voluntarily leave – he began a campaign of terror, cutting off her heating, jamming toilets with her clothes when she left, shouting at her children, putting padlocks on the toilet door. When she refused to go, he said she could stay if she paid an extra £200 a month in rent – a 30 per cent increase.

“Everything is off in the house. Heating, even internet,” she says. “It has been like that for five months. I had to buy a heater for my room, it would be impossible to live without it.” Then a letter came from their energy company. They wanted £10,000. It turns out the account for the entire building had been put in her name, despite the fact utility bills are nominally included in her rent.

Just last week private bailiffs arrived, in a van decorated like a police van, trying to force her family out for “trespassing”. They only left after multiple hours when Safer Renting caseworkers said they would take them to court for an illegal eviction if they proceeded.

The crisis was only made worse by the fact she doesn’t really know who her landlord is. Her property is a “rent-to-rent” –  a system where owners rent out properties to people or companies with the main intention of themselves renting it out, sometimes legally and with full knowledge of the “superior landlord”, and sometimes not. Often the chain of individuals and shell companies is so convoluted, it’s impossible for tenants to take abusive or absentee landlords to court. The issue makes up as much as 25 per cent of the cases that cross the threshold at Safer Renting, and is currently at the centre of a major Supreme Court case.

While “rent-to-rent” is an increasingly new phenomenon, the problems that drive all of this are much older. “None of this is a new problem. It’s endemic, long term. It doesn’t really deserve to be called a crisis,” adds Spencer. “It’s just too chronic for that.”

Home Sweet Home mat

The truth is that housing isn’t properly regulated. While existing laws aren’t enforced, there are also a lot of gaps in the law. While advocating for a national register of landlords, Rugg highlights the fact that MOTs and car licensing mean that in most cases, cars are more regulated and monitored than private housing. Then there’s the impact of years of stagnant housebuilding – the UK hasn’t hit its current housebuilding target of 300,000 homes a year since the 1970s – which has driven up rents and forced desperate tenants to rely on the worst landlords in an attempt to find affordable rents.

Another major factor is that the share of the most affordable housing made up by private rented accommodation has skyrocketed in recent years. Obviously a lot of things have played into that, but it’s possible that Right To Buy was the key turning point.

The policy, which allowed council housing residents to buy their homes, radically transformed the nature of the affordable housing market in the UK, from something that was largely provided by the state to one that is increasingly covered by the private sector. So while the population and number of homes increased, between 1979 and 2021 the social housing sector shrunk by a quarter from 5.5m homes to 4.1m. Meanwhile, more than 40 per cent of former Right To Buy homes are now rented out privately, and waiting lists for government-provided social housing are so long 217,000 households have been waiting in excess of five years for a home. That pressure forced the poorest to rely on private renting to get a roof over their head.

The fundamental problem is that at the affordable end of the housing sector, the profit margins for landlords are much lower, something that incentivises criminal behaviour.

“There’s this expectation that landlords are going to pick up this charitable enterprise of housing our lower income families without making a return,” says Rugg. “It’s almost like childish thinking, why would they do that?” The lack of a functioning system to hold them to account only adds to that.

Ultimately though, for both those falling through the cracks of our housing sector and those working in it, there’s a hopelessness to it all; a sense of being completely and totally abandoned. Not just by authorities themselves, but by the ongoing debate about housing in the UK.

“I think an awful lot of the attention that’s been paid to renting at the minute, is because there’s some very middle-class people looking at their children having a bad time in the private rented sector and thinking: “These are nice people having a bad time”, says Rugg. “But none of the things that are being suggested now are really dealing with the very bottom end at all.”

*name changed

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