On the naughty step: The unacceptable face of London landlords

Some of you, those in London at least, might have noticed Boris Johnson announce a new, and completely voluntary, no compulsion here, landlord accreditation scheme. The idea being that tenants, desperate to find somewhere in the middle of the worst accommodation shortage in London for many, many years, will choose to avoid a ‘non-Boris’ landlord. This is of dubious worth, but no matter, what concerns us here is what followed that announcement. Bear with me, because it is worth it in the end.

At the next London Assembly Questions to Boris session, Andrew Dismore, Labour Assembly member for Barnet and Camden (oh yes, Barnet), wanted to ask Boris about the conduct of a particular landlord in his constituency.

Footage of him putting the question is on the Broken Barnet blog, but the detail is as follows. Italics are the substance of AD’s extended question.

The landlord in question has 15 properties in his and his wife’s name and 4 via a company [S&H Housing Ltd- NL]. Mr Dismore had spoken to seven of the tenants, 6 of whom were on housing benefit (LHA). 

The ‘Zoopla’ suggested rents for the properties were between £989 to £1186 per month. Maximum LHA for the properties was £1300 to £1560, (3 to 4 bed). The rents actually charged (to BME tenants) were close to or over the LHA rate, not the market rate, at £1350 to £1846.

So far, so standard. A private landlord artificially inflating rents to profit from LHA rates where they exceed actual market rents, profiting hugely from public funds. Distasteful, and inflating the housing benefit bill, but not unlawful. But there is more.

The assured short hold tenancy agreements seen by AD were for a 12 months term and “permitted rent increases of any amount at any time during the tenancy” – Shelter were quoted by AD as responding “we would almost certainly classify this as an unfair term and probably illegal”. 

Well, Shelter were holding back a bit. It is definitely an unfair term and definitely unlawful. There are statutory mechanisms by which rent can be raised in the course of an AST, or a clear, fixed rent review mechanism in the tenancy agreement.  Can’t be lawfully done otherwise.

One of the tenants, a tenant of the landlord for 12 years, said that the living room had been partitioned with a flimsy partition to create a ‘fourth bedroom’. The landlord showed up at her door unannounced late at night asking her to sign a new tenancy agreement. She was only shown the last page, with the place for her signature. The most recent agreement had the ‘witness’ signature pre-signed, though she never saw the witness. The landlord often turned up without notice to discuss rent payments at other times. As the rent had been increased over LHA rates for a 4 bed (and despite the local market rent being some £800 per month lower), the landlord allegedly told the tenant about DHPs and said he would make arrangements for her to go to Barnet Council to ask for DHP.

LHA was cut due to the benefit cap. DHP made up the cut, temporarily. Allegedly the landlord later informally accepted the reduced LHA amount as the rent, but insisted upon the outstanding arrears arising from the cap.

So, we have the dodgy  but widespread ‘sub division’ of properties to create an extra bedroom, regardless of habitability. We have attempt to pressure a signature on a new tenancy without time for it to be read. We have, at the least, breach of quiet enjoyment in turning up without notice, let alone late in the evening. We have ‘pre-signed’ witnesses – not that a witness is actually required to a 12 month AST at all, but if you are going to sign as a witness, you have to, well, witness the thing you are signing as a witness to. And then we have to attempt to squeeze still more out of public funds via DHP. Some of these are breaches of tenancy agreement, some might possibly amount to harassment, some are simply distastefully exploitative. And suborning a fake witness signature, thus forging a witnessed document? Hmmm.

When DHP stopped, the landlord then allegedly used those arrears as grounds for possession, also allegedly deducting the equivalent of the stopped DHP from the deposit on the tenant’s eviction.

Would, AD finally asks, such a landlord meet Boris’s London Rental Standard?

No, of course not, replies Boris. Sounds a terrible case and as if the landlord has broken the law, or committed misrepresentation of the terms of the lease. Boris would be happy to help vindicate the rights of that tenant. Concealing element of the tenancy agreement when trying to get the tenant to sign, it seemed to Boris, would be prima facie illegal.

And then, albeit with all the panache of an end of pier conjurer, a lifetime of unfulfillingly pulling rabbits from dingy hats behind him and only a cold bed in a seaside B&B to look forward to, Mr Dismore performs the reveal. Who was this landlord, and who the pre-signed witness?

The landlord was Councillor Hugh Rayner, the new (as of 2 June) Tory Mayor of Barnet.

And the missing witness? Tory Councillor John Hart. Mr Hart we can leave here as being someone who either doesn’t understand the meaning of the word ‘witness’, and thus should never be allowed to sign anything ever again as a witness, or someone who is willing to ignore the meaning of the word ‘witness’ for a mate, and thus should never be allowed to sign anything ever again as a witness.

Mayor Rayner, on the other hand, he of the unlawful tenancy agreement clauses allowing for unlawful rent increases, and of the unlawful breach of quiet enjoyment type unannounced visits, deserves a little more attention. Here he is, radiating dignity on his first council meeting as Mayor.

Mayor Rayner

Mayor Rayner (not demanding an unlawful tenancy agreement is signed at this point, but still the unacceptable face of London landlords).

Mayor Rayner did respond about the allegations to a local paper, the (deep breath) Hendon & Finchley, Barnet & Potters Bar, Edgware & Mill Hill Times.  Well, I say respond, more like confess.

He claims to have removed the clause about raising rent earlier this year as he now “appreciates they are non-enforceable”, but not could answer when the change took place.

And he no longer asks witnesses to pre-sign contracts – he admitted he admitted it was done on various occasions to “save time and trouble” but now appreciates it is incorrect.

He added that rent renewals or discussions about arrears are dealt with at the tenants home, and where possible, an appointment is made.

But when asked whether he felt 10pm was an unreasonable time to visit a tenant, he replied: “If they say it’s inconvenient for them, I go away. I take the tenants judgement.

“No pressure is applied.

“Efforts are made to have an English speaker available to translate – often the tenants children.”

He, could not, however, elaborate on the age of the children and said he does not feel this to be inappropriate.

He added: “With regards to charging above market rates, when letting to housing benefit funded tenants, our rents have been in line with the prevailing local housing allowance rates.”

So, not only a confession to an unlawful rent increase clause and ‘pre-signed’ witness signatures, but also a confession to turning up at tenants’ properties without notice (‘where possible an appointment is made’). He then adds in relying on the tenants’ children to translate a legal document where the tenant does not speak or read english adequately. To be fair, sometimes the children may be over 18, but somehow I doubt this is ‘often’ the case. And then of course the rents are in line with (the very top rate of) LHA rather than the market rent for such properties per se.

As even a cursory glance at the DCLG’s shiny new helpful ‘tenancy checklist‘ leaflet would have informed Mayor Rayner, he is really a little bit of a rogue landlord, letting down the Government and, as the DWP keep telling us about the HB bill, letting the taxpayer down, terribly.

And to add insult to injury for Boris:

Cllr Rayner said he “never thought it was necessary” to join the accreditation board but that he would look into it based on our story.

Well, no Mayor Rayner. It isn’t necessary. And Boris has made sure it still isn’t, though I’m fairly sure he won’t be very pleased with you right now. On the other hand, not actually doing unlawful things like turning up without notice and having unlawful tenancy agreement clauses is necessary, down to it being the law.

So, that is Mayor Rayner, a experienced landlord of over 12 years, who controls some 19 properties, yet who only realised ‘earlier this year’ that his tenancy agreements were unlawful, and who still doesn’t realise that he cannot turn up at the tenants’ property without notice without breaching the tenants’ rights to quiet enjoyment. A councillor, and Mayor, who suborned false witness signatures from another councillor, because ‘it saved time and trouble’. And a landlord who relies on the tenant’s children to translate legal documents, because this is not ‘inappropriate’. Onto the naughty step he goes.

Naughty step

As something of a rogue landlord and LHA exploiter, and one who clearly had no interest in or even knowledge of Boris’s great London Rental accreditation scheme, I suspect Mayor Rayner has just lost friends in the Mayoralty.  Oh how quick is the arc of a political career…

 

 

 

 

[Update. 13/06/14. It appears from this article in the local paper that Mr Rayner may actually have purported to exercise the ‘raise the rent without notice whenever I like’ clause in the tenancy agreements. If so, these rent increases would be unlawful. The question for Mr Rayner is did this happen and if so, when and by how much was the rent increased in this way? And then what is he going to do about the additional ‘rent’ received following such hikes, if any?

Did Mr Rayner pass on any such unlawful increases to the Council LHA department?

On the face of it, any tenants who had had such a hike could claim the payments back. And if the hikes had given rise to arrears then relied upon in possession proceedings? Hmmm.]

 

About Nearly Legal

NL is the former soubriquet of the founder of the blog. NL Redux is the author of certain kinds of, non-housing related, posts...
Posted in Assured Shorthold tenancy, Benefits, Housing law - All and tagged , .

24 Comments

  1. Giles wins the internet for this:

    “And then, albeit with all the panache of an end of pier conjurer, a lifetime of unfulfillingly pulling rabbits from dingy hats behind him and only a cold bed in a seaside B&B to look forward to, Mr Dismore performs the reveal.”

    (Even if it is a bit harsh on Andrew Dismore, who I actually quite like).

    • It was harsh. And unfair, not least given the excellent work he and his team had clearly put in. But it was deadpan to to point of bathos, so I couldn’t resist.

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  3. The higher rents charged to LHA recipients reflect the higher risk and hassle for landlords letting to them.

    There are reasons why most rental adverts now state ‘No DSS’.

    • And that ‘higher risk’, even assuming it is so, somehow exactly translates into charging the maximum available under DHP? Not just an increase, but exactly that amount? No, the higher rent does not ‘reflect the higher risk’.

    • Clearly the higher rent didn’t reflect the higher risk as the landlord went on to evict.

    • After he had put the rent up above the LHA rate, and got the tenant to apply for DHP, and only when the DHP stopped. A wholly self created risk on his part.

      And that was one of 7 mentioned. 6 not evicted that we know of.

    • Yet he still evicted.

      The LHA rate wasn’t enough for him even though it was supposedly above market rates. Greedy? Perhaps, but it still wasn’t worth the extra risk and hassle.

      Maybe he just felt it was all too distasteful.

    • So let me see if if have this right. Because of a hypothetical LHA tenant ‘risk rate’ (for which I have have been unable to find any reliable evidence, so unless you have some proper, non-anecdotal evidence, we might be better calling it an assumption, or a prejudice), private landlords are entitled to screw as much out of taxpayers money as they possibly can?

      That seems to be the gist. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    • I know it is what is happening, although that survey was based on a sample of about 300, so not wholly reliable.

      None of that actually says there is an ‘LHA risk’. It might say that landlords think there is. Or it might say that many landlords think they can get more renting privately (which in a lot of cases would be true) Or it might say they are (entirely understandably) worried about Universal Credit. You are still not actually giving any evidence about this ‘risk’.

      Meanwhile, and as there are plenty of PRS landlords happy to do this, I think we as taxpayers are entitled to be dubious about those who seek to maximise their rental income in this manner at the taxpayers expense.

  4. http://www.theguardian.com/money/2014/jan/21/landlords-turn-away-housing-benefit-claimants

    A poll of more than 1,500 landlords around the country seen by theguardian.com/money found that just 18% currently had tenants on housing benefit in one or more of their properties, against a figure of a third when a similar survey was done two years ago.

    ..Snip..

    Of those who are no longer happy to take tenants on benefits, 90% said they had problems when they did so, including late payments and damage to property.

    • Which, by my maths is 202.5 landlords saying they had had problems. But of course that figure doesn’t mean anything unless there is also a figure for landlords taking non LHA tenants who had had problems. Need relative risk for it to mean anything.

      And even if there were such a risk (and I didn’t say there wasn’t, just that I hadn’t seen any evidence to show it, and still haven’t), that doesn’t answer the quantification of the risk and whether it justifiably amounts to ‘rent at the top end of LHA’. This is rather key in deciding whether such private landlords are taking a justified premium based on the level of risk involved, or are simply soaking the tax payer for everything they can get.

    • Perhaps tenants would pose less of a pre-supposed ‘risk’ if they were all able to adequately feed themselves and heat their homes. If they felt that they had a future and a life worth living in a supportive, welcoming community.

  5. I am very unimpressed with the behaviour of the mayor who is meant to be the number 1 citizen and should, even leaving aside the Noaln principles of public life, set an example to us all. The one he has set revolts me.

    A complaint has been amde to the monitoring officer that he has voted without declaring an interest. barnet council is in meltdown at the moment as at the first meeting the mayor presided over the proprotionate allocation of councillors to committees was messed up.

    http://www.times-series.co.uk/news/11282197.VIDEO__Barnet_Council_left_in__limbo__after_flawed_allocations_of_committees/?ref=ms

  6. Pingback: Ben Reeve Lewis Friday Newsround #158

    • On the witness signature – no. It does not affect the validity of the tenancy agreement, which as a 12 month term, does not need to be witnessed. So there is no way in which the false witness signature is actually being materially relied on. If there were, that might be fraud, I suppose.

      Unlawful eviction is is criminal offence, s.1 Protection from Eviction Act. But I have seen no suggestion that there was an eviction without a possession order and warrant.

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