Squatters Rights – what’s not changed

by Mark Alexander

11:22 AM, 1st September 2012
About 7 years ago

Squatters Rights – what’s not changed

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Squatters Rights – what’s not changed

In this blog I intend to dispel a few urban myths which appear to be forming, both amongst landlords and squatters themselves judging from some of the readers emails I have received. As of today a person occupying a residential property without the owners permission is committing a criminal offence which is punishable by up to six months in prison and a £5,000 fine and can no longer claim squatters rights. 

Yesterday evening I appeared on BBC News 24 and completed a down the line interview with Catherine Brogan representing SQUASH (Squatters Action for Secure Homes) who also appeared on the same 6 minute interview.

Catherine does not match most peoples stereotype of a squatter. I couldn’t see her during the interview and had no prior knowledge of who she was. I watched a recording of the interview later at a friends house and decided to Google her. She is on Facebook, Twitter, You Tube and even has her own blog. Clearly she is also an aspiring poet and to be perfectly honest  was quite impressed. Nonetheless, from the interview it was also clear that even for Catherine, some of the lines were still a bit blurred in terms of todays new laws criminalising squatters.

So, let’s dispel a few urban myths and answer a few questions for landlords and squatters:-

  1. If a person has been subject to a tenancy agreement and fails to pay rent on time or leave the property when a section 21 or section 8 notice is issued this does not make them a squatter and no crime has been committed. This remains a civil offence and a court order is still required for any eviction to be legal.
  2. The new law does not apply to commercial properties, therefore, the method of removing squatters is the same as it was before the new law.
  3. Don’t expect the Police to raid and arrest every squatter in a residential building today. It’s not going to happen. The reality is that they will only act once they receive a complaint from the owner. Given that several squatted properties have remained empty for years due to neglect by the owner it is highly unlikely that such owners will even be aware of the new law, let alone make a complaint.

I read a very interesting post written by David Lawrenson on the Inside Housing Blog which suggested that squatters are likely to use the following tactics to avoid prosecution. I thought long and hard about whether to re-publish his words here but I decided to do so on the basis that forewarned is forearmed and the matter should be discussed and ideas shared. David’s comments are in blue:-

“We think all that a squatter now has to do under the new law, is the following….

  1. Go to the Land Registry website and find out who is the owner of the property. This costs £4 currently per enquiry and takes about 3 minutes to do.
  2. Make up a plausible looking tenancy agreement with a false name for the tenant and the true name of the landlord. Blank up to date agreements can be found on line in a minute or so, and can be bought for a few pounds.
  3. Show the agreement to the policeman or bailiff or owner.
  4. If queried, the squatter will say they pay rent in cash to to the landlord. Naturally there is no trail for cash and they can say that the nasty landlord never issues a receipt.
The landlord or rightful owner will then have to go to the trouble to prove that no such tenancy agreement was made. This will all take a few weeks or even a few months. Eventually, once they have proved this and just before the police come again, the occupiers will then need to do a “skip” – which will probably in the middle of the night onto the next squat. Eventually, it will be obvious to everyone with some common sense that the new law does not work effectively – at which point the police will not want to get involved anyway.

What can landlords do to protect themselves against this strategy?

My initial thoughts are to pay a friendly visit to the squatters before calling the Police. Tell them about the new laws in a friendly way and give them a couple of days to move out before you call the Police and report the crime. Personally, I would also explain that I am sympathetic to their cause and ask them if I could interview them for an article. I’d then get a picture taken with them. If they then chose to mess me about, as David Lawrenson has suggested above, I will then have pictures of them. One way or another I would get pictures!

I do have some sympathy with some squatters which may come as a shock to some landlords. That said, I’ve never had one of my properties squatted so that experience has never lead to the despair and resentment that I have seen other landlords go through.

I once spent an evening with a landlord who was a previously a squatter in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. We sat in a hotel bar following a networking meeting swapping stories until the early hours. I was fascinated by his stories of why he became a squatter. He too was a very intelligent man, articulate, well spoken, educated and very much into the psyche of people. He became a squatter to rebel and he beleives that several squatters are of this mindset. He knew he could go home to Mum and Dad at any time but it was the Punk Rock era and “Anarchy rules OK“.

Not all squatters are like him though. Some genuinely can’t find anywhere to live. Human beings, like all creatures, will do what it takes to get shelter and food. It’s not always down to money either. many landlords will no longer entertain benefits claimants and there simply isn’t enough social housing stock to accommodate the growing numbers of people in need of social housing.

The Short and the Longer Term Solution

I have no doubt that changes to benefits will result in more private landlords refusing to rent to benefits claimants. Landlords want to be paid direct and know that they are not going to have to pay back the benefits. Councils are milking buy to let landlords by introducing various licencing schemes and planning regulations which will affect the values of their investments and their cashflow. Let’s face it, if landlords can’t make money they will focus their attention to where the can make money. Given that 50% of all UK rented property is now provided by private landlords and those landlords are backing away from letting to tenants claiming benefits I can only see homelessness figures going on one direction, can’t you?

A short term solution to the housing problem is for Councils to provide land with planning permission for temporary accommodation. The post war pre-fabs worked, these days pre-fabs are far better. People pay a small fortune to stay in a Winterised Caravan for a coastal holiday these days.  I know a park operator who would invest up to £200 million in a Joint Venture with councils to provide such short term accommodation. All he needs is a field with planning permission on a 99 year peppercorn lease from the council and a promise that they will rent the units back from him for 5 years at the same rate as single persons Local Housing allowance rates. He will fund the entire infrastructure, install the units and even contract to cut the council into 25% of the rent after the initial five year term. It seems like a no brainier to me but so far he’s drawn a blank. Crazy really as he knows at least 50 other European park operators who are likely to want to do exactly the same deal.

And the government say they want to solve the housing crisis and work with the private sector – PAH!!!

Anyhow, I’ve gone on for long enough. This blog started out as a professional sharing of information and is turning into a political rent so I’ll stop there and hand over to you.

PRESS INFORMATION

Mark Alexander can be contacted via:-

email: mark@property118.com
Twitter: @iAmAlandlord
Phone: 01603 428501



Comments

17:14 PM, 1st September 2012
About 7 years ago

Police have no directive to act from Home Office , APCO or Ministry of Justice. How long is a piece of police tape?

Ben Reeve-Lewis

8:45 AM, 2nd September 2012
About 7 years ago

Well done
Mark you understand the big picture as ever.

There are
many reasons why people squat, it isnt just anarchy and it isnt just financial.
Many squatters feel that empty properties are morally wrong in a climate where
people are homeless. I'm not saying you have to agree with that belief but
possibly accept the idea that squatting can also be done responsibly and with honourable
intentions.

I recall
back in the 1990s when London was planning to build the East London River
Crossing bridge Greenwich council compulosorily purchased a large tract of
Wickham Lane in Plumstead but then the bridge got scrapped and squatters moved
in to the 30 or 40 houses in the street that were laying empty.

I had
several friends living there, they all worked and kept the building in order.
They were homes for many years until the council took them back over. The
squatters stopped the area degrading..

I
understand that most concerns voiced on P118 is with the annoying and expensive
practice of evicted tenants breaking back in and in that landlords have my
sympathy. Many long term landlords will probably have had this happen to them or
at least know someone who it did happen to but I doubt any landlords, hand on
heart would say it was a perpetual problem warranting a law that will cost
society between £350million and £790 million to administrate, not to mention
the costs in dealing with the rise in homelessness.

For the
benefit of P118 readers I would also like to add to your list of what is
commonly considered squatting but actually isn’t.

If a
person was invited into the property by a lawful occupier they are not
squatting if the lawful occupier leaves.

This
covers people with a sole tenancy whose partner moves in and the relationship breaks
down and the tenant moves out. The remaining person might not have their name
on the tenancy agreement or a contract of any kind with the landlord but they
were let into the property with the permission of the tenant so are not
squatting.

My concerns
about squatting myths is when called, how will the police deal with it? At the
moment they cant tell the difference between a civil and criminal offence in
housing. If they hold the same erroneous beliefs held by many PRS landlords
about what constitutes squatting, will we also see a rise in police illegally evicting
people?

Tomorrow
I have a meeting with our legal department over the case of a woman moving in
with her partner, into his sole tenancy. He subsequently became violent and she
obtained an injunction to remove him from the property to protect herself and
her children. The agents argued that as she was not on the tenancy agreement
she was a squatter and she called the police. When she refused to leave they
handcuffed her in front of her chidlren and took her away. Agents changed the
locks. We are considering prosecuting the police for their involvement in what
was an illegal eviction because as usual neither the agent nor the police
understand the law.

Jonathan Clarke

9:48 AM, 2nd September 2012
About 7 years ago

With regard to David Lawrenson`s comments on tactics squatters might use...... If the squatters make up a false AST they will have to have forged the landlords signature. The police on checking the landlords true signature in advance on their passport / driving licence etc will see immediately ( in the vast majority of cases) the obvious differences and the squatters can be arrested forthwith for the squatting offence and also now the additional forgery and deception offences. There is no reason at all in my view why this should take a few weeks or months to check out after the event. It can be done in advance and then the matter dealt with in real time when they are on site.

Ben Reeve-Lewis

10:16 AM, 2nd September 2012
About 7 years ago

But Johnathon you are missing the legal point that under the Law of Property Act 1925 you dont need a written tenancy agreement to create a lawful tenancy unless its for a fixed term of more than 3 years, and who has one of those?. Many of my clients dont have them at all.

If the landlord tells the cops the occupier is a squatter who will the cops believe?

Bear in mind that although landlords rejoice that squatting is now a double criminal offence, so is illegal eviction and the police repeatedly and regularly assist landlords to illegally evict tenants because they believe what the landlord tells them and if the landlord believes that a person is a squatter when they owe rent, or their NSP has expired, or they havent left after a possession order is granted, or the person was let in by someone else with permission, commonly held beliefs I have read on this forum, then you have a recipe for a lot of criminal action coming back at landlords.

Mark Alexander

11:54 AM, 2nd September 2012
About 7 years ago

So what's going to happen when a landlord misunderstands the rules, calls the Police to eveict a tenant and Police help. Tenancy Relations Officer gets called in (i.e. you) case gets to Court some months later, property is re-let in the meantime. Landlords defence; "but I called the Police your honour and they thought this was squatting as well". What is the judge likely to do? yes, the Police and landlord have both committed a crime but if people can't rely on the Police to know what they are doing what chance have landlords got? Is it likely, in your opinion, that the judge will only prosecute the Police and force them to pay damages or do you think the landlord will have to pay up too? It will be very interesting to see what the legal profession make of the first case that get's to Court won't it? If a landlord is prosecuted in such circumstances, will a good brief have a case to claim damages off the police too I wonder?

Ben Reeve-Lewis

12:11 PM, 2nd September 2012
About 7 years ago

That is absolutely what will happen Mark. In criminal cases
ignorance of the law is no defence to either landlord or the police.

The police have been prosecuted in the past for participating
in illegal evictions, See Naughton v Whittle and greater Manchester Police from
2010.

Squatter’s rights groups will be pushing just this sort of
action as will many TROs who like me are thoroughly hacked off with the police
and their ignorance of this area of law constantly making things 10 times worse.
I am literally talking 99% of cases where they have become involved in
landlord/tenant disputes. I groan whenever one of my clients tells me they
called the police because I know exactly how the story is going to from then
on.

As I say, at the moment in standard illegal eviction cases
police help landlords evict based on what the landlrods tell them and if the
landlord is wrong the police are wrong too. The problem for landlords is, when
faced with an officer in uniform or a mouthy cockney council worker like me,
who are you going to believe?

Learning the difference between a squatter and someone who
has some form of legal rights in a property is not that complicated but I feel
many landlords comments are driven by emotive responses that blinds them to the
law, as is also the case when views are expressed on rent arrears being theft.
Simply not liking a situation or being angered about it doesn’t make something ‘Not’
a criminal offence.

When police start evicting and arresting squatters there
will be a lot of advisers, squatters rights groups and lawyers out there
looking to make cases, so landlords really need to start understanding the
difference between squatters and persons with rights, however much landlords
might hate those rights.

12:38 PM, 2nd September 2012
About 7 years ago

You are absolutely correct about the morality of empty property.
It is a national disgrace that we have approx 734000 empty properties.
I think there should be a wartime style reponse to these empty properties.
That is we the govt via councils will take compulsory ownership of these properties and make them fit to be lived in.
If you want the property back then you can providing you repay what we have invested in the property.
Any surplus rental income could go towards paying the debts incurred to bring the property into use or the owner could receive that rent on which tax would be paid.
No offsetting the tax against the capital the govt has spent which will one way or the other have to be repaid by the owner.
The housing crisis is such that we need a strategic response, invarably delivered by councils.
It should be a simple threat; bring ther property back into use or we will do it.
If you cannot source the finance to bring the property into use, we will provide cheap loans; but you will have to agree to house council tenaqnts for the 1st 5 years.
If somebody in Hackney is offered a refurbished house in some god forsaken Welsh mining town then they have to go there or come of the council housing list.
People should be housed and if it cannot be in their supposed areas, tough.
the obligation is to provide decent accommodation for all, not where the tenant would like to be .
Obviously the council would try to facilitate locality but if it can't be done then tough, you go where the decent accomodation is or there is no further obligation to house.
Perhaps doing this would breakup the ghettoisation of our communities.
It cannot, however be allowed that vital housing infrastructure is left to rot.
I can see the squatters point.
I think the bad squatteres have spoiled it for the good squatters.
Most of that has been caused by East European migrants.
We need to stop EU migration now; otherwise all that will happen is the migrants will be given the properties as they will be deemed to be in greater housing NEED.
We need to remove this NEED criteria.
Council property should go to who has been on the list the longest.
If that means asylum seekers and immigrants cannot source the council and HA property theso be it
Let's provide our scarce resouces for our citizens first before housing the world and his mother who manages to get into Britain.
British houses for British people whatever their race, colour or creed.
Govt must get to grips with the national wasting asset we have of empty housing stock.
The banks are a big obstacle here as they will not lend.
They need to be bypassed and subject to certain requirements councils can lend cheaply to bring these properties into use.
It makes far more sense paying standard LHA rather than expensive TA costs.
Will any of this be done .....................NO.
You can see why good squatters get annoyed; I'm annoyed along with them!!

Mary Latham

13:06 PM, 2nd September 2012
About 7 years ago

Ben I share your concerns I am often told "the Police said just throw them out if they haven't paid you" !!! The landlord thinks that this is legal advice and often argues with me - until the tenant or local authority takes action against him.
I am working with West Midlands Police in several areas to work out a protacol that landlords can depend on when they involve the Police in their tenant problems and illegal eviction will be part of this.
NLA are partnering the local Police at a series of West Midlands landlords meetings and we will be discussion what the Police can and cannot do to help landlords. My new talk for landlords events is "If you want to know the time ask a Policeman - but don't ask him for legal advice"
We are back EDUCATION EDUCATION EDUCATION where you and I always agree that it is ingnorance of the law that causes more problems in the PRS tha intentional illegal activies.

Ben Reeve-Lewis

13:12 PM, 2nd September 2012
About 7 years ago

"If you want to know the time ask a Policeman - but don't ask him for legal advice"

Hahaha Thanks for my first laugh of the day Mary.

I am double posting on this topic between here and Landlord Law Blog at the moment and have said that our problem is we have offered our local officer free training and assistance but they said they arent interested, so we have to make them interested by putting in a complaint with the PCC every single time they help in an illegal eviction or reject a serious complaint as a civil matter just because they hear the words 'Landlord and tenant'. Hopefully it wont take them too long to get the message

Mary Latham

13:28 PM, 2nd September 2012
About 7 years ago

Ben I have a different approach. The areas where I am working with the local Police are high crime areas, often where bad landlords thrive and tenants are vulnerable. They need landlords to work with them to clean up these areas so.......... when they need me I have my opening. I hate the word "training" it makes me think of dogs - no offence Ben but its the truth. I never "train" anyone I offer opportunities for discussion and the Police need to have the discussion with landords in their areas and landlords need to have the discussion with the Police. We need them to help us with anti social behaviour - by helping us they are also helping the community that they serve. We are going to put some information sharing protacol in place that will enable landlords to avoid placing the "wrong" tenants in their properties and this will help everyone. Here is a story that the Police in an area of Birmingham told me recently and I think that this illustrates the point.
There are two naughty gangs in this area and the Second in Command of one of these gangs is a black man. Two doors down from this man a landlord placed a tenant. The tenant was on medication and had been behaving himself when the landlord checked him out. The tenant came off his medication and became violent and racist........ Do I need to say more?
The Police cannot divulge information to landlords but what they can do is answer a simple yes or no to the following question.
"I am planning to put this tenant into xyx property. This my criteria for a good tenant xyz. Have you any reason to believe that this tenants does not reach my criteria?"
Thank them for their reply and leave it at that.
"Data Protection" are the dirtiest words in the English language for landlords and the way to avoid it preventing information sharing is NEVER ASK FOR INFORMATION. Make a statement followed by a simple closed ended question the answer to which will tell you what you need to know without breaking Data Protection.

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