To Be a Rogue – Don’t Shoot the Messenger #7

To Be a Rogue – Don’t Shoot the Messenger #7

9:36 AM, 17th October 2011, About 13 years ago 15

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When a tenant has a beef with their landlord, I’m the guy they go to. My job is to either negotiate or prosecute, depending on the circumstances. This occasional and random series aims to let landlords know the common complaints that are made about them, the laws that cover them and how to deal with it.

The problem with ‘Rogue Landlords’

A slight departure for this one. No cautionary tales but an open question really. I am asking this of the landlords who read this and am talking to lawyers and others to find an answer.

Having been in this business since 1487 I have seen a lot of trends come and go and have been intrigued in the past year by a new phrase being bandied about….the “Rogue Landlord”. You read it in papers, you hear Jon Snow talk about them on TV and I am even starting to hear it in council meetings. I am very wary of phrases like this being picked up casually, thinking, ‘How come we didn’t talk about this a year ago?’, as if it’s a new phenomenon.

Shelter are using it rather a lot I notice. I recently wrote an article for The Guardian about Shelter’s campaign but in legendary Guardian style they misspelled the title to read “Rouge Landlords”, demonising them further by conjuring an image suggesting they all look like Quentin Crisp.

The phrase has a neat sound to it for some journalists searching for snappy handles, like ‘Neighbours from Hell’ or ‘Bankrupt Britain’. The sort of thing that only gets thrown up occasionally, where everyday words, when stuck together, conveniently sums up a commonly shared image or belief. In this case a new and previously unknown social evil, like ‘Meow’ or whatever cattle tranquiliser disguised as the latest ‘Rave’ drug happens to be these days.

Shelter responded to my critical article by asking me for my recommendations. I wrote 12 pages for them……I have a lot of ideas……and one of the things I mentioned was how unhelpful the term ‘Rogue Landlord’ could be and that it needed a more precise definition.  The reply I got on this point was that although they acknowledged the definition was a bit vague they felt it helped raise the profile of the problem which in turn could help add leverage to political and social engagement.

To be fair to Shelter we are coming at it from slightly different angles. They are trying to publicise a hidden problem, and for that they do have my support but I have to work with it on a daily basis on the front line where I don’t find it at all helpful to have every bit of landlord behaviour categorised as simply Good v Rogue.

Landlord hits tenant with baseball bat. You don’t need a TRO wall chart to identify them as a definite rogue, in fact I would suggest that Rogue is too weak a term, as ‘Rogue’ is often doubled up with the word ‘Loveable’, as in Arthur Daley and baseball bats are rarely an object of affection.  “Out and out b*****d” would be a more fitting legal description. And trust me, there are still enough of those people doing the rounds.

A few weeks back a Croydon landlord called Chyna Grey (named after a drug but sounds like a singer in a new romantic band) kidnapped her tenant, tied him to a chair and repeatedly stabbed him in the back with a scalpel over rent arrears. Now that’s what I call a ‘Rogue’, although distinctly un-loveable.

So what do you think defines a ‘Rogue Landlord’?

Is it acts of violence done to a tenant? Threats of violence?

I think we would all agree with those but even in my neck of the woods, South East London, where the girls look like women, the women look like men and men look like psychos these kinds of incidents only account for a handful of complaints each month.

In case you don’t know I work for a council investigating and prosecuting harassment and illegal eviction cases and I’ve been doing it since 1990. I am best placed to see what is going on. I would say that the vast majority of complaints made against landlords are in the area of:-

  • Landlord has sold the property but hasn’t gone to court for a possession order and is expecting the tenant to move out on Friday when contracts are to be exchanged. Tenant goes to council who rightly advise them that they still have a legal right to remain and they won’t pick them up, contrary to the advice of Dave down the pub. Locks get changed in a panic.
  • Landlord served notice, tenant didn’t leave and landlord hasn’t got a clue what to do next so they keep pressurising the tenant to leave.
  • Tenant owes huge arrears, landlord serves papers but they are all over the place because they haven’t got a clue how to do it and don’t want to pay a solicitor to do it for them.
  • Landlord keeps letting themselves into the tenant’s home when they aren’t there, batting aside tenant’s complaints.
  • Tenant owes thousands in rent, landlord takes their TV and computer and won’t give them back until paid or, in the alternative, disconnects the electricity and gas.
  • Landlord serves occupier with a ‘Licence’ agreement and doesn’t realise they have actually created a tenancy and then can’t understand it when the occupier doesn’t leave when asked.

These are the most common kinds of things that get my phone ringing all day long. Around 75% of my cases are one of the above. I often think I would like a pre-recorded message to go out to stop me having to explain the same bloody laws over and over again like a CD with a thumb print on (we’ve moved on from the broken record metaphor, don’t you think?).

The rest are the baseball bat ones in one form or another, although it can occasionally be in the form of a curse, which I came across last year carried out by one Nigerian Landlord against his Nigerian tenant. 3 piles of salt, a pool of chicken blood and a carving knife outside the tenant’s door had him absolutely wide eyed with fear. I suggested to him that it may have innocently resulted from a random black pudding making accident……………the joke didn’t go down well!

The majority of complaints of landlord’s actions brought to my door by tenants are committed recklessly and in ignorance of the law. The vast army of buy to let landlords and reluctant or amateur landlords don’t understand the rules that govern their business and that is where the problem lies. A smaller amount does know but couldn’t care less. To my mind, THAT is where the term ‘Rogue’ should apply.

I would also personally use the term ‘Rogue’ where a person acts recklessly but then doesn’t heed the advice given by people like myself or a solicitor after they have acted. In my book, if you have been advised but you still go ahead, then you deserve what you get.

In deciding whether to prosecute or not I have to take into account a lot of different factors;-

  • Resources available,
  • Credibility of the tenant as a witness,
  • Hard evidence,
  • Whether my tenant/witness will be around in 2 years’ time for the trial,
  • Finding the perpetrator,
  • The chance of complex and arcane case laws sinking the claim.

One key criminal law factor that I also have to consider is if the perpetrator/landlord shows suitable remorse. Mostly clueless amateurs don’t know the ramifications of what they do and apologise and set things straight. This means my legal department will soft pedal on prosecution, deeming it not in the public’s interest.  I will usually sit down and help these ones out.

So my definition of a Rogue landlord has 3 categories:

  1. Those who use violence or threats of violence against their tenants, (Reasonably easy to evidence)
  2. Those who know the law as it relates to a landlord/tenant situation but ignore it, (Difficult to prove prior knowledge)
  3. Those who make genuine mistakes but when advised still go ahead anyway (A bit easier to prove than point 2)

That for me would make more sense legally and also as a definition that a TRO, housing adviser or lawyer could work with.

Using the term in all its vagueness might generate discussion and highlight the very real problem but it doesn’t help anyone to legislate it or work with it in the real world. Also, if you label all slightly off-centre landlord behaviour as ‘Rogue’ then working in my job you cant separate the real rogues from the overall mass and decisive action is made all the more difficult.

Come on you lot, you’re mostly landlords, what do you think the legal definition of a ‘Rogue Landlord’ should be? I’ll pass this on to Shelter.

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11:10 AM, 18th October 2011, About 13 years ago

Mary & Ben:

I think the definition of a 'Rogue' is one who intentionally breaks the law in a way which can, but does not always, cause tenant misery.

However, as has been pointed out, there are many landlords who break the law and cause tenant misery unintentionally, because they are not aware of their responsibilities.

I think education of landlords will go a long way to prevent tenant misery caused by landlords in the latter group, but not the former.

Preventing true 'rogues', using the definition above, can only come through stricter regulation (which I personally disagree) or the creation of a self-regulated community of 'good' landlords. I think letting agents have a role to play in creating this community.

Mary Latham

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17:35 PM, 18th October 2011, About 13 years ago

Peter everyone in the business has an important part to play but in my opinion Tenants are the people who can really "regulate" once there is enough property available to give them that choice. To increase the supply we need to up skill the good landlords and encourage them to invest.

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8:25 AM, 20th October 2011, About 13 years ago

Always read the articles with interest; however it would be so much simpler to follow the thread if the comments were in chronological order!

Mark Alexander - Founder of Property118

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8:34 AM, 20th October 2011, About 13 years ago

Hi Tony

I fully understand where you are coming from but sadly we don't have much control over that. Users have the choice of starting their own comment or hitting the reply button. The latter puts the comment under the one they are replying to and slightly indents it so that it is clearly a response. Problem is, some users don't realise that and just read a comment then post. It's a common issue raised by users of news websites that utilise WordPress functionality. The problem isn't the system, it's the fact that it's not completely intuitive. Given that WordPress is now the platform of choice for 10% of all News based websites I suspect they will be working on this.

Mark Alexander - Founder of Property118

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8:39 AM, 20th October 2011, About 13 years ago

Hi Tony

Ignore my last post, we've found a new setting. Is this better?

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