Exclusive: Government Money to Tackle Rogue Landlords Is Being Used to Arrest Tenants

By September 21, 2016Uncategorized

Source: VICE

A police officer taking part in a “beds in sheds” raid. It’s not clear why this kind of athleticism is needed to catch a rogue landlord. (Photo via the Department for Communities and Local Government)

It’s worth remembering what the housing crisis actually means in practice for some people. Housing officers tell stories like
that
of
a trafficked migrant sleeping in a derelict garage with only half a
roof, accessed by a hole in the wall. And when you consider that a staggering 39
percent of Conservative MPs are
themselves
landlords, it’s a reminder of how far removed they are from those on the sharp
end of this catastrophe.

Perhaps with
this in mind, they have been keen to position themselves as tough on the
“unscrupulous Scrooges” giving saintly landlords like themselves a bad name. The
Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government made a huge deal about
the millions of pounds given to local councils for just this purpose: to
“crack down on criminals that make tenants’ lives a misery”.

Today, VICE
can exclusively reveal that these government funds to crack down on bad
landlords were used to pay for dawn raids by police and border officials on
vulnerable tenants. Hundreds of them were then evicted, arrested or deported.

Evidence
gathered by the Radical Housing Network, via numerous freedom of information
(FOI) requests, has discovered what is at best serious misrepresentation about
the use of government funds. The coalition project saw the Department for
Communities and Local Government (DCLG) awarding the £5.8 million to local
councils via two standalone funds: £1.8 million awarded in 2012 to tackle “beds
in sheds”, and then a further £4 million in 2014 to crack down on “rogue landlords”. The
latter announcement boasted the money would be used to “root out the cowboys
and rogue operators”, in
the words of Tory Housing Minister Kris Hopkins, to “ensure millions of
hard-working tenants get a better deal”.

The Radical Housing
Network report,
Wolf in sheep’s clothing? How funding to tackle “rogue landlords” has harmed tenants, is based on FOI requests submitted to the 30 councils
participating in the government scheme. They asked how much each council had
received, what that money had been spent on, how properties had been located
(usually via aerial photography), how many had been visited and what the
outcomes were for landlords and tenants alike.

Tens of thousands
of properties were visited, many of them carried out as “multi-agency visits”,
featuring not just housing officers but the police, UK Border Agency, tax
officers or the fire brigade. The east London borough of Newham received the most
funding of all boroughs, over £1 million in total, and carried out 4,504 visits
to properties, 341 raids and “nearly 400 arrests whilst on joint property
licensing operations”. The council has been unable to clarify what proportion
of those 400 arrested are landlords, and what proportion are tenants.

Then-Immigration Minister Damian Green and then-Housing Minister Grant Shapps looking very important in a suspected rogue landlord’s property (Photo via the Department for Communities and Local Government)

For
a campaign sold as a piece of compassionate conservatism to rescue vulnerable
tenants, it is revealing that it was launched with a macho publicity stunt for
the press. In 2012, Tory
ministers Grant Shapps and Damian Green launched the fund by
joining
dawn
raids on six properties in Ealing with the police and UK Border
Agency.

Then-Housing Minister Grant Shapps commented at the time, “I want
to see all agencies from councils to the police and the UK Border Agency using
the full range of powers at their disposal to work together on a national
clampdown towards ridding our communities of this problem once and for all.”
It’s not clear what “problem” he’s talking about.

Action
against landlords – the whole purported reason for the funds – appears to be
limited. “One of the most common responses where landlords were found to be
providing inadequate accommodation were ‘improvement notices’,” the report’s
authors write. These are “essentially polite letters to landlords asking them
to make improvements” – no fine, no arrest, no censure.

Then there
is the obvious distress caused by early morning police raids on already
vulnerable tenants, especially where families with children are concerned. Why carry
out a dawn raid at all? Landlords are unlikely to be living on the property –
especially if it is squalid and overcrowded – and renting out an illegal
property isn’t the kind of thing you need to catch culprits at red-handed.

The FOIs
also reveal that raids by police and border officers led to arrests and legal
action against many tenants, including investigation for drugs offences or
council tax irregularities (Peterborough), detention by UK Border Agency (Redbridge), or
ASBOs (Barnsley and Herefordshire). Again, this is supposedly a crackdown on rogue landlords,
making life safer for tenants.

There is
also no evidence of support for those vulnerable tenants after the worst of the
properties were shut down or demolished, or tenants were evicted because of
overcrowding. Obviously no one wants rickety, cockroach-infested beds in sheds
to be maintained, but what happened to their tenants when they were turfed out
onto the street?

Don
Flynn, Director of the Migrants’ Rights Network, told VICE that the policy is explicitly
targeting the wrong people: “This report shows that the people who are the
victims of the appalling practices of rogue landlords are now being made to
suffer, from what is little more than a ham-fisted publicity stunt, designed to
make a few politicians look dynamic and proactive. The tenants lose whatever
accommodation they have and the landlords are escaping with little more than a
warning letter. By every standard ‘beds in sheds’ has proven to be a complete
flop.”

A suspected rogue landlord’s property (Photo via the Department for Communities and Local Government)

And yet they
merrily continue. Satisfied with the press photos of government ministers in
the kinds of houses they’d presumably never set foot in normally (unless it was to chase
up rent owed to them), in January this year they announced a £5 million
continuation of the scheme. And how is it being sold to the public?
“£5 million cash for councils to stop rogue landlords” – no mention of
immigration enforcement or police, just “measures that will ensure millions of
hard-working tenants get a better deal when they rent a home”.

In a final
grim irony, there’s a strong case that the government actively made “beds in
sheds” worse as they waged their supposed war. For one thing, David Cameron’s
government built proportionally the
lowest amount of new housing of any Prime Minister since 1923, giving greater opportunities
to “unscrupulous Scrooges”.

The 2013 Immigration Bill compounded
this by making private landlords actively check the immigration status of their
tenants. The updated 2016 Immigration Act has built on this with new criminal
penalties for landlords for non-compliance. The bigger picture was Theresa May,
then-Home Secretary, trying to make the UK a “hostile environment” for
migrants. A parliamentary Home Affairs Committee commented on this: “One likely
consequence of making it more difficult for irregular migrants to access the
rented housing market will be an increase in homelessness within that group,
and an increase of those living in what the Government describes as ‘the very
worst privately rented accommodation’: illegally occupied outhouses and
unlicensed houses in multiple occupation.”

Great work, guys.

@danhancox

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