Tackling rogue landlords: is better education the answer?

Buy-to-let and ‘reluctant’ landlords are ignorant of the rules and responsibilities of letting

Last year Shelter published the results of research into problems with theprivate rented sector (PRS), focusing on the condition of properties and the behaviour of landlords towards tenants. It was based in part on Freedom of Information Act requests sent out to 326 local authorities, of whom an impressive 322 responded.

The final report, Asserting authority: Calling time on rogue landlords, told us that more than 86,000 complaints about landlords had been made to local authorities in a previous year, up by a quarter on earlier statistics; 1,477 landlords were well known to councils as serial offenders.

Recent figures point to a growth in buy-to-let mortgages of nearly 20%. Interesting that the statistical rise in complaints made about landlords is almost equal to the new amateur landlords coming onto the market. If the 1,477 repeat offender landlords can’t be responsible for the 86,000 rising complaints a year, who is behind the other 84,523? Even allowing for the fact that the repeat offenders will be responsible for more than one complaint each, it still leaves a huge amount of landlords driving these allegations who aren’t among the usual suspects.

As a tenancy relations officer who has worked in the housing sector since 1990 I have perhaps a better idea than many, having seen trends ebb and flow the PRS during that time.

The two biggest problems facing the sector today are the explosion in unregulated letting agents, with the concomitant fraud and bad practice that are endemic, and the rise in the buy-to-let amateur and so called “reluctant landlord” where people who can’t sell their home turn their hand to renting it out without a clue about what they are getting themselves into.

I cannot remember the last time I received a complaint about a portfolio landlord. Landlords who treat their properties as a business have the knowledge and the financial stability to weather the ups and downs of their sector. Missing rents and damage to property are a risk of the business, not a mortgage-threatening crisis to them.

The more I deal with disputes between landlords and tenants, mediating and negotiating on a daily basis, the more I am convinced that one of the single biggest causes of rogue behaviour is simple ignorance of the laws, rules and procedures that govern a private letting. That ignorance extends to tenants as well.

Private renting in the UK has traditionally been done on a nod and wink basis. The governing logic seeming to be a loose affair of cash for keys, and if it doesn’t work out we’ll just call it a day and move on. The 86,000 complaints that have come to Shelter’s attention will be made up of a wide variety of incidents from serious assaults to minor infractions committed in ignorance by otherwise decent, albeit naïve, amateur landlords who in my experience will often back down and apologise once the law has been pointed out to them.

Of course these daily stories aren’t as newsworthy as a thug with a baseball bat (who do exist as well, trust me, but never in large numbers), but most complaints are of daft, rash and ill-conceived actions that can be swiftly dealt with. Every day I have conversations with these inexperienced landlords and have to repeatedly explain basic legal concepts, such as the need for a possession order or that a notice itself doesn’t end a tenancy or turn the tenant into a squatter if they don’t move out. It’s not that they are resistant, they are just unaware.

If you want an insight into the problem just google around a few landlord chat forums and see some of the cock-eyed questions and urban myths being floated around in the PRS landlord community.

Many organisations around the country these days are leaning towards education as a way of preventing people from breaking laws that they don’t even realise are there. The London landlords accreditation scheme (LLAS) runs training courses for landlords and tenants on a wide variety of topics to help landlords run their letting properly and knowledgeably.

In the Midlands, the excellent Mary Latham works through ‘Homestamp’, partnering up with West Midlands University, its student union and private landlords to spread the word, delivering training courses and educating people where it is needed in an attempt to improve the relationship between landlords and tenants.

I am also meeting more tenants groups who are getting themselves and their members educated in an attempt to tackle problems in their area and also to bring pressure to bear on government thinking.

A decade ago, the only training courses on offer were through organisations such as the Chartered Institute of Housing or Shelter, and these courses were largely aimed at housing professionals working in councils, housing associations or through voluntary agencies. Now, finally, there are courses for landlords and tenants too.

Many councils have decided to create their own local social lettings agencies, on the logic that if the PRS is so dogged with amateurism and bad practice the most effective way of dealing with it is to roll their sleeves up and join the industry, becoming a force of influence as well as a profit making service provider. For many of the more clued up councils, this also includes training and even mentoring PRS landlords.

I passionately believe that this is the way forward, out of this stupid amateur free-for-all that is the PRS. Of course robust prosecution has its place, but I would have more time to pursue criminal landlords through the courts if I didn’t spend so much of it having to explain the same laws over and over again to people who have simply got out of their depth.

A trained and knowledgeable landlord community would bring those 86,000 complaints down to a manageable level, leaving the majority of offenders in the smaller group of repeat, known offenders exposed in the spotlight where we can pick them off.

The real work needs to be in raising awareness and knowledge levels. Let’s save the punishment for the real offenders and make partners the growing mass of small landlords who need the help.

Ben Reeve-Lewis is a tenancy relations officer for a local authority in London

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