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How to ensure better protection for tenants around the country

Shona Ali looks at worrying recent trends in relation to illegal evictions and sets out what local authorities can do to combat the problem.

Illegal evictions are on the rise

Data recorded by Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), Shelter and Bristol City Council (BCC), all show stark increases. CAB report a 95% increase of cases reported since March 2020 (first lockdown) [1]. Shelter have seen a 100% increase in visits to their webpages How to deal with landlord harassment and what you can do about illegal eviction, in Jan-March 2019 and the same period in 2021. Shelter also report in 2019 an estimated 29,500 tenants had their locks changed by a landlord or letting agent and had belongings thrown out [1], and BCCs Rogue Landlord Unit (RLU) has seen a 58% increase in cases reported in 2020/21 compared to the previous year. This is likely only the tip of the iceberg as most of those affected are unlikely to report such incidents. 

Why this trend?

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The measures that are, or have been, put in place to prevent or delay lawful evictions and homelessness, such as the ban on eviction and increase to notice periods, are only encouraging illegal evictions. Further restrictive measures that are proposed will only exacerbate this situation as there are very few local authorities around the country policing the situation. And the worst hit renters are those most vulnerable and disadvantaged in the community, from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic background[1]

Who can help?

Local authorities (LA) have the power to investigate and take enforcement action against illegal eviction and harassment of renters, under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 (PfEA). More specifically, it is Tenancy Relations Officers (TRO), who specialise in this field, not only able to prepare enforcement cases, but also experienced in preventing homelessness at crisis point, as well as assisting victims to claim back up to 12 months’ rent. 

A snapshot survey of 338 LAs shows that only 27% of LAs in England and Wales employ TRO/specialist officers. Austerity has meant a sharp drop in local authority spending (up to 70%) [1]. The PfEA is not a statutory duty on LAs. LAs have no legal obligation to take action with regards to complaints of illegal eviction and harassment of tenants. LAs have one of two options, either to prosecute offenders or do nothing. By not employing specialist officers, most LAs are choosing to do nothing. 

A more detailed survey or interviews were conducted with 12 LAs who do employ specialist officers or do provide some kind of a Tenancy Relations service. Those LAs that do employ specialist officers, on average employ the equivalent of 1.5 full time equivalent (FTE) officer, with each FTE officer servicing populations on average around 250K. Not all LAs prioritise enforcement action, but rather provide an informal/advisory and support service. A quote from one LA interviewed, sums it up from LAs' point of view, “…the duty is not statutory so we do what we can with the resources we have” S B Council 2021. Those who do take enforcement action have found that fines handed out by magistrates are unsatisfactory. Fines for illegal eviction and harassment cases have been as low as £160 and £200! Furthermore, to take a prosecution for such cases, LAs need the cooperation of the victim(s), someone that may have experienced months of harassment and may be scared and reluctant to be a witness in court - even with all the support that can be offered.The victims may also be vulnerable in other ways. The very individuals, rogue landlords seek to exploit. 

What about the police?

In such cases, the police may be first on the scene. Unfortunately, police officers often dismiss such offences as civil matters. Illegal eviction and harassment under the PfEA are not covered under police training. This is a concern around the country. 

So, what is all this costing? There is no data to show the cost of illegal eviction. The estimated average cost of an individual made homeless is £34.5K to the taxpayer [2]. 

What is the human cost?

We will never fully understand the true psychological and emotional impact of such cases, especially as victims are afraid to tell their stories, even anonymously. It was noted whilst conducting this research, that suicides have increased by 30% among homeless individuals, compared to a 5% increase among the general population [3].  

What is Bristol doing?

Bristol City Council’s Rogue Landlord Unit, employ 3.6FTE specialist TROs who investigate illegal eviction and harassment, and prioritise enforcement under PfEA. These TROs have over the past two years: 

  1. Saved 345 tenancies 
  2. Saved the taxpayer an estimated £12 million 
  3. Due to commencing enforcement action, seen successful cases amount to nearly £28,000 in fines, costs and out of court settlements 
  4. Helped tenants claim back nearly £14,000 in rent payments
  5. Illegal eviction and harassment offences are being incorporated as part of discretionary HMO licensing conditions 
  6. Plus more.

One Bristol victim who was assisted with claiming back rent said: …”we contacted many people for support, but most led to dead ends. Bristol City Council referred us to their TRO. The TRO guided us every step of the way. We truly would have been lost without the TRO and would have struggled to navigate the legal system, or to get closure on the matter…” April 2021 

Long term solutions to ensure protection for all renters

  1. The PfEA must be made a statutory duty, so all LAs are obliged to prioritise such cases and take action. Resources need to be ringfenced by government for such work. 
  2. An amendment is required to the Housing and Planning Act 2016, to allow LAs to treat PfEA offences with Financial Penalty Notices. 
  3. PfEA training must be made mandatory, for all new and existing police officers in England and Wales. 
  4. Sentencing guidelines are urgently required for magistrates regarding offences under PfEA. 
  5. Offences under PfEA must be included within mandatory conditions for HMO licensing.  

Regulatory Lawyer, Kate Burnham-Davies at Bristol City Council said: “Those affected by this crime are often vulnerable and in real need of assistance but there is no statutory duty to act and resources are scarce. More flexible, enforcement options available to local authorities would allow more action to be taken (effectively and swiftly) to assist those falling victim to this often over-looked crime and prevent future breaches by landlords by acting as a deterrent. Any legislative changes to this end would no doubt be welcomed.” 

How you can help: 

  1. Support the lobbying to change and amend legislation to ensure all renters are protected. 
  2. Help encourage all Police and Crime Commissioners to put in place national mandatory training.
  3. Request local councillors and MPs to put this on their agenda going forward. 

Together, we can make change happen! 

Shona Ali is Vice Chair of the Association of Tenancy Relations Officers.

A special thanks to all those who assisted, contributed, and supported this project, in particular those LAs that took time out to be interviewed or surveyed 

[1] Sagoe C, Ehrlich R, Reynolds L, and Rich H (2020), Time for change: Making renting fairer for private renters, Shelter and Nationwide Building Society 

[2] The True Cost of Homelessness, Crisis, 2021 

[3] Office of National Statistics, 2019 

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