Housing experts have warned of a surge in tenants being illegally removed from their homes by criminal landlords as an eviction ban comes to an end on Monday.
The warning comes after reports that illegal evictions have already surged 50 per cent in some areas since the coronavirus pandemic began.
One housing officer in London described a case where a man was beaten unconscious and left homeless and sleeping in a park during the pandemic after he was three days late with his rent. More commonly, locks are simply changed and a tenants’ possessions removed or stolen.
With hundreds of thousands of households falling into rent arrears as a result of Covid-19, a second wave of infections on the way and the end of the furlough scheme, tenant relations officers (TROs) fear a big spike in illegal evictions in the coming weeks and months.
Legally, a landlord must serve notice on their tenants and wait for a specified period of time - normally two months - before a court decides whether the eviction can go ahead. But with a ban on evictions in force since April, a minority of landlords have decided to take the law into their own hands.
From Monday, legal evictions can proceed again but landlords must give six months notice in most cases.
Solicitor Giles Peaker accused the government of failing to confront the growing problem rent arrears.
“There are a number of problems with what the government has done. They haven’t dealt with the underlying issue of rent arrears at all. They’ve effectively punted the problem further down the line.”
He believes courts should be given further discretion to decide whether a landlord can take possession of a home from a tenant who is in arrears. In many cases, current rules mean that the court has no choice but to allow evictions to go ahead.
Ben Reeve-Lewis, a TRO with Safer Renting which works with local authorities and supports tenants facing harassment, said he was expecting a “massive” increase in illegal evictions.
“Landlords who wouldn’t generally be in the criminal end of the market, are resorting to taking a chance out of frustration with tenants unable to pay their rent.”
“We are already feeling it at Safer Renting. With such a big increase in illegal evictions already, we have had to employ another two case workers to cope.
“I've been a TRO for 30 years and never seen it this bad.”
While rent arrears are the most common reason landlords decide to remove tenants, another significant cause is the rise in unlawful houses of multiple occupancy (HMOs).
A minority of criminal landlords make huge returns by filling tenants into overcrowded rooms.
Even in the midst of a pandemic, it is common to find up to 15 people in a small three-bedroom house, said Reeve-Lewis.
When councils find out about a particular property, a landlord will often forcibly remove the tenants before evidence can be gathered to bring a prosecution.
At one house that Reeve-Lewis and a local authority raided last week, he said the landlord was making £5,300 a month compared to the £1,600 he would have made renting it legally.
“There’s absolutely no way tenants in these houses can do any form of social distancing. It’s just not possible,” he said.
A law forcing landlords to carry out checks on the immigration status of their tenants and making them criminally liable if they are found to have housed illegal immigrants has forced many people into the hands of criminals.
“It used to be people on housing benefit who were exploited by the worst landlords but now you have an underclass of poor. People in the gig economy and migrant workers.
“Now, criminal landlords don't take on people on benefits. Signing on can get you swiftly evicted as well.
“These properties only work if they have no paper trail an no one from officialdom ever comes through the door.
“Landlords are not happy about having to act as immigration officers for the government. They don't want the burden of potentially going to prison.
"If anyone's black or brown or got a vaguely foreign accent, some landlords think, 'I'm just not going to take a chance'.”
“Then the criminals come in and take advantage of people in a desperate corner. They say, 'come in with me. You won't get a receipt, you won't get a tenancy agreement but you'll get a roof over your head.'”
“The tenants never get tenancy agreements, they don't get receipts for rent. They are forcibly evicted and you've got difficulty proving they even lived there.”
Despite the growing problem and the traumatic and sometimes violent experiences some tenants have been through, some local authorities do not even have a place for people to report illegal eviction.
Others simply do not record any data on the problem. Safer Renting’s data indicate that there have been almost 1,000 illegal evictions in London over the past 15 months, with a rise of almost 50 per cent since March. The majority of these are in outer-London boroughs where housing is cheaper, but Safer Renting has been called out to properties across the capital, including illegal HMOs in Mayfair.
National figures for illegal evictions are “notoriously hard to get hold of”, said Dave Hickling, chair of the Association of Tenant Relations Officers (ATRO).
“Nationally, we certainly fear that illegal evictions may rise in the future because (a) life is more difficult for people than ever with the social and economic effects of Covid (b) there are more limits on how landlords can get possession legally.
“In areas where local authorities have been slow and ineffective in their responses to the problem, we consider that it is highly likely that the incidence of harassment and illegal will increase because these pressures will go unchecked.
“Unfortunately there is something of a postcode lottery at the moment in terms of how much help and protection private tenants receive from their local authority.
“That it is likely to remain so whilst the government allows some local authorities to sweep the problem under the carpet whilst others provide well-resourced, effective services to protect tenants and advise landlords.”
Landlords who are prosecuted for illegally evicting their tenants potentially face an unlimited fine and a two-year prison sentence. But when convictions are successful, landlords are often given a fine of around £1,000, said Mr Reeve-Lewis of Safer Renting.
That means it’s cheaper to take a risk and be prosecuted than going to go for a legal possession order through the courts and being unsuccessful, he said.