Hadie Touray perches nervously on the edge of his bed in a windowless room in Leyton, east London. He has been living by candlelight since rent collectors working for his landlord ripped the fuse out of the converted garage’s meter box. Now they are threatening to turn off his water supply and even use violence if he isn’t gone by the weekend.
“I’m very scared – it is not safe. They came and told me to move because I owe them rent. One guy said he would ‘fight me’ if I don’t go,” he says, clasping his hands together anxiously. “I feel bad, but what can I do?”
This is a rare glimpse into Britain’s flourishing “shadow” private rented sector, where thousands of often vulnerable, low-income tenants are abused by landlords who resort to threats, intimidation and violence to enforce their will and maximise their profits.
New figures collated by Safer Renting, a charity-run tenancy-relations service operating in seven London boroughs, reveals harassment and illegal evictions have almost tripled in parts of the capital’s shadow rental market since the lockdown was imposed on 23 March.
Emergency legislation banning landlords from evicting tenants was extended until 20 September last week. However, in the shadow rental sector this has been routinely ignored.
“Criminal landlords are increasingly forcing tenants, who have lost their jobs or seen their hours cut during lockdown, out of their homes,” says Roz Spencer, director of Safer Renting. “We regularly see tenants threatened or coming home to find the locks changed and belongings dumped on the street.”
Nationally, illegal evictions appear to be rising fast, too. Data from Citizens Advice show a 95% increase in people asking for help with illegal evictions between the end of March and end of July, compared with the same period last year. They were approached by 1,340 people in 2020, compared with 687 in 2019.
Safer Renting estimates that there are more than 290,000 lettings in the UK’s informal rental market, which largely operates under the radar of poorly resourced local authority enforcement teams and frequently indifferent police forces.
In the worse cases, tenants are physically assaulted and left homeless. At the beginning of March, Bethany Joy Croarkin and a friend moved into a £400-a-month room in a shared house in east London. They paid a small deposit and the first month’s rent but Croarkin’s universal credit payment was held up in April: “I couldn’t pay the rent. I explained all this [to the landlord] but they didn’t seem to care.”
The landlord, Croarkin says, then launched a campaign of harassment, including late-night visits and calls, that culminated in violent eviction. In a struggle on the landing, Croarkin’s friend fell down a flight of stairs. “They started beating him up at the bottom,” Croarkin claims. “I could hear the sound of them kicking and punching his back. I thought he was going to be seriously injured.”
Police officers arrived and arrested three suspects but Croarkin was too scared to return. After the friend was discharged from hospital, they had nowhere to go. “We went to a park in Walthamstow and slept in a play area. We had no bedding so it got really cold.” They slept rough, including under a bridge, for 10 days before Waltham Forest council found them emergency accommodation. “I never imagined that something like this could happen to me,” says Croarkin.
The Met police said two men and a woman were arrested after reports of an assault at the address but the case has since been closed because it failed to meet evidential tests.
Safer Renting, however, is considering further action. “The police almost never prosecute,” says Spencer. “I can’t think of one case of illegal eviction we have handled where the police have prosecuted the landlord. They mistakenly treat it as a minor civil matter and leave it to local authorities, who can only really act after people are thrown out.”
Only court-appointed bailiffs can legally evict people from their homes. Landlords must first give notice and then obtain a possession order from a court. Anyone else using force or changing locks is committing a criminal offence.
Forthcoming research by Safer Renting and Dr Julie Rugg of York University, who carried out a major government-backed housing review, exposes how the shadow market has thrived in the UK despite new laws brought in over the past decade, including banning orders for the worst offenders and a rogue landlord database. The report, due to be released next month, blames a lack of resources for local authority enforcement, minimal levels of prosecution and police ambivalence. “Not enough is being spent on enforcement, so the chance of being caught in most places is quite low,” adds Spencer.
Although the emergency ban on legal evictions has now been extended by four weeks, fears remain that thousands of renters in arrears could be made homeless when it is eventually lifted. Many could be at risk of falling into the shadow market.
“As the recession deepens and job losses increase, the economic pressures driving people into the hands of criminal landlords will only grow,” says Spencer.
Back in Leyton, Touray, 25, digs out the handwritten card he has been given by the Waltham Forest council and Safer Renting to show the rent collectors if they come back and try to throw him out. It says he is “the lawful tenant” and “any attempt to evict is a criminal offence”.
The trouble started when the kitchen where Touray was working as a porter closed for two months during lockdown. “I could not pay the full rent,” he says. “I offered to pay half and the rest later but, after that, they started trying to get me out.”
There are four other people living in two more bedrooms in the converted garage. Their rent comes to approximately £1,900 a month. The landlord also rents the ground-floor flat of the house to a further six people. Safer Renting estimates the property is generating £5,300 a month in total.
The victims of criminal landlords are often migrants and from ethnic minority backgrounds. Migrants are driven into the shadow sector because of low pay and hostile environment “right-to-rent” checks, which require landlords to establish the immigration status of tenants.
Most of the tenants in the shadow market are working and a high proportion are renting with children. The report found two-thirds of the victims were employed and 30% of the cases involved children.
Louise Mitchell, Waltham Forest’s housing cabinet member, says council officers have been working to prevent Touray and the other tenants in the house being illegally evicted. “It is appalling that they are living with the threat of eviction,” she says. “We are doing everything we can to keep them safe.”
She added: “We still don’t have many properties within the borough that fall within the local housing allowance, which means people on low wages and benefits often struggle to afford market rents here.”
The Ministry of Housing says it is working with councils to eradicate these practices. “We are cracking down on the illegal rental market by giving councils a wide range of powers to tackle criminal landlords, including civil penalties and banning orders for the worst offenders – backed by £4.3m in direct funding,” said a spokesperson.
In Leyton, council officers and Safer Renting have managed to get the utility company to reconnect Touray’s electricity supply. However, his future – and the other renters in the garage and house – is far from certain. He knows the rent collectors could return at any time. “I have nowhere to go,” he says, sitting on the pavement outside the garage shutters, which hide his home. “It is wrong.”
Source: The Guardian