Viewpoint by Tom Entwistle
They say revenge is sweet but in the case of buy-to-let landlords it leaves a bitter taste.
It’s perhaps inevitable that property will be a big political issue in the coming general election next May. With a severe housing shortage in many locations, half the population priced out of home ownership and the threat of a “Mansion Tax” from two political parties, no wonder the media is focussing on property, and it seems the dreaded buy-to-let landlord in particular.
Of the many issues involved, one which comes right home to buy-to-let landlords is what appears to have been a concocted but concerted campaign from some media quarters involving so-called “revenge” or “retaliatory” evictions.
Following some adverse reports from campaigning organisations (and what would a campaigning organisation be if it didn’t have a campaign) there’s an emphasis on cases where tenants have been evicted by their landlords based solely on the basis that they reported a repair issue.
The evidence for this is cited as the increase in evictions generally, despite the fact that in proportion to the total rental property population, the increase appears to be in-line with the growth of the rental market.
Most experienced landlords know that these so called revenge evictions may exist, but they represent an infinitesimally small proportion of the whole, and that evictions are rarely about one issue: it’s almost always a collection of issues which make landlords resort to the prolonged and expensive process of evicting a tenant. Most landlords will move heaven and earth to keep a good rent-paying tenant.
Despite this, the campaign appears to have gained traction and prompted a Private Members Bill on the issue by Lib Dem MP, Sarah Teather, due to receive its second reading Friday 28th November. It has even received tacit government support from the housing Minister Brandon Lewis.
Here’s a brief timeline of the development of this campaign, headlines from the press:
“How to stop landlords maximising their profits at the expense of tenants: Why it’s time to stop the light-touch approach to private rented sector regulation.” New Statesman – By Tom Copley, 24 November, 2014
“An electrician said our shower was unsafe. The landlord’s response was to evict us” Tracy McVeigh – The Observer, Sunday 23 November 2014
“Families uprooted on whims of private landlords” www.citizensadvice.org.uk/ 23 November 2014
“How can you slow the unstoppable rise of evictions?” The number of evictions has more than doubled in a year, throwing thousands of families into turmoil and temporary accommodation. Something has to change. Hannah Fearn, Wednesday 19 November 2014, theguardian.com
“Renters are being evicted for complaining about their poor conditions” – With 200,000 renters evicted for complaining about health and safety problems in the past year, the government has decided to back a Private Members’ Bill that would protect tenants from revenge evictions. By Maya Oppenheim Published 29 October, 2014, The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog
“Outlaw ‘revenge evictions’ by landlords, says housing charity.” Shelter wants to curb practice by rogue landlords of throwing tenants out if they complain about inadequate conditions. Tracy McVeigh The Observer, Saturday 25 October 2014
“Government to support Sarah’s Bill to tackle revenge evictions”, September 11, 2014 4:13 PM – Sarah Teather and Brent Liberal Democrats, Working Hard for Brent “The Government has today announced its support in principle for local MP Sarah Teather’s Private Members’ Bill to tackle revenge evictions. Sarah’s Bill would stop retaliatory evictions – preventing landlords evicting tenants who make a complaint about essential repairs or poor conditions in their homes” http://sarahteather.org.uk
“Bill to ban retaliatory evictions launched” A Liberal Democrat MP has launched a private members bill seeking to outlaw retaliatory evictions. www.insidehousing.co.uk 1 July 2014 by Pete Apps
“Buy-to-let landlords are a disaster for Britain and the economy” – Phillip Inman, economics correspondent, Friday 23 May 2014 theguardian.com
“Shelter exposes true scale of ‘revenge evictions’ – 12 March 2014. Countless renters across the country are facing ‘revenge evictions’ just for speaking up about bad conditions, a Shelter study has found. You can join the campaign to fight revenge evictions at shelter.org.uk/9millionrenters – In the past year alone, more than 200,000 people have faced eviction because they asked their landlord to fix a problem in their home. The study also found many were too scared of eviction to complain at all – 8% said they’d avoided asking their landlord to repair a problem or improve conditions in the last year in case they were evicted.”
“Stephen Williams vows to outlaw revenge evictions” – Department for Communities and Local Government, Stephen Williams MP and Brandon Lewis MP, first published: 11 September 2014, part of: Improving the rented housing sector and Housing, www.gov.uk
Responsible landlords of course would abhor the practice of revenge evictions wherever they exist. But as a result of this concerted campaign they are coming up against a weight of public opinion.
Most laypeople don’t have the first clue about the rentals business or the issues involved in managing tenancies, and right now the landlords are losing this argument.
On Friday, 28th November, MPs will debate the second reading of Sarah Teather’s Private Members’ Bill. If it is eventually successful, the Tenancies (Reform) Bill, if passed unamended will put severe constraints on a landlord’s ability to evict a tenant.
Whereas the section 21 procedure has since 1988 provided landlords with a no fault method of regaining possession of their property, when all else fails, and it has been one of the main reasons for the growth of the rental sector, the Bill will seriously curtail that.
Basically it will prevent a landlord from serving a section 21 notice when a complaint has been made about repairs for a period of 6 months.
It will in effect put the decision as to when a landlord can evict a tenant, where repair issues are identified, squarely in the hands of a local authority housing officer. Some have argued, and I fully support this, it will be a charter for rouge tenants to extend their stay rent-free by inventing or creating spurious repair issues.
This has the potential to punish responsible landlords wanting to evict for legitimate reasons, even if they act very quickly to carry out necessary repairs, by being prevented from serving a section 21 notice for another six months.
Responsible landlords rarely go down the eviction route without good cause, so to be stuck with a bad tenant for what would ultimately likely be 12 months, would be sheer purgatory.
I would not condone revenge evictions in any way whatsoever, and I believe that in the scheme of things the incidence of this is quite rare, but it concerns me that Sarah’s Bill, if it slips through unopposed, could change the letting landscape for responsible landlords considerably.
Despite Brandon Lewis’ reassurance, in a letter to me, I am still concerned about the outcome of this Bill, even though he assures me the matter will be considered and technical amendments made in the House if needed. Housing Minister Brandon Lewis MP has said:
“…after further consideration of the issues, we agree that it is vital the Bill does not impose unfair burdens on the whole sector, as the overwhelming majority of landlords are responsible. The Bill should be balanced, such that tenants cannot make vexatious complaints, and that it does not bring in excessive red tape… We are not convinced that the Bill goes far enough to deliver those safeguards.”
Along with the landlord associations, I am urging landlords to contact their MP and or Brandon Lewis MP to raise their concerns. The Bill has a long way to go before it becomes law, so there’s still time to add your influence. Don’t just wait and let it happen.
Below is a submission we made to the mini parliamentary inquiry into this matter in October:
Response to the Private Rented Sector All-Party Parliamentary Group’s Inquiry on the Tenancies (Reform) Bill
From Tom Entwistle, Editor, LandlordZONE®
Sarah Teather MP’s Private Members’ Bill is in response to claims of an issue in the Private Rented Sector (PRS) of retaliatory or “revenge” evictions by landlords in response to tenant complaints.
My view is that these claims are highly exaggerated and that repair issues alone represent a tiny fraction of the real reasons for landlords evicting tenants.
By far the majority of landlords wish to keep responsible tenants in their properties as long as possible – evictions, often accompanied by long periods of rent arrears, and void periods, cost landlords dear.
Already built into the Section 21 process are safeguards for tenants – in by far the majority of cases an eviction will cost landlords far more than dealing properly with repairs.
I believe that any change to the existing system, unless of a minor nature, has the potential to upset the delicate landlord-tenant legal rights balance which has underpinned the success of the PRS for over 20 years.
Introduction – LandlordZONE®
1. LandlordZONE® is an independent website portal for UK landlords established 1999 – the first in the UK. The website operates as a free resource funded by advertisers and operates the busiest landlord Q&A forum in the UK. We are in regular e-mail contact with over 110,000 registered subscriber landlords and agents, the website receives over 2.7 million visits per annum and has 11,500 Twitter followers.
2. We are in day-to-day e-mail and telephone contact with landlords, tenants, property professionals and industry suppliers so we are very much aware of the issues which affect PRS tenancies.
3. Editor and founder Tom Entwistle holds a masters’ degree in Management Science from UMIST / MBS and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He has over 30 years’ experience managing his own residential and commercial properties. He is a regular speaker at landlord seminars, shows and exhibitions and contributes to several property industry journals.
What constitutes a retaliatory eviction?
I would describe retaliatory or “revenge” eviction as when a landlord responds to complaints from tenants about repairs by threatening or actually commencing eviction proceedings instead of dealing with the issue.
How extensive is the problem of retaliatory evictions?
I believe that the extent of the problem has been exaggerated by some organisations and statistics have been provided both for and against the argument so these will not be added to here.
To quote Shelter: “Some landlords are trigger-happy in terminating tenancies, using any excuse to turf out a responsible tenant who has just had the temerity to complain about some aspect of the property.”
This is something that I do not recognise and in my view is patently an exaggeration: for a start, it takes months and a lot of money to evict a tenant and the 95% plus of responsible landlords just do not want to evict responsible tenants.
This is not to deny the problem exists at all, but I argue it occurs in a minority of cases, and then usually only after persistent problems. By far in the majority of cases landlords wish to retain tenants as along as possible when: (1) they pay rent on time, (2) don’t do damage, (3) get along with neighbours and other tenants, and (4) don’t persistently complain for no justifiable reason.
From my experience the issue is far from straightforward: some tenants use repair issues as a “smoke screen” for their inability to pay rent; they will make a landlord’s life hell by coming up with one issue after another, so as to drive the landlord into the eviction process once the tenancy ends.
Very often repair issues will be aligned with rent arrears or persistent delays in paying, and sometimes the scenario includes damage and anti-social behaviour. It is rarely one issue alone which would prompt a landlord to evict a tenant. There are two sides to every story and it seems it’s always the tenant’s view that gets the media attention and therefore public sympathy.
Damp and condensation is a persistent problem and one that features very high on the Shelter Report’s list of eviction problems. This is a complex issue and in my experience is more often caused by the tenant failing to heat a property adequately in order to save money than it is down to the landlord or the property condition. Please read this article for a full explanation.
Some so called “accidental landlords” or those letting for shorter periods when they cannot sell, or when they are moving away and want to rent themselves, want the certainty of being able to regain possession. This greatly adds flexibility to the lettings market and any measure which removes this certainty (section 21 procedure) will be detrimental to the PRS and workforce mobility.
Is there already sufficient protection for tenants from existing legislation?
I believe so. Eviction is a long and expensive process and no landlord embarks on this lightly. A landlord is unlikely to regain possession in less than 6 weeks at best and it is more likely to be 3 to 6 months, in some cases even longer. Evictions are more often than not accompanied by rent arrears and damage to the property, so the eventual bill to a landlord can run into thousands.
Tenants have the option of contacting their Environmental Health Officer (EHO) and where legitimate disrepair and health and safety issues exist then the landlord will be given an enforcement order. Why would a tenant want to live in a property with severe disrepair and safety issues?
Is this Bill needed?
Not having seen all the details of this Bill it is difficult to comment, but there are aspects which could be usefully applied: a legal requirement to inform landlords of repair issues in writing and not be admissible in court unless this has been done beforehand would prevent last-minute vexatious claims of disrepair as a defence in court.
Problems of landlord access to carry out repairs may also be usefully addressed.
There has been an increasing incidence recently of “constructive defects” cases which have enabled tenants to live for 12 months or more rent free at no financial risk (legally aided) to themselves, while the landlord is embroiled in a long legal battle which can prove very expensive. I was speaking to a landlord yesterday where the whole process has cost him £25,000 (contact available).
What impact would it have on tenants, landlords and lenders’ readiness to lend landlords the finance needed for new homes to rent?
If the Bill creates a situation where good responsible landlords can be held to ransom, with long delays, and be forced into protracted legal disputes, then this will be detrimental to all. It is very well known that EHOs and the courts are under resourced and create interminable delays.
The AST created a delicate balance between landlord and tenant rights and brought flexibility to the PRS that has grown the market exponentially and has stood the test of time for over 20 years. Change that balance at your peril!
Could the Bill be improved, and if so, how?
I have only a brief idea of the contents of the Bill as it has not yet been published, so cannot comment at this time, but hopefully the above comments will prove useful.
The Bill has since been published and can be accessed here.