The Guardian recently reported that government figures reveal an estimated 338,000 properties rented by under-35s were ‘hazardous and likely to cause harm.’ These figures suggest that over half a million people are starting their adult lives in such conditions. Some of the worst conditions occur where ‘slum landlords’ attempt to squeeze a high number of tenants into sub-standard housing which is designed to accommodate far fewer people.
The conditions in such cases are usually appalling. Take the case recently brought before Harrow Crown Court by Brent Council. The Court heard how landlords had crammed 31 tenants into a four-bedroom semi-detached townhouse in Wembley, sharing just two bathrooms and one kitchen between them (tenants had to pay to have food delivered to them as the kitchen was unusable). Fire exits were blocked, some tenants were living in bunk beds in the garden shed, and one tenant was discovered living in a lean-to shack next to the property in a raid by Brent Council officers in July 2016. According to a press release by Brent, “the shack had no lighting or heating and was made out of wood offcuts, pallets and tarpaulin.” At one point, the rogue landlords managed to cram up to 40 people inside the property. The court heard tenants were squeezed five-to-a-room in bunkbeds. There was also serious disrepair at the property that the landlords refused to address.
Fortunately, following a trial at Willesden Magistrates Court last year, the landlords were prosecuted for failure to have a multi-occupancy licence. The landlord only had a licence that allowed them to rent the property to one family. However, by this point, the landlords had made the tidy sum of approximately £360,000 through their exploitation of desperate tenants over the course of five years.
Criminal landlords forced to pay
Previously, these criminals could have been allowed to keep their unlawful profits, but in a landmark ruling, the Court granted Brent Council the right to use the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 to recover assets that the landlords had obtained from the profits of illegally renting out the property. Brent is the first council in the country to use the Act against criminal landlords. This decision is important as it sets a precedent that landlords who are found to have rented homes with criminal levels of environmental health and safety breaches can have their illegally gained earnings confiscated by local councils. Criminal landlords might think twice before creating slum conditions if they know any money they make from the seedy enterprise might ultimately be taken from them.
Can we do more…
While the Court’s decision is very welcome, broader questions still need to be asked about a housing crisis that forces vulnerable people to accept criminal, inhuman living conditions such as those found by Brent Council. Criminal landlords like those successfully prosecuted by Brent are simply parasites feeding off a housing crisis caused by deeper trends such as housing shortages, unaffordable levels of rent and lack of tenant rights. That Councils have more freedom to punish criminal landlords is good news, but we should be mindful of the deeper problems that allow them to exist and thrive in the first place.