Councils and private landlords need to talk

Councils and private landlords could, and should, work together. That’s a bold statement, we know, and one that might seem to be nigh-on impossible given this week’s news story about Havering Borough Council.

If you’ve missed it, here’s a summary:

 A private landlord let a property on a 12-month tenancy to a woman who was in receipt of housing benefit. Rent arrears began to accumulate and the landlord served notice that the tenant should leave at the end of the year. The tenant moved out on the agreed date but, the following day, the tenant asked the letting agent for keys to the property because the council had said she should have waited until she was evicted. Apparently, the council advised that if the agent would not give her access, she should get a locksmith and move back in anyway.

That is what seems to have happened, and the landlord, still with £2,000 of arrears, has now to wait for and pay the costs of an eviction. The council has claimed the woman made herself voluntarily homeless by moving out at the end of her tenancy and that therefore, they had no need to rehouse her. Eviction would, of course, change that situation.

This, folks, is what we’re up against.

People need houses and landlords need tenants – it should work, but it won’t while councils pull tricks like this one. Effectively, by encouraging the former tenant to reoccupy the property, they’ve appropriated the landlord’s property and deprived him of the chance to earn legitimate income from it. The council, meanwhile, claims that the tenant had the ‘legal right’ to break back into the property. It’s a mess, with both sides adamant that they’re in the right.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only incidence of councils stretching the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Letting agents often charge a fee for a simple reference relating to a departing tenant. Some argue that these fees are excessive for ticking a few yes/no boxes, but some councils routinely charge double, or even triple, the amounts agents levy.  Sheffield Council’s fee is £60 plus VAT.  Hull charges a whopping £72.

This is a broken system, and we could spend hours, days and weeks debating the reasons we have come to a situation like this, but what we really need to know is how we solve the problem. And we do know it can be solved. Some councils have very good relationships with landlords in the private sector. What’s more, many landlords benefit from arrangements where housing benefits can be paid directly to them should a tenant get into arrears, protection they wouldn’t otherwise enjoy.

But, reading stories like this one, who can blame landlords who won’t even contemplate letting to tenants on benefits. Councils should realise that their actions have consequences. They might think they’re working in the best interests of the individual tenant, but practical and sensible arrangements with private landlords can – and should – form part of the overall housing equation.

Sim Sekhon, Managing Director, LegalforLandlords.

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