Digs member Rosie Walker writes about the growing issue of illegal evictions and why she had to take a stand at a recent training session…
One of the most shocking things about illegal evictions in the private rented sector
is that some council staff – and even some of the police – don’t understand the law.
Too often, police actually help landlords break the law and local authorities turn a
blind eye, thinking that protecting a private tenant from eviction is too complicated.
Illegal evictions are wrongly dismissed as a ‘civil matter’.
So we were delighted when Hackney Community Law Centre ran a workshop this
week at the town hall for anyone who wanted to clear up the confusion around
illegal evictions. As the experts explained, much of this confusion comes from the
mistaken belief that anything involving a contract is automatically a private matter. It
Put simply, an illegal eviction is when a private tenant is made to leave their home
before the landlord has got a possession order and eviction warrant from a court. It’s
not enough just to give a tenant two months’ notice, as most landlords and tenants
We learned a lot. Nathaniel Matthews from Hackney Community Law Centre and
James Bowen from Garden Court Chambers talked us through some appalling (and,
sadly, real) examples of landlord behaviour, as well as the finer points of the Housing
Act 1988 – the act that, among other things, removed rent control and introduced
the standard six-month tenancy.
Bill Rashleigh from Shelter sketched out the current state of the private rented
sector (PRS), and it’s a bleak picture: illegal evictions in Hackney have doubled in the
last year. Councils have the power to prosecute landlords who evict their tenants
illegally (a crime that can carry a two year prison sentence), but don’t do it as often
as they could.
So when the head of Housing Options, the Hackney Council department that deals
with private landlords, read a meaningless speech about how his team ‘goes the
extra mile’ for Hackney’s private tenants, we had to speak up. His words simply don’t
match our experience, no matter what the council’s PR department says. One of
our members said she had been illegally evicted three times in eight years and her
requests for help from the council have been ignored each time. The council turned
her away, telling her to call Shelter for help. Kelechi Ibegbule, head of the team
that’s supposed to step in when this happens, looked suitably embarrassed.
Here at Digs we know that councils are under-resourced and struggling to do
their best without enough staff or money, but if they could be honest about the
challenges they face – instead of giving us the PR spiel – it would be a whole lot
easier to believe they’re on our side. We’re working for the same cause: they should
be telling us what stops them doing their job properly, so we can help – not sticking
their heads in the sand and pretending there isn’t a problem. There is.
The session was full, which is hardly surprising. With ever greater numbers of
people locked out of home ownership, social housing provision falling and private
rents no longer bearing any relation to salaries, more and more people are at the
mercy of unregulated, greedy landlords. Lots of the people we met were from small community groups like ours, and it was brilliant to meet others who are standing up to the bullies to help people keep their homes. What was surprising, though, was who else had got themselves onto the guest list: landlords and lettings agents.
But these are the good ones, right? The ones who see tenants as human beings, and
want to learn good practice so they can spread the word? Sadly, no: they had simply
come for free legal advice on the evictions they were planning. “How do I evict an
asylum seeker?” one asked. Others asked housing campaigners for their names and
details without deigning to give their own. One seemed genuinely annoyed at the
suggestion of a public list of convicted landlords. Maybe next time, given the profits
they’re making, they’ll decide to pay for their own legal advice.