Landlords From Hell… Jon Snow tells us how unscrupulous landlords are exploiting the most vulnerable people in society and getting away with it

Barry Tseung gives us a report of last weeks Dispatches documentary, produced with help from homeless charity Shelter. The programme is available to watch over on 4oD.

It concentrates on one rogue landlord, who an undercover Dispatches reporter got a job working for, and there was a side story filmed in what you could only describe as a shanty town – in Southall. Vulnerable families and migrant workers are paying £320 per month to live there, in sheds at the bottom of each back garden along a pair of suburban streets. Nice.

The landlord in the main story ran a property ‘investment’ company – just a limited liability front really – and he even managed to get charitable status. Many rental agencies like this exist in every British city, and the tricks they get up to are no surprise, but need documenting – tricking perfectly behaved, but poor, tenants to move out; blaming tenants for disrepair and using it as an excuse to put up the rent – reminds me of the Dead Kennedys’ song – “I’m putting up the rent ‘cause the building’s condemned / you’re gonna help me fight city hall!”

Not that city hall were anywhere to be seen – the real strength of the documentary was in spotlighting the government’s attitude, and councils’ responses, to the scandal they already know all about.

Some choice quotes from Housing Minister Grant Shapps – after conceding that there may be some bad apples among landlords, Jon Snow explained that he’d just made an hour-long film full of evidence against one such bad apple, and asked if the minister would act on it. Shapps replies: “I absolutely undertake …<pauses while he thinks> …to work with the local authority”. Ah, you mean pass the buck a.s.a.p. then, Grant. We also get to see the kind of rigorous action that councils take – Ealing council issued 149 pre-prosecution notices in a year for unsafe rented homes, which landlords know they can completely ignore, since Ealing, along with most other councils, attempt on average less than one actual prosecution annually.


But while the state of things as they stand is disgusting, it’s hardly surprising. What I found illuminating in the undercover pieces was the degree of control that abusive landlords have over their tenants.

Tenants who don’t have two month’s rent to hand for a deposit have no choice but to go to the worst landlords, and then can’t move on when they realise the situation they are in.

It’s no surprise that tenants go along with landlords’ suggestions, like the landlord ‘helpfully’ moving out the tenant’s furniture, or even accepting help from the landlord’s own lawyers in dealings between them. It highlights the real problem that the law has failed to allow for, which is that when a tenant is poor, landlord and tenant is not just a business relationship, it’s a power relationship. Far beyond what is written in the law, or in their contracts, tenants with no cash are obliged to cede more power to their landlords, and this is dangerous. Not least because the landlords who will deal with poor tenants (and when you’re looking for a flat on little money, there aren’t many to choose from) are exactly the ones who can’t be trusted.

But surely, even these landlords wouldn’t stoop to abusing Mr. Shapps’ new law by telling the police that their tenants are squatters (something many landlords genuinely fail to understand already)? Yeah right. The coalition government are committed to slicing away the edges of housing rights, whether by tinkering with benefits, social housing changes, ‘anti-squat’, Pickles’ “rent out your shop as a home” plan, cuts to local government tenancy liason offices, or the ban on squatting. They’ve four years left, folks, expect more of this kind of thing…