Landlords: Villains or Victims?

From Charles Dickens to the silent screen, from social media platforms to the present-day press, nothing grabs the attention like a sob story with a heartless villain and a poor unfortunate victim. Even in 2021, melodramatic tales of evil landlords throwing destitute families out onto the streets make good reading and cause justifiable public concern, but in a twist to the traditional narrative, these days, the landlord is more and more likely to be the victim.

Since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, the Government has stepped in to financially support many groups of people. Recognising the potential strain on incomes through lay-offs, reduced hours or redundancy, they also implemented a ban on landlords evicting tenants. While the move was designed to protect tenants, it simply glossed over the impact the ban would have on landlords. The assumption seemed to be that landlords could afford to stand the loss.

The myth of the ‘loaded’ landlord

Now, there’s no doubt that some landlords are indeed very wealthy, but most residential landlords in the UK are small scale, often with a single property they rent out. Maybe they’re trying to save for their future through a buy-to-let and the rent covers the mortgage. Maybe they among the 33% of landlords who are retired and are supplementing their state pension with rental income. Either way, it’s not income they can manage without and yet, by removing the right to evict non-paying tenants, that’s what the Government expects them to do.

Here’s the rub: under the current eviction ban tenants who could be paying rent know that they have more scope to take advantage because landlords have no redress. And crucially, the ban on evictions extends to cases that were already in progress before the pandemic reared its ugly head. Even if the ban were lifted tomorrow, a backlog in the courts could see cases that which commenced in 2019, with several months’ rent arrears then, not decided until the tail end of 2021.

The real victims

Who’s the victim? The landlord or the tenant whose income is protected and who is taking advantage of the situation. As an example, take Jason and Despina, a couple with two children, who own two properties – both mortgaged. One property is rented, and they were renovating the other before moving in.

The tenants in the rented property started to miss rent payments in 2019 and by November of that year, had stopped paying completely without offering any explanation or communication. Due to move out one week before lockdown, the tenant saw an opportunity to take advantage and stayed put.

This wasn’t a tenant in dire financial straits. They were working and – to add insult to injury – were profiting from subletting a room in the property. Meanwhile, Jason and Despina were struggling. Without the rental income, they could no longer afford the renovation work on their home and are now living crammed in with elderly parents (their seven-year-old is squashed into a small cot bed). What’s more, their local authority has doubled the council tax on the unoccupied property because the renovation works have gone on for so long.

In this case, the tenant had no reason not to pay, but the landlord could do nothing about it and has incurred losses – which cannot be recovered – of around £30,000. If someone stole just a fraction of that amount, they would face prosecution, but here there is no redress. Even when evictions are completed, it’s rare for landlords to receive any rent arrears.

Support and fairness

In September 2020, the non-paying tenants secretly fled the country – which might sound like good news – but the stress only continued. Jason and Despina didn’t find out until December that the property was empty. And for months more that would remain the case.

The property stood vacant week after week and there was nothing the landlords could do about it. Why? Because current laws still protect the tenant even when not present. Jason and Despina were unable to reclaim their property without a possession order, which they finally received on 28th January 2021. Fast forward a few weeks and the landlords were finally allowed to rent out their property again – to more reliable tenants.

In fact, a new family is waiting to move in. With a special-needs child and a new baby on the way, the family is looking forward to having more space and a garden to enjoy in the summer months.

Of course, there are far more good tenants than bad ones and, doubtless, there are tenants for whom the Government’s eviction ban has been a lifeline. But where is the lifeline for landlords like Jason and Despina? There are thousands of landlords whose income has dried up and whose plans are on hold. They are victims, not villains but no-one in Whitehall seems to be listening to their calls for a fairer system.

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