AT-A-GLANCE GUIDE TO LANDLORDS CONVICTED FOR OFFENCES UNDER THE HOUSING ACT 2004
In The Guardian, Wednesday 17 December 2014, Tom Wall and Matthew Weaver have reported as follows on a new database which 'provides private renters with the first at-a-glance guide to landlords and letting agents who have been prosecuted' under the Housing Act 2004. ...
Private landlords convicted of safety breaches have been named publicly for the first time in a new national database created after the Ministry of Justice disclosed the data following a freedom on information request.
The data compiled by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health’s magazine maps firms convicted of dozens of breaches under the Housing Act 2004.
The database, of 68 offences by 57 companies, provides private renters the first at-a-glance guide to whether landlords and letting agents have been prosecuted in the past. It was compiled by Environmental Health News following a ruling by the information commissioner which ordered the MoJ to release its list of property firms convicted under the act.
Some of the companies involved have received hundreds of thousands of pounds in public money in the form of housing benefit.
The worst offender, according to the Ministry of Justice data, was the Burnley-based property firm Aspire Group Developments, which rents out hundreds of properties across former Lancashire mill towns. It has been successfully prosecuted five times under the act, the MoJ’s response to the FOI request says.
Aspire is owned by Jamie Carter, a former Barclays bank management trainee turned property developer, who built up his rental empire at knockdown prices in auctions. It has assets worth just over £13m.
Aspire Home Lettings, the former name of Aspire Group Developments, was prosecuted last year after it failed to make repairs to a rundown pigeon-infested house in Oldham.
The 80-year-old tenant complained to Oldham council but Aspire ignored a notice requiring it to make improvements within 56 days. It was also prosecuted by Burnley council for ignoring a litany of problems in one of its properties, including blocked drains and overflowing waste pipes.
Despite its record, Aspire has received £168,690 in housing benefit so far this year from Burnley council. Last year it received £184,287.
Alex Hilton, director of tenants right group Generation Rent, said Aspire appeared to be trying to wring as much money as it could out of the benefit system for minimal cost. He said it was “not in the government’s or the public’s interest” to let Aspire Home Lettings “continue providing homes to vulnerable people”.
Burnley council said its payments to Aspire were in line with official guidelines and stressed it could not base its decision on non-housing benefit matters. A spokesperson said: “We have seen improvements in the way the company operates.”
Carter admitted there had been a small number of incidents which Aspire hadn’t “got it exactly right” but insisted there was no money to be made from the housing benefit system. Asked about the home in Oldham he said: “The lady in the house is very elderly and refused many times to move out in order that we could carry out the repair works that were required – the works have now been completed.”
He pointed out that Aspire had received an award for regenerating properties. “I set this business up 18 years ago to provide quality housing to all walks of society and am very proud of what we have achieved,” he said.
Three other firms on the Ministry of Justice offender list also received housing benefit in 2013. Midas Property Management was paid £369,880 despite being convicted of renting out flats in what the a council called “an appalling and dangerous state of repair” in Liverpool last year.
The firms facing the highest fines on the list were Watchstar Ltd and Watchacre Ltd, both of which are owned by north London-based Mehmet Parlak. He was branded a rogue landlord by Haringey council, after being fined £40,000 for offences relating to four houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) in Tottenham, north London, in 2013.
Council officers found faulty fire alarms and obstructed fire escape in the properties, some of which housed young children.
Parlak was also fined £23,000 in 2012 for renting out an unlicensed, overcrowded HMO, which posed a fire risk for tenants including children in Tottenham. Officers found conditions “so poor they severely compromised the safety and comfort of tenants”.
Freemans accountants of Southgate, London, which acts for Parlak’s firms, said Watchstar Ltd and Watchacre Ltd had met their legal obligations. “They have paid their fines. The licences are all in place,” said a spokesperson. “Everything is up to date and there is an agent that manages the properties.”
Cardiff-based Topaz Property Company Ltd was the second most prosecuted firm, with four housing convictions. Last year it was fined for renting out two unlicensed HMOs in Newport and an unsafe, substandard house HMO in Cardiff. It was also prosecuted after a woman was found living in a dangerous building it had been ordered to clear immediately. Attempts to contact Topaz Property Company Ltd for comment were not successful.
Generation Rent’s Hilton said the database would be incredibly useful for councils and should help them to crackdown on rogue firms.
“As more authorities introduce licensing and identify criminal landlords, they will start to be driven out of certain areas so neighbouring councils need the means to stop those landlords exploiting their residents,” he said.
Stephen Battersby, vice president of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, who helped draw up the health and safety standards in the Housing Act, said criminal landlords should banned from renting out homes.
“The fact that these agents have been prosecuted successfully means they can safely be described as criminal; that is fact. These are the firms who should not be allowed to operate in the private rented sector,” he said.
Currently there is little to stop convicted landlords from renting out homes although councils with licensing schemes carry out fit and proper person checks, which take into account prosecutions.
Battersby said the database did not reveal the true scale of the problem as prosecutions were usually a last resort.
“It is only when the notice has failed to be complied with or licence breached or no licence applied for after requests do authorities move to think of prosecution,” he said. “So these prosecutions are only the tip of the iceberg. Even if many landlords act responsibly, this data indicates that far too many landlords around the country are getting away with flouting the law and endangering their tenants.”
Environmental Health News created the database by linking the MoJ’s list of prosecuted firms to, where possible, publicly available court reports, council press releases and company addresses.
The MoJ said every effort had been made to ensure that the list was accurate but noted that there was a considerable amount of missing data.
The private rented sector is now the second largest tenure in England. Around 4.1m households rent – double the number in 1996.
But just over 40% of homes in the sector are substandard, with many classed as hazardous to health or non-decent. It is estimated poor housing conditions cost the NHS over £600m a year and the total cost to society may be in excess of £1.5bn.