Plymouth council wants to ban negligent landlord David McCabe from letting property. There is a better solution
The houses let by Plymouth landlord David McCabe featured plentiful filth and en-suite mouse-droppings and were fitted with rotting floors throughout. McCabe has been fined £28,000 and the council is seeking an asbo banning him from letting property to benefit claimants (presumably delighted non-claimants will remain free to rent his bijou apartments.)
The council lawyer speaking in court said the two houses were “in a state of Dickensian squalor”.
But this is not the first asbo landlord: that honour goes to Camden rentier Catherine Boyle, who in January 2011 was issued with the controversial order for breaching her licence to rent out a property as an HMO, or house in multiple occupation, where unrelated tenants rent bedrooms. The property had many hazards including no proper fire alarms. Boyle has now been banned from entering rooms without permission or cutting off the energy supply. Ordered to rectify numerous faults and fined £3,600, Boyle’s behaviour was arguably no worse than that of millionaire slumlord Israr Fazal, jailed in Manchester last year for letting property in a similar condition, described as “death traps”.
Camden council admitted that it could have taken over the running of Boyle’s HMO, but chose not to. Both Camden and Plymouth City councils had tried to be reasonable – in fact, in both cases the errant landlords were given years to improve the properties. Perhaps even more radical action would have worked. In September this year, Sheffield landlord Jay Allen was imprisoned for illegally evicting Chris Blades, his tenant.
Tenants who have suffered such extreme failings and actions by landlords must be celebrating these bad-landlord asbos, but I am not cheering. There are already many powerful weapons to punish errant landlords, such as criminal prosecutions, huge fines and imprisonment, but a mystifying reluctance to use them. However, both councils felt they had run out options with two landlords seemingly hellbent on neglecting and endangering their renters.
It is also noticeable that most nightmare landlord cases involve bedsits and HMOs. The rough end of the renting worlds, this is where the bad stuff happens, and some of McCabe’s tenants were vulnerable, and as the court lawyer pointed out they were also “on very limited means”, and some of their slum rooms lacked even beds.
Very bad landlords (and most are fair to excellent) not only flout the law, they flaunt their ignorance of it. In my own experience I have been threatened, had landlords let themselves in without notice (one sniffed my bedsheets as, terrified, I hid in a cupboard). I have lived with potentially lethal combi-boilers and a shower that could have electrocuted me. Another landlord refused to repair a missing window pane through which snow fell on my pillow.
With violent and criminally negligent landlords, desperate tenants can try calling the police but, as I know only too well, they will find themselves explaining to attending community officers, who have no knowledge of property law, that landlords do not have the right to smash doors, enter at will and threaten renters (even those in arrears). But is an asbo the right way to deal with slum landlords?
I believe the best solution is complex. Firstly thorough and obligatory training. Landlords should be licensed and registered after compulsory training in basic law, including the fact that the property is no longer their home, while memorising the right way to give notice to tenants. The occasionally onerous duty to repair, and the necessity of having enough funds to cover these expenses, must be spelled out. Landlords ought not be allowed to rent without this training. Those who lord it over dangerous conditions must be prosecuted and jailed.
Like many rogue landlords, McCabe blamed his woes on “petty” tenants, who I suspect did what most renters do in these circumstances: they quietly moved on. They should have received financial compensation, funded from selling property confiscated from the rogue landlords who have endangered their lives. Losing money inspires even the most stubborn mind to change.