Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Marta Lijoi

1. Introduction

My name is Marta Lijoi, I am from Italy and I came to the UK in 2003 as a working student for the summer months. I permanently moved to Bournemouth in 2006 and rented up to 2009, when I bought my first residential flat and my first buy to let property in Canford Heath. A year later, I remortgaged to buy a second buy to let property in Poole. The main reasons for becoming a landlord are: contributing to the efforts in raising the standards of the private rented sector, provide a better service than I encountered, as a form of pension and income. My feedback to the enquiry is both as a foreign tenant for a few years and as a landlord to a foreign professional single man, a British professional single woman and a single mother in receipt of housing benefits. I started letting my properties by using letting agents on a tenant only fee to maximise the viewings while working full time, however the poor service received has made me decide to manage the whole process myself. I am a life time member of the NLA, I am working towards the landlord accreditation and I participate to the NLA quarterly surveys.

2. My Experience as a Foreign Tenant in my 20s

The quality of the accommodations—I changed flats six times in the space of six years, mainly due to changes in personal circumstances, by using letting agents or by contacting the landlords directly when moving in with friends.

The variety of quality of the property can suit nearly all budgets, but it can be sub standard: I have rented a flat that had no heating at all due to inexperience and lack of information from the letting agent. I have rented flats shared among four people with a kitchenette that could only be entered by one person at the time. Some of the flats were primarily rented to foreign students on short stays and the landlord was not interested in the condition of the property unless tenants complained and asked for damages to be repaired. This landlord had at least 20 flats on the books, was a professional full time landlord with their own private company to manage the full portfolio.

In my opinion there is not enough clear regulations regarding the acceptable standard the properties should be in before they can be deemed acceptable for renting. Moreover the few existing checks are only in place for landlords that use letting agents, for example agents would not market a property without a valid gas check, but private landlords that don’t use agents can still get away with it unless the tenants know the regulations. I have had conversations with prospective tenants where their current landlords have not carried out gas checks and the tenants didn’t know it was a requirement.

3. Rough Landlords

I have rented a studio flat from an infamous local landlord. I didn’t know his reputation as I had just permanently moved to the UK and I just needed a small inexpensive place while looking for a job. The payments were made in cash by using a rent book and going to the office in person. One day I couldn’t go to the office to pay the rent the day it was due as I had found a job and was working during office hours, but I called explaining the reason, which wasn’t lack of money, and it was agreed that I could pay on the first Saturday. I went back to the flat in the evening to find the locks changed and I had to go and sleep with friends.

When I left the property, I had an overlap of a couple of weeks between the studio flat and the new property to allow me time to move. The landlord realised I wasn’t sleeping in the studio flat, called me to ask if he could start the redecoration so that the new tenant could move in quickly. I agreed to the redecoration but explained I still had belongings there. When I next went back to the property to move the remaining of my stuff, I found out that he had gone to the extent of throwing away the rest of my stuff. I went to the office to complain but could only recover a minority of my belongings.

On another occasion I had a landlord that would come to the property once a week, without giving 24hr notice, didn’t provide an inventory, didn’t protect the deposit, verbally agreed to give me the full deposit back, but when it came to it, kept half of it. This was in 2008 and thanks to the letting agent I used to move, I was informed of the tenant deposit scheme and the existence of tenants’ rights. The letting agent called my landlord, informed him of the regulations, threatened to take him to court and I received the rest of my money. Despite this the landlord banned me from going to see my friend, who was still living in the property.

4. Regulations of Letting Agents

All Letting agents should automatically be registered with The Property Ombudsman (TPO) if they want to operate, instead of having the choice to not opt in.

It’s like allowing rogue traders to operate below standards and telling the tenants that their only way to obtain justice is to take them to court.

In my experience as a landlord, a letting agent didn’t provide the necessary information and the guarantor paperwork that needed to be included in the tenancy agreement at the start of a tenancy. When I questioned the lack of paperwork, the agent didn’t actually provide it, but sent me a link of who to contact. I had paid for a tenant find fee which included the creating of the tenancy agreement and yet I had to chase the paperwork myself. When questioned, the agent was very defensive despite the first helpful impressions.

I looked into complaining to the TPO, I called the NLA advice line, and considered taking the agent to court, however I didn’t go ahead as the agent was not registered to the TPO and the NLA replied as if my only option was to take the agent to court, without being able to estimate if I had a valid case.

As I wasn’t experiencing financial loss, I decided not to take the matter further, however I would have wanted to complain and report the agent to a regulatory body to stop the same happening to other landlords.

5. Regulations of LandlordsLandlords as “Easy Target”

I have recently read the article “Tenancy Deposit Protection, Maximum punishment for missing deposit information” in the NLA magazine dated January/February 2013 which says “NLA members should note that a recent Court of Appeal case where a landlord who failed to provide a tenant with the “prescribed information” about how their deposit was protected was given the maximum penalty. He was ordered to return the deposit plus a penalty equivalent to three times the deposit, even though the deposit was correctly placed in a protection scheme”. I am in favour of the court decision as I do believe in informing tenants about their rights as it helps building a trustworthy relationship and it shows commitment to abide by the law, however I feel like the right of receiving information should be applied consistently in every service related transaction, not only when it comes to landlords. Nowadays employers can change internal policies without even communicating it to their employees and even when I queried it with HR, it seemed acceptable. In my opinion this is not fair and just makes landlords an easy target.

6. Interaction Between Housing Benefits, Local Council and Rental Cycle

A year ago I decided to rent out a flat to a young single mother in receipt of housing allowance for the first time, as a way of helping disadvantaged people and due to the extra security of having a guarantor. Despite the complications of the housing benefits being paid every four weeks despite the tenancy agreement specifying monthly payments in advance. The tenancy was successful until a change in the tenant’s circumstances occurred.

The tenant started a relationship and was advised by the council to let him move in. When that happened, all her benefits were stopped whilst the Council reassessed her claim. I received a letter informing of the stopped benefits which prompted me to contact the tenant. I agreed to do credit checks on her partner with a view to add him to the tenancy agreement, however he failed the credit checks.

It is unclear what type of assessment Poole council did to make the decision that he could contribute to the rental payments to the point of suddenly stopping the housing allowance. The arrears started to build up and I contacted the NLA to enquire whether I could ask my tenant’s boyfriend to move out since he hadn’t passed credit checks, was not included in the tenancy agreement and therefore he had no obligation to contribute towards the rental payments. I was informed that this was not a legal option. It seems a incongruous considering that the fact he moved in was enough for the council to stop the benefits but I couldn’t even decide who had the right to live in my property.

Months went by with no more information from the council and scant information from the tenant. As the arrears were over two months, I decided to start contacting the council on a daily basis and increase the contact with the tenant to understand the situation. I had to deal with a multitude of departments which provided conflicting information and openly blamed the tenant or other departments for the assessment taking so long. The more I spoke to the tenant, the more I realised the issues she was facing with the council, who seemed to be taking advantage of her inexperience and good nature.

Due to the arrears having reached three months rent, the issues with the Council and the stress I was under, I was left with no option but to serve Section 21 eviction notice to the tenant, who will end up moving out just a month after having given birth to her second baby. The tenant informed me that Housing advised her not to move out on the eviction date and asked me for the implications of this. I cannot believe that Housing, who received a copy of Section 21 giving over two months notice and who are the people that should support, help and have the tenant’s interest at heart, advised the tenant of a course of action which could put her in the position of being taken to court. Housing are also doing very little to help her find alternative accommodation. I had previously requested to be kept informed on the progress; I was fully aware that the claim is personal and I couldn’t be given specific details, but I wanted to be kept informed to be able to support the tenant and resolve the situation as quickly as possible. Despite Poole Council agreeing to this, I never received a call or another letter until the re assessment had been completed four months later. I was so disgusted by their unprofessionalism towards myself and my tenant, that I registered a complaint from myself and on behalf of the tenant. This is currently being looked at and I was requested to attend a meeting with the council and my tenant.

The benefits have now started again, however the Council has decided to pay in arrears, paying the final rental period a month after the tenancy has ended, which causes issues with the time limit imposed on landlords regarding the release of the deposit. Due to this experience, I have decided not to rent to recipients of housing benefits anymore. This is purely due to the incompetence of the Council. There is already a shortage of Council accommodation and the Council should learn to cooperate with private landlords if they have to keep relying on private rental properties to fill the gap between council houses and recipients of housing benefits.

7. Recommendations

Creation of a free tenant service, either in the form of a government online portal or a customer service desk at the local council where tenants can contact someone and discuss their experiences, ask for information on their rights, report rogue landlords/letting agents and ask for advice.

If this is already in place, publicise it more widely.

Impose a limit on the number of tenants that can live in a property depending on the square footage of the property.

Clearly define what is considered “accommodation compliant to letting standards”.

Make registration to the TPO compulsory for all estate and letting agents.

Improve Council and Housing’s training and procedures.

Make the Council and Housing record their phone calls and perform quality control on the work of their staff.

Create direct contact between the Council, Housing and Landlords, to overcome the current default of shifting full responsibility on the tenants.

Reform the way benefits are assessed, especially after changes of circumstances.

Create policies or procedures to make sure that the tenants receive accurate support for their circumstances. Just because the tenant is over 18 it doesn’t mean that they need less support.

Reduce the number of Council offices involved in the revaluation of claims.

Introduce more regulation on the way the Council operates in order to make the Council and their staff accountable.

Standardise regulations across the private rental sector, employment, letting and estate agents etc.

Council to adapt making housing benefits payments on a calendar basis and in advance to fall in line with standard tenancy agreements.

January 2013

Prepared 16th July 2013