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Alarming trends

It’s time to strengthen our response to illegal evictions and harassment in Wales, says Rob Simkins.

Throughout 2020 our expert advice and support team at Shelter Cymru has helped tens of thousands of people struggling with their money and housing situations – this, against the backdrop of an unprecedented pandemic, threatening people’s jobs and lives up and down Wales.

One of the alarming trends in our casework has been a significant increase in illegal eviction and harassment in private rented housing. By mid-June we were experiencing a 79 per cent increase in threatened and actual evictions by private landlords compared with 2019. Analysis of case files showed that:

  • A third of cases were evicted unlawfully by their landlord changing the locks
  • A third of tenants were harassed by their landlord over rent arrears accrued during the pandemic
  • A quarter reported aggressive and intimidating behaviour by landlords (including explicit threats of violence)
  • 10 per cent of cases involved tenants being harassed after reporting disrepair in their property.

What we also discovered was that 36 per cent of the tenants who told us of their experiences of harassment and illegal eviction had landlords or agents who are registered with Rent Smart Wales. This suggested to us that not all landlords were fully aware of their responsibilities under the law, prompting questions about the content of Rent Smart Wales’ training. Arguably this raises further questions about whether current arrangements are enough to curb widespread law-breaking.

Following Shelter Cymru sharing its data, Rent Smart Wales agreed to rewrite its compulsory training, including re-licensing training, so that starting from 2021 every licensed landlord in Wales will receive training to ensure they understand and avoid behaviours that constitute harassment and illegal eviction.

We also observed in our casework that local authority homelessness services were not always identifying an illegal eviction and signposting tenants in the right way, for example so they can obtain an injunction to get back into their home. As a response to this, we are developing free online training for local authority practitioners and support providers which will act as a refresher on current legislation and showcase examples of good practice from across Wales. This is due to be available in early 2021.

While the commitment from Rent Smart Wales is very welcome and the availability of free online training should help empower local authority practitioners, these two actions alone will not resolve the issues of illegal eviction and harassment faced by tenants.

Firstly, increased awareness of the law among tenants, landlords and agents would be beneficial in preventing issues before they arise. The training mentioned above will go some way in furthering this endeavour. The information available to the public should also be reviewed and updated with some common best practice standards, so as to avoid divergence between authorities and mixed messaging across Wales.

Secondly, the manner in which tenants can hold their landlords accountable needs addressing. In England, tenants’ options for redress have improved significantly. The Housing & Planning Act 2016 provides that a tenant or former tenant can apply for a ‘Rent Repayment Order’ of up to 12 months if they can show that their landlord has threatened to use violence to gain entry, harassed or illegally evicted them. Giving tenants in Wales a similar course of redress may help to empower tenants in challenging this behaviour if and when it does occur and act as deterrent for landlords.

Thirdly, the extent to which local authorities are resourced to bring prosecutions against landlords who conduct illegal evictions needs a fresh look. Even under ordinary circumstances, local authority prosecutions are resource-intensive and don’t always result in a significant penalty.

The above suggestions are by no means the only tools or options available to address the alarming recent events, however they do represent solid steps in the right direction that put some power into tenants’ hands. It is time that lawmakers in Wales took notice of the problems at hand and worked with the sector to ensure that unprofessional practices such as illegal eviction and harassment can be consigned to the past, where they belong.

Rob Simkins is campaigns manager at Shelter Cymru

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