Ben Reeve-Lewis has been a scourge of rogue landlords for more than three decades. The co-founder of Safer Renting, a housing law advocacy service made up of a crack team who take on criminal landlords, has seen tenants’ lives made hell by the most unscrupulous proprietors.
“We’ve had landlords pulling guns on tenants and attacking families with cordless drills and crowbars,” he said.
Despite 33 years’ experience, he is still shocked and upset by what he encounters. “I’m the longest-serving tenancy relations officer in the country. There is no one who’s done the job for as long as I have,” he said. “A recent shocker involved a landlord who was so aggressive that he left a mum hospitalised after she suffered a heart attack. She had a disabled 10-year-old daughter. While the mum was in hospital, he shut off the family’s heating.”
The Guardian followed the Safer Renting team for a day last month. The morning began in a north London county court. “We spend a lot of time in places like this,” said Reeve-Lewis. They were there on behalf of a tenant who had faced repeated harassment from his landlord who wanted him to leave.
Thomas* has been living in a flat in east London for almost four years. He previously shared the home with four other tenants and is the last person remaining. Last year, he was told to vacate the property by December 2022 without a formal eviction notice being served. He has not been able to find another home and has remained there. As a result, he said, his landlord has been playing “psychological mind games” with him.
His landlord started removing appliances such as the fridge and washing machine from the house while Thomas was at work. “I’d come home from work and the mirror or towel rack would be gone. One day the toilet brush was missing, on another the lid of the bin was gone,” he said.
Last month, the landlord started to remove Thomas’s items. “It’s scary. I have to leave the corridor light on all the time to act as a deterrent to stop the landlord coming into the house,” he said.
There have also been random visits from the landlord and his family members. One night at about 2am, Thomas came back from work and went to his room. At this point, Thomas was the only person living in the home. Soon after, a voice from the room next door said “when are you leaving”. It was the landlord.
There has been no heating in the house for two and a half years. It is controlled by the landlord. A few months ago, the landlord turned the electric off altogether.
The ordeal has affected Thomas’s income and family life. The stress of the situation has meant he has taken time off his self-employed job as a hired driver, losing hundreds of pounds of income as a result. He left his partner, with whom he has two daughters, two years ago. He said his daughters have stopped visiting the home.
“They used to sleep over, now they rarely come over. When they do come, they wait outside or we go to a restaurant across the road,” he said.
The council inspected the home and said it was not fit for human habitation before referring him to the Safer Renting team, who helped with his case. They filed a successful injunction against the landlord.
Last month, the landlord hired builders to come into the home and start dismantling it. They began chucking Thomas’s items outside and changed the locks before the tenant woke up. He showed them his tenancy agreement and injunction, and the builders reversed the work they had done and left.
Neither the landlord nor the letting agent have taken responsibility for the property. This is part of a growing practice, and Reeve-Lewis has seen a dramatic shift in the way criminal landlords conduct themselves.
“Back when I started in the 1990s, your average rogue landlord was just a single individual. You knew who they were, where they lived and what properties they owned,” he said. “In the last 10 years, it’s just become completely skewed. We’ve seen the growth of intermediate property management companies.”
These companies specialise in managing and taking liability of the property portfolios of landlords. For tenants, this means who owns and is responsible for the property is unclear. When enforcement action is taken against these companies, they often fold immediately as they hold no assets.
“You’re basically dealing with organised criminal activity all the time. Fake companies, aliases, property fraud. You’ve also got the rise of property licensing and buy to let mortgages. A lot of landlords want to distance themselves from the frontline of it,” he said.
In the afternoon, Reeve-Lewis visited a multiple-occupancy home in Waltham Forest. He was joined by council housing officers who had taken control of an unlicenced property in April.
The landlord then hired private security guards dressed as police officers to force the tenants out. They put a fake eviction notice outside the home before banging on the door and breaking in. In pictures seen by the Guardian, one of the guards is seen wearing a body vest and handcuffs around his waist.
One of the tenants, Anna*, showed the Guardian a video of the incident. One of the guards bangs on the door more than 100 times in less than a minute before bashing the door open, which hits Anna in the face. She crumples into tears after playing the video. After this incident, the council successfully filed an injunction against the landlord to not visit the property.
Harassment by the landlord had been an ongoing saga. Anna had been living in the property for six years with her nine-year-old son, who is autistic. She said the landlord would knock on the door and shout at them. The impact on her son was particularly bad. “He used to lash out at school,” she said.
After actions taken by Safer Renting and Waltham Forest council, she said her son had become more settled at school. “Things are much better,” she said.
The Safer Renting team deals with many landlords who try to illegally evict tenants, despite the existence of no-fault evictions. “For some, it’s just their business model,” said Reeve-Lewis. “They wouldn’t go anywhere near a court. It’s partly about cost, partly about control.”
He remains undeterred. “You tend to count small victories rather than anything big. Every now and again, you can make a difference to people’s lives,” he said.
*Some names have been changed to protect people’s identities