Landlords who have been deemed unfit to rent out their properties continue to operate by exploiting weaknesses in the law.
An investigation by ITV News and the Guardian has found landlords continue to collect rent – often from the taxpayer in the form of housing benefit – despite failing “fit and proper” tests which were introduced to improve protection for tenants.
The findings raise questions about both the effectiveness of the legislation and the ability of councils to enforce it.
On his LinkedIn page he claims to have built a property portfolio worth £30 million.
He has done so at the expense of his tenants, who often end up living in sub-standard accommodation.
Since 2014 McGowan has been convicted six times for breaches of the Housing Act. Last year he was fined more than £100,000 for property offences.
In September 2015, in Brent, North London, the council decided McGowan was not “fit and proper” to hold a licence to be a landlord but he’s still in business. And he’s not alone.
Daud Hussein used to be one of Bernard McGowan’s tenants.
In 2015, McGowan tried to evict him by removing his electricity meter, which is a criminal offence.
When that didn’t work McGowan changed the locks of the property that Hussein rented from him.
In May 2015, Hussein returned home having spent 10 days at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington to find himself locked-out.
His belongings had been removed.
“I called Mr McGowan. I said I’m outside my property, I’m homeless,” Hussein told ITV News. “He laughed at me.”
Hussein later took McGowan to court and won damages but the council decided not to prosecute.
Hussein believes McGowan views the fines he pays for bad behaviour as a cost of doing business.
“It’s like a parking fine for him. It’s doesn’t matter,” he said.
Many of McGowan’s tenants are vulnerable.
Erskine Clarke was sleeping rough before the local authority housed him with Bernard McGowan.
Just under £200 a week in housing benefit secured Clarke a room in a shared house in Harlesden with mould, a faulty boiler and a leaky toilet.
Clarke told us that requests for repairs to be carried out were ignored.
“There was a coldness in the house,” Erskine told ITV News. “[The problem with the boiler] was going on for two years. It kept cutting out. No hot water, no central heating. I suffer with arthritis as well.”
Clarke still lives at the property but has a new landlord who is doing the house up.
Unsurprisingly, he feels angry about the way McGowan treated him.
“He doesn’t care. I think all he cares about is what money he makes. As long as he gets paid, he’s fine,” Clarke insisted.
“Why does the government just let people do this?”
ITV News and The Guardian submitted freedom of information requests to 349 local authorities in England and Wales with responsibility for the private rented sector.
The survey revealed:
502 The number of landlords who collectively committed 752 offences under the Housing Act in 2017.
£2.7m The amount they were fined, an average of just under £3,600 per offence.
Many of the landlords, like McGowan, were repeat offenders, with 123 convicted of multiple offences in the same year.
In 2006 the government introduced the licensing of landlords.
The legislation was designed to get offenders to clean up their act.
The idea was councils would use the licensing schemes to improve the safety and management of properties and deal with anti-social behaviour.
Licensing is only mandatory for larger ‘Houses of Multiple Occupancy’ (HMO), although councils can apply to extend the schemes to cover all rented property in the borough if they choose.
If a landlord is found renting out a property that requires a licence without one, they can be prosecuted.
Licences can also be revoked. Under the legislation a landlord must be considered “fit and proper” to hold a licence.
You would think that losing a licence would cause a landlord problems but in McGowan’s case he has been able to continue renting out his property, legally, by letting it via an approved agent.
Convicted landlords and repeat offenders still renting out properties
Unfortunately, McGowan’s agents appear to be as negligent as he is.
Two agents manage 10 properties that McGowan owns at the Artisan Mews development on the Harrow Road in London.
The vast majority of tenants we spoke to there complain that repairs still aren’t being fixed.
Jacky Peacock runs Advice4Renters, a charity which helps tenants better understand their rights.
She argues the rollout of the licensing scheme was “flawed” and, as a result, it has failed to eradicate bad behaviour.
“We see licences being issued, even when a landlord has had previous convictions, so cannot reasonably be deemed to be a ‘fit and proper’ person as the law requires – and even if he is prevented from holding a licence in one area, there’s a good chance he will be operating somewhere else,” she said.
Approximately 1.5 million people in the UK rent out property.
The government calculates there are 10,500 “rogue landlords” in England alone but Peacock believes “amateur” landlords are as big a problem.
“I would say 20% of private landlords don’t know what they are doing and don’t want to know because they can make a bigger profit,” she said.
“There is a much larger percentage of amateur landlords who may not be going out of their way to screw the tenant for every last penny…but [by not understanding] what their responsibilities are can still be very damaging for tenants.”
Tenants have rights but, our investigation found, often don’t know what they are and, even if they do, are reluctant to complain too loudly.
They fear eviction and the loss of their deposits.
They are right to be worried. Landlords have the right to evict a tenant for no reason by issuing a Section 21 order.
In a statement, the government told us that it is reforming the private rented sector to make it “fairer for all” and that “landlords should be in no doubt that they have a responsibility to provide a decent home or face the consequences”.
It says that, in addition to the licensing scheme, it has given local authorities the power to issue civil penalties and impose banning orders on “the minority of landlords who exploit tenants”.
We invited Bernard McGowan to contribute to our report several times but he refused.
When we confronted him he appeared to suggest that any wrong-doing was “historic”.
In a statement, Brent Council told ITV News: “We are appalled by the way [Bernard] McGowan consistently failed to meet standards, which resulted in our two convictions against him…Brent is one of the leading councils in the country for its crackdown on rogue landlords.”
Prime Minster Theresa May has repeatedly said one of her government’s priorities is fixing Britain’s housing market.
Home ownership is in steep decline – we are increasingly a nation of renters.
Approximately 11.5 million people live in rented accommodation.
The rent they pay, the rent the taxpayer pays on their behalf, mostly ends up in the pockets of private landlords.
In a well-regulated market, you would expect bad landlords to go out of business.
In Britain’s rental market, McGowan is proof that you can be an appalling landlord and become extremely rich.