Several months ago, I joined a Facebook group called UK Landlords. As someone who has experienced many of the joys of London’s rental market, I was intrigued to find out about life on the other side of a tenancy agreement. I’d imagined a world of ruthless spivs: wannabe Candy brothers looking to flip a bedsit in Bognor Regis on the way to their first million. But, at first, the landlords seemed normal – even boring.
I observed as the group’s 10,000 members engaged in banal discussions about insurance, property maintenance and tax returns. I witnessed an earnest debate about the benefits of carpet versus laminate flooring. Questions were typically met with helpful responses from the group’s members. ‘Landlords are just like us!’, I thought, mentally humming the melody to "Imagine". It took a global crisis to bring me back to reality.
The coronavirus pandemic prompted the government to announce an unprecedented package of state support to keep businesses and individuals afloat through the coming weeks. Among the measures was a three-month ban on home evictions. It seemed to me like a reasonable step. But what did the landlords think? I checked in on the group: the news had hit this previously placid community like a boiler exploding the day after it goes out of warranty.
If you thought measures to keep vulnerable tenants off the streets during the biggest public health crisis in a century seemed sensible – necessary, even – you’d obviously overlooked the plight of anyone with a buy-to-let property portfolio. One landlord warned the evictions ban would have “chav tenants rubbing their hands together”.
Another moaned: “This is getting cocking [sic] ridiculous ! Next thing is we will have to supply their shopping.” One breathed a sigh of relief. “Glad I evicted mine in time,” they said.
There was a palpable sense of injustice and righteous indignation. “This is disgusting,” wrote one landlord. “Everyone feeling sorry for the tenants. No one mention the hardship of the landlords. They assume all the landlords are multi millionaires and can absorb this loss. We should start a petition for our rights.” I decided it would be churlish to point out that a petition started in 2015 that called for more landlords’ rights attracted just 27 signatures.
It’s not just tenants who’ve been offered help to get through the crisis. Homeowners can take a three-month break from mortgage repayments, spreading the cost over their remaining mortgage term, in case of short-term money problems. Landlords, who are also eligible for the scheme, have been asked by the government to “show compassion” and ensure “no unnecessary pressure is put on their tenants”. In the world of UK Landlords, it seemed that message wasn’t cutting through. One landlord said: “If they have the virus, it’s 2 weeks of [sic], then back to work, they won’t need a 3 month holiday for that.”
Some landlords tried to apply some levity to the situation. “Bet those DSS tenants are looking a bit more attractive now,” quipped one. (If that doesn’t make much sense to you, let me explain: ‘No DSS’ is a common rental policy, a reference to the former Department of Social Security, meaning landlords won’t accept tenants who receive housing benefit. But, if your tenants receive housing benefit, their rent is guaranteed! That’s why this is actually quite a funny joke.)
A few days after the government announced its “radical package of measures to protect renters”, housing campaigners pointed out that the measures contained in the Coronavirus Bill weren’t anywhere near as radical as they needed to be. While the government had promised a “complete ban on evictions”, the legislation simply extended the notice period required for evictions from two months to three and did nothing to protect an estimated 20,000 renters whose eviction cases were already making their way through the courts.
When news later broke that the government was suspending all evictions, it was too much for some of the landlords to bear. “I’d be taking matters into my own hands and getting locks changed,” said one. “It’s absolutely ridiculous I just can’t believe tenants can stay put.” A fellow landlord warned: “Then you’ll risk serious criminal charges.” The first landlord replied: “What’s the worst that could happen? Courts are shut tenants probably couldn’t afford to do anything. I’m not saying do this but it just seems everything always goes in favour of the bloody tenant!”
In my experience, landlords typically shy away from home repairs, but there was plenty of enthusiasm for DIY evictions. “Dark night, baseball bat,” said one, prompting another to reply: “Sadly I think this will happen… Tenants that just take the piss could have an extremely nasty shock coming to them”. The original poster replied: “Who could blame you?” Someone else chipped in: “Your right. [sic] People are not going to be legal if the legal system doesn’t back them.”
As I read through these posts, my dreams of a world in which landlords and tenants could get along were being eroded like a rental deposit. Still, occasional comments gave me hope. One landlord called on his peers “to focus on the current crisis and pull together, including our tenants just like any other fellow human”. Another advised that they had “emailed my tenants saying to let me know if there were problems with rent and I’d work with them and eviction was not an option.”
Ultimately, however, I was forced to conclude that many landlords are not so sympathetic. One posted that they had two properties sitting vacant. “I’m thinking of leaving them empty for a few months” to avoid the hassle of missed rent payments, they said. “I am thinking the same,” replied another, citing their concern about “people moving in then getting 3 free months.” Others piped up in support. “That’s what I am doing,” said one. “Saves a lot of heartache.” Another concurred: “Better off empty till this blows over.”