The accidental landlord:vulnerable tenants need council housing

I fear for tenants who fall on hard times as the stock of council housing shrinks.

After attending my first tenant eviction hearing, I am emotionally drained. The case really tugged at my heartstrings, but more importantly, it brought home to me what a big responsibility it is to be a landlord.

What made it all so distressing was that the tenant, a distant relative of mine, and not one of my own tenants, was 80 years old, in poor physical and mental health and clearly no longer able to manage his own finances. I had been asked to go to court to provide moral support.

Instead of paying his rent, he appeared to have spent quite a bit of his pension entering hundreds of scam competitions he’d received in the post. Every time he got a letter telling him he had won loads of cash in some bogus lottery, he rang the premium-rate phone number quoted, or posted a cheque to claim the non-existent prize.

The rest of his money he seemed to have frittered away on “friends” who were taking advantage of his loneliness to extort money from him. He showed the judge his bank statements, which revealed that he was regularly withdrawing £100, £150, £200 to give to these leeches.

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The poor old chap, several months behind with his rent, had been sent a possession notice but, afraid and bewildered, he hadn’t sought help until, just 24 hours before he was due to be kicked out of his little flat, social services got wind of his plight and swiftly lodged an application with the county court for the warrant for possession to be suspended on grounds of vulnerability.

As we were hurried before a judge next morning, I was acutely aware that bailiffs were on their way to throw his stuff — a bed, an old sofa, a TV and one framed photo of a long-gone wife and a dog — on the muddy grass verge. He was 90 minutes away from being homeless.

Fortunately, his landlord wasn’t a private individual, who might have had to choose between evicting him or being unable to pay the mortgage and losing the property. Thankfully, he was renting a council flat, and on hearing of the painful circumstances, the housing officer immediately agreed to stop the eviction.

While I was at court, I heard several other, equally upsetting cases of vulnerable people who were facing eviction due to rent arrears. There was a sobbing woman who was looking after her terminally ill husband and baby grandson, a father who had lost his job, and a young woman with learning difficulties who kept forgetting to pay her rent.

Most of the cases involved tenants in social housing, but it’s a sobering thought that given the growing shortage of council-owned accommodation, more and more people with precarious finances will end up renting from private landlords such as me.

Much as we might want to show compassion to tenants who, through no real fault of their own, can’t pay their rent, we might have no choice but to evict them. For if we couldn’t pay our mortgages, the properties would be repossessed and the tenants would be evicted anyway.

Supported by the public purse, local authority housing departments can afford to be lenient, but how many private landlords could do the same? Then again, how can anyone make a vulnerable person homeless?

What I do know is that it was stressful enough being in court, but it would have been a million times worse if I’d been trying to evict the tenant, not support him.

  • Victoria Whitlock lets four properties in south London. To contact Victoria with your ideas and views, tweet @vicwhitlock


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