Illegal evictions and other unlawful practices by landlords are still taking place despite extra protections in place during Covid-19 and are often left unchallenged by police, according to members of the Scottish Government’s private rented sector (PRS) resilience group.
Housing rights advocates on the group have written to Police Scotland this week to ensure officers understand that illegal evictions are a criminal offence.
They have asked the Scottish Government to invest more in specialist advice for tenants and to take action now to prevent a spike in evictions when the moratorium ends.
Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request identified that concerns about illegal practices were raised through the PRS resilience group by members Shelter Scotland and Citizens Advice Scotland.
The group was formed in response to Covid-19, alongside emergency legislation put in place to ensure most tenants are protected from evictions until October 2020.
On 30 April Shelter Scotland emailed the government to highlight cases of illegal evictions, as well as several instances of Dundee landlords asking for payment of one year’s rent upfront.
One tenant supported by the charity in Glasgow “was physically thrown out of the property and had to make a homeless application” after they were one week late on rent because they lost their job as a result of Covid-19 and their Universal Credit was miscalculated.
Citizens Advice Scotland reported at a meeting of the group on 13 May that it had observed a jump in requests for advice around the private rented sector and noted “a couple of examples of landlord harassment”.
The minutes from the same meeting reveal that a Scottish Government discussion with Police Scotland “suggested that there have not been any charges for harassment by landlords”.
Speaking to The Ferret, Shelter Scotland said its advisors had since helped prevent 20 illegal evictions in Aberdeen. In 10 of these cases, tenants were presented with notices to quit which were invalid, and in four, they had been told to leave immediately so their landlord could self-isolate in the property.
“Police Scotland must step in where landlords break the law. Illegal evictions are a criminal act, not a civil matter, and should be dealt with as such.” Gordon MacRae, Shelter Scotland
Shelter Scotland assistant director of communications and advocacy Gordon MacRae said the police “rarely intervene” in such cases, and suggested there was “some confusion” about the law among officers.
He said: “Police Scotland must step in where landlords break the law. Illegal evictions are a criminal act, not a civil matter, and should be dealt with as such.”
In a letter seen by The Ferret, Shelter Scotland told Police Scotland on 24 July that the organisation was “concerned about the number of illegal evictions cases” raised with its advisors, and that “many more evictions may be taking place” as a lack of awareness means cases often go unreported.
The letter explained the law on illegal evictions and said: “We are keen to ensure that your officers are aware of this issue should tenants contact them.”
The charity also offered to work with Police Scotland to “further support tenants and stop illegal evictions”.
MacRae said it was also incumbent on the Scottish Government “to ensure funded access to dedicated housing rights support”. He added: “This must happen urgently so that tenants can enforce their rights now, not in a few months’ time when it will be too late.”
Citizens Advice Scotland social justice spokesperson Mhoraig Green told The Ferret that while the emergency legislation to halt evictions had resulted in “a clear drop” in requests for advice on “enforcement action”, there had been a rise in queries relating to rent arrears.
She said: “We are concerned about what happens to people who have accrued rent arrears during lock down once these emergency measures have ended.”
Tenants’ union Living Rent, which was not asked to participate in the PRS resilience group, said it was “no surprise” to learn of these examples of illegal practices.
Chair of Living Rent Sonja Coquelin said the reported lack of enforcement was “a perennial problem” and that its representatives had even faced instances of landlords calling the police on them for following up on rulings by the housing tribunal.
She added: “The Scottish Government continues to put the responsibility on tenants to make sure housing law is adhered to. By only offering guidance to landlords but not legislation, their measures guarantee no enforcement, keeping tenants in dangerously precarious situations.”
The Scottish Government faced criticism after the SNP voted against Green amendments to the Coronavirus Bill which would have introduced a two-year rent freeze for private tenants, a write-off of rent unpayable due to Covid-19 where the tenant was “facing unusual or extreme hardship”, and prevented landlords using rent arrears accrued during the crisis as grounds for eviction after the crisis.
It is tragic that greater protections for tenants were rejected by the SNP and the Tories, but it is not too late to prevent further evictions. Andy Wightman, Scottish Greens
Scottish Greens housing spokesperson Andy Wightman said the new reports of unlawful evictions were “extremely concerning” and revealed a “lack of support for private tenants in the emergency laws”.
He said: “It is tragic that greater protections for tenants were rejected by the SNP and the Tories, but it is not too late to prevent further evictions.
“Police must protect citizens by responding to unlawful evictions when they happen, and ministers must move now to uphold the human right to a home.”
Scottish Labour housing spokesperson Pauline McNeill MSP said rogue landlords “should not feel like they are able to get away with illegal practices”.
She added: “The private rented sector is badly in need of reform. Tenants too often feel powerless to challenge the unfair and illegal practices carried out by some landlords.
“With the added strain for renters felt during the coronavirus crisis, we need to act immediately to ensure tenants are protected from illegal evictions, as well as other sharp practices.”
Scottish Government housing minister Kevin Stewart responded: “The Scottish Government has been clear that no landlord should evict a tenant because they have suffered financial hardship due to coronavirus.
“We expect landlords to be flexible with tenants facing financial hardship and signpost them to the range of support that is available to help tenants pay their rent.
“In order to evict a tenant, a landlord must follow the correct legal process, failure to do so is a criminal offence that should be reported to the police.”
Stewart said the government had “taken significant action to increase security and stability” for private renters, including protection from unlawful eviction and wrongful terminations, as well as granting additional funding to Citizens Advice Scotland to provide help and advice to tenants and allocating an additional £5 million in Discretionary Housing Payments.
Responding to concerns about police enforcement, Tim Ross, a superintendent from Police Scotland’s Safer Communities Division, said: “All crimes reported to us are taken seriously and fully investigated.
“Police Scotland would encourage anyone experiencing harassment from a landlord or facing unlawful eviction to contact us via 101.”
A spokesperson for the Scottish Association of Landlords said: “First and foremost all landlords must obey the law as the overwhelming majority of landlords in Scotland do.
“Illegal eviction is a criminal offence and must be reported to the police in order for legal proceedings to be brought against criminal landlords.
“Our members have been working with tenants to ensure there is no need for any eviction process by reducing rents and agreeing to write off arrears where possible, as well as supporting local communities during the pandemic.”
This article was published in tandem with The Sunday National on 26 July.
Photo credit: Aberdeen City Centre | CC | Rab Lawrence | https://flic.kr/p/2iMcNhR