Tuesday, 02 September 2014

Through the keyhole

Too many migrants fall prey to the devious practices of unscrupulous landlords, so what can be done to clamp down on this form of exploitation? Lydia Stockdale reports

Anastazia looks every one of her 46 years. Her life-worn face betrays little emotion - the desperation she is feeling only surfaces when she reaches the end of the story of her first two years in the UK. As she explains how a friend has helped her to pay her rent, gratitude causes tears to well up in her light blue eyes.

Originally from Slovakia, Anastazia came here for work. She got a job in a bakery through somebody she knew. It was a good job, she liked it, but the company went bankrupt. So she moved to Wolverhampton where, like many other migrants, she found work on a farm. She put in long hours packing onions - then she got sick and had to leave last October.

Restrictions on A8 migrants - those from the eight countries that joined the European Union in 2004 - receiving UK state support were dropped in May last year. This means that Anastazia and around 872,000 others from Slovakia, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland are entitled to claim benefits (according to figures published by the Office for National Statistics in its Annual Population Survey 2010/11). However, Anastazia’s landlord, to whom she pays £35 per week in cash, refuses to give her a tenancy agreement, making it impossible for her to access housing benefit.

She has attempted to apply for jobseeker’s allowance and the relevant paperwork has been sent to her address three times, but she’s seen no trace of it. Every scrap of post passes through her landlord’s hands before it reaches her, and it appears he’s destroying anything official-looking that arrives.

‘The landlord wants Anastazia ‘to be untraceable’, sums up Anna Toporowska-Jassal, the EU caseworker at the Refugee & Migrant Centre in Wolverhampton, who is translating during this conversation.

Anastazia is trapped. She’s poor and unwell in a country where she does not speak a word of the language. But she’s far from alone.

Inside Housing has travelled to Wolverhampton to shadow Ms Toporowska-Jassal as she deals with clients. Every morning the centre holds a walk-in surgery attended by people from 120 countries. But, over the past few years, the centre’s caseworkers who deal specifically with EU migrants have been in most demand.

Up to 20 people from eastern Europe turn up every day in need of help - and Ms Toporowska-Jassal says that at least one of them will be suffering due to the actions of unscrupulous private sector landlords. Anastazia is today’s first.

Cracking down

The government dipped a toe in these murky waters last month when it announced it is taking action against ‘criminal landlords’. It is making £1.8 million in funding available to help local authorities tackle the problem of ‘beds in sheds’. Housing minister Grant Shapps said the money will be allocated to nine councils, seven of which are in London, where landlords are known to be letting unsanitary and cramped accommodation to migrants.

New task force

The government has also launched a task force, including the police, local authorities, the UK Border Agency and HM Revenue and Customs, which will crack down on the owners of these properties and remove illegal immigrants.

Peterborough is the only local authority to receive a share of the beds in sheds money that also ranks among the top 10 areas where, according to the figures published by the Office for National Statistics, the greatest number of A8 migrants headed to find work when their countries joined the EU. So what happens to those who are still trying to make a life for themselves in places such as Northampton and Boston and South Holland in Lincolnshire?

People who, like Anastazia, are here legally but are outside the areas being targeted by government funding? Is anyone offering any real solutions to their misery?

John Perry, policy advisor at the Chartered Institute of Housing, says the government’s beds in sheds funding is ‘welcome’, but geographical limitations aside, he’s most concerned that by ‘tying illegal beds and illegal immigration together, the government will not get the co-operation of the people affected’. Even if they’re here legally, they’re going to be worried that fault will be found with their immigration papers, he states.

Mr Perry is a member of the Housing and Migration Network, a group of 20 individuals including Arten Llazari, chief executive of Wolverhampton’s Refugee & Migrant Centre, and led by Hact, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Metropolitan Migration Foundation. It has undertaken a two-year study which found that ‘migration needs to be more effectively managed through good leadership at a local level’, explains Heather Petch, the former chief executive of Hact and co-ordinator of the network.

Its final study, Housing and migration: A UK guide to issues and solutions, will be published by the CIH later this month. Its earlier report, UK migrants and the private rented sector, published in February, addressed the fact that 75 per cent of all new migrants - those who have been in the UK for fewer than five years - rent from private landlords. Figures released by the Communities and Local Government department in February show that the proportion of the general population living in private rented accommodation stood at 16.5 per cent.

Network member Neil Stott, chief executive of the Keystone Development Trust, a community organisation based in Norfolk, explains that migration is a highly political issue, and that it can get ‘very clouded and messy’. As a result, the government, local authorities, social housing providers and private landlord organisations have tended to neglect it as a policy area.

The network calls on them to recognise the presence of migrants within the private rented sector in their policy-making and service provision, and asks them to take the action required to counteract the impact of public sector spending cuts.

‘We were also at pains to point out that not all private sector landlords are bad landlords. They are a minority - but there are still a significant number, and migrants are finding the worst of the bad, small minority,’ explains Mr Perry, who wrote both of the network’s reports.

Pure exploitation

In Wolverhampton, it’s apparent that some of EU caseworker Ms Toporowska-Jassal’s clients have fallen prey to the local area’s most exploitative landlords.

Often finding somewhere to live through friends, or employers and agents who get them work, thus avoiding conventional channels such as local authorities and letting agents, recent migrants can have low expectations when it comes to the standard of their accommodation.

‘Some migrants want to settle down, others are only here for six months. They’re less concerned about their accommodation, they just want to minimise their rents,’ says Mr Perry.

It’s not often the physical condition of their homes that forces individuals to seek advice - it’s other, much more devious forms of exploitation. ‘They don’t come here and say there are too many people living in one room - that problem, or the mould or rats, comes later,’ states Ms Toporowska-Jassal.

‘A landlord is not going to give tenancy agreements if there are 10 people living in the house [and it is therefore clearly overcrowded] - he will not want them to be traceable,’ she explains.

‘People who do not have a tenancy agreement are not entitled to housing benefit. Sometimes the landlord may themselves be claiming housing benefit, stating that they live at the property alone.’

Hidden lives

As in Anastazia’s case, landlords can keep their tenants hidden by intercepting documents that may lead to the authorities identifying their home as a house in multiple occupation, or cracking down on them for benefit fraud.

Often Ms Toporowska-Jassal’s clients ‘let their landlord treat them like that’. ‘Because of their life situation, because they can’t speak English, they think they can’t expect too much,’ she says.

The most unscrupulous landlords also take advantage of migrant tenants’ ignorance of the system and lack of English by putting their names on household accounts, such as insurance policies, council tax or TV licenses, so they are culpable when bills aren’t paid.

‘The first they know about it is when they receive a letter, sometimes from a debt collector,’ says Ms Toporowska-Jassal. ‘They are scared - they don’t know what it is.’

Karina, 21, who has a wide smile and dyed red hair, has come to the centre on behalf of her boyfriend who recently received a £500 council tax bill for a property he left more than a year ago. They met at college in Latvia, Karina explains, but he moved over here first, living in a five-bedroom house with 19 other tenants, their landlords and their two children, in Bracknell, Berkshire.

He was there for six months until February 2011, when he and Karina moved into a house, with a good landlord, in Wolverhampton and had a baby. The couple thought they’d left those difficult early days in England behind them, but then that letter arrived.

When he read the letter, her boyfriend’s first response was ‘surprise’, explains Karina, who speaks good English. ‘He hadn’t signed anything.He never had any contract.’

Ms Toporowska-Jassal is trying to help - she spends a lot of her time making calls to organisations on behalf of clients, and writing letters and sending notes to landlords on behalf of their tenants - and is hopeful that she’ll be able to sort this out. But Karina is preparing herself for the worst; she suspects that ‘finally we must pay’.

Sometimes things are even more difficult - especially when migrants’ accommodation is tied to their employment. If they complain about their accommodation they could lose their job, which can sometimes be illegal work without any formal contract.

Ms Toporowska-Jassal recalls how a few months ago ‘two boys from Slovakia who had run away from their farm work’ came to the Refugee & Migrant Centre.

‘There were 10 people sleeping in one room and they were paid pocket money, as little as £10 or £20 per week. Their employer had taken their documents - their passports and bank cards - and they were left with nothing,’ she says.

The pair had been ‘beaten twice by their employer’, and had come to the centre to get help.

‘But they didn’t have documents - there is nothing we can do without them.’ Those boys would need to go to the Slovak Embassy in London to get assistance, says Ms Toporowska-Jassal, who is clearly still haunted by the fact that she was unable to solve their problems.

‘Sometimes we just don’t know how to support the client. It’s hard to believe a person can be treated in this way,’ she says.

At other times, however, she is able to help eligible clients to apply for social housing. It can be a long wait, but sometimes it’s shorter - ‘three or four months and finally they are out of the landlord’s property… They are not fussy about where, they have no special requirements. They take what they are offered.’

Refugee & Migrant Centre chief executive Mr Llazari adds that over the past couple of years Wolverhampton Council ‘has been more proactive in tackling landlords with low-quality housing’.

But last month communities secretary Eric Pickles accused local authorities of lacking the ‘will power’ to tackle the specific problem of beds in sheds. Responding to a question in parliament, he said there are sufficient powers to address it, but councils are not dealing with it adequately.

The Housing and Migration Network also ‘shied away from calling for more legal powers’ for tackling the wider problem of bad landlords, says Mr Perry. ‘The environmental health experts in the network said that [the problems is] that local authorities do not have enough staff to enforce them and courts are not imposing harsh fines on landlords.’

Making matters worse

Network member Nigel Lee, a former cabinet member for housing at Coventry Council and himself a private sector landlord, adds that in his experience ‘the more you regulate the further underground the worst ones go’.

Accrediting landlords and publicising such schemes can also waste resources, he says. What these tenants want to know is ‘how much is it going to cost me to rent?’ he says. ‘They’re not really looking for accreditation.’

But with more competition in the private rented sector from young professionals who cannot afford to buy or rent by themselves, landlords can afford to be picky about who they let their properties to - they can ask for the deposits and references that migrants either do not have, or do not want to supply.

Meanwhile, the introduction of universal credit, along with the direct payment of housing benefit to tenants from next April, means that landlords will be deterred from renting to local housing allowance claimants.

‘It will end up pushing more people into the same space in the market,’ says Mr Perry, referring to the place where the most exploitative landlords can be found. There are lots of vulnerable groups in the private rented sector. Migrants are part of that, but they’re not a special case.’

Mr Perry suggests that the nine local authorities that receive a share of the government’s beds in sheds funding could use it to train staff in dealing with recent migrants.

After all, when helping migrants who are suffering at the hands of exploitative landlords, small things can make an immediate difference.

For Anastazia, whose life has effectively been held under lock and key by her landlord, a visit to the Refugee & Migrant Centre has led to her using it as her correspondence address. It might seem like a tiny thing, but suddenly it means that she’s free.

A way forward

The Housing and Migration Network’s report UK migrants and the private rented sector concludes that the government, local authorities, advisory bodies, social landlords and private landlord groups should:

  • Co-ordinate national-level bodies - because policy affecting migrants and private renting is split between government departments, and agencies such as the UK Border Agency and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority.
  • Encourage co-ordination at regional and local levels - because this is where most of the proposals need to be taken up, and currently many of the bodies involved are unaware or only partially aware of the issues.
  • Consider a private rented sector ‘summit’ - which recognises the vital, rapidly expanding role of the sector and considers proposals that will encourage better standards within it, especially for more vulnerable client groups, including migrants.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Jude McKenzie

    Hang on, let me get this straight; Anastazia has been working here for more than two years and 'can't speak a word of our language'? I'm sorry but I don't believe that.
    Don't get me wrong, I feel for this lass who is now unable to work, but don't tell me she can't speak a word of English after more than two years living and working in England.
    Pull my heart strings, but don't pull my leg!

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

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