A landlord who used a sticker to disguise a faulty fire alarm and left tenants living in damp and freezing homes, despite council warnings, tops a list of letting agents and landlords who have been convicted for housing offences.
Katia Goremsandu, who owns several rental properties in Haringey, north London, has been convicted seven times and fined a total of £16,565 for letting uninhabitable rooms. Haringey council estimates that her rental income is around £188,000 a year, including housing benefit payments. She told the Guardian she was being “victimised and harassed” by the council, adding that she was at the heart of “a war between the landlords and the tenants … who begrudge the fact that we have property”.
At a time when more and more people are renting homes, the list reveals how landlords with multiple convictions are continuing to let property and face fines that are just a fraction of their rental income. Housing experts called for tougher penalties, and suggested that some landlords regarded fines as “a business expense”, rather than a deterrent.
The list of convicted landlords was put together by Environmental Health News (EHN) after it won a freedom of information case against the Ministry of Justice, forcing the MoJ to release the names of individuals and letting agents who had been prosecuted for providing poor quality or unlicensed homes. It reveals that 2,006 convictions between 2006 and 2014 have resulted in fines of just £3m in total – less than £1,500 per conviction – and that many of those convicted are still trading as landlords.
Complete details of all the cases listed are not available, but in half the company or individual is named. The name that appears most frequently is Goremsandu.
Haringey council said it had taken action against her “for a range of issues relating to disrepair and the poor state of properties she rents out”. In 2014 she was prosecuted for putting tenants at risk by covering a warning light on a faulty fire alarm with a black sticker in a house converted into seven flats in Tottenham.
Goremsandu said the sticker was to prevent the alarm going off while the her engineer waited for the correct part. “It was work in progress,” she said.
In 2012 she was convicted for leaving tenants without heating for prolonged periods during the winter months. She told the Guardian: “They just didn’t put the money on the gas card.”
In the same year a conviction for letting a damp house for more than a year was upheld at crown court. The council said there was an also an “ongoing problem in all properties with damp, which she has failed to address”.
Goremsandu’s barrister, Wayne Lewis, told EHN she felt the label of the most prosecuted landlord in England and Wales was “unfair” and disputed the council’s figure for her earnings, saying her income was not as “glamorous as you might think”. Lewis, of Access Lawyers, said his client had been let down by the people she asked to make the improvements the council demanded. “She feels had she been given more help from the council in how to deal with the repairs she wouldn’t have had all these prosecutions. They threw the book at her repeatedly and prosecuted her without delay,” he said.
The list shows that Harbinder Singh Athwal and Gurbaxo Kaur received the highest combined fine of £18,000 for allowing a rented flat in the Midlands to fall into such disrepair the judge described it as “Dickensian”. The flat in West Bromwich had a leaking roof, dangerous electrics and no central heating, and the pair ignored requests from Sandwell council to make repairs.
The single highest fine on the list is a £9,520 penalty received by landlord Liakath Ali for renting out an overcrowded, dangerous property in Tower Hamlets, east London. A Tower Hamlets council spokesperson said Ali had been prosecuted in 2012 and 2013 for failing to comply with improvement notices “with regard to housing health and safety hazards associated with fire safety, lighting, domestic hygiene, pests and refuse and crowding and space”.
The most prosecuted firm was Burnley-based Aspire Developments, which rents hundreds of properties across Lancashire. It has been prosecuted five times and fined £8,850, more than any other firm. Jamie Carter, who owns Aspire, said the prosecutions gave a misleading picture of his business. “I probably could have dealt with one or two of those issues better than I did but none of us are perfect,” he said.
The data also includes well-know corporate names such as Serco, which was fined £5,120 for an unlicensed fire-risk bedsit in Liverpool. James Thorburn, managing director of the company’s home affairs business, said: “When Serco was informed of the breach we took immediate action to remedy the situation. This breach should not have happened and therefore we pleaded guilty.”
Betsy Dillner, director of campaign group Generation Rent, said it was shocking that landlords with multiple convictions were allowed to continue letting. “It’s clear fines are just a business expense for people like Goremsandu,” she said. “Criminal landlords are raking in £5bn in rent a year, so the fines are a drop in the ocean. If we can’t hurt slumlords with fines, they won’t be driven out of the market.”
The chief executive of Shelter, Campbell Robb, said rogue landlords were getting “nothing more than a slap on the wrist with insignificant fines, meaning they can go back to business as usual”. The courts should use the powers they had to impose higher fines, he said, adding: “The government also has a chance to do its bit to protect private renters with the upcoming housing bill, from introducing a register of landlords, to giving local authorities the resources they need to stamp out rogue landlords in their area for good.”
Stephen Battersby, who helped develop standards for homes outlined in the Housing Act, said landlords with convictions should be disqualified from letting properties. Battersby said councils were not using the powers they had to force landlords to fix problems.
“There seems to be a desire always to get improvements by persuasion almost regardless of the attitude and record of the landlord,” he said. “These are not minor or trivial matters – these are serious offences because housing conditions shape people’s health and wellbeing.”
The data is compiled by English and Welsh courts. The MoJ said every effort had been made to ensure that it was accurate but warned that a considerable amount was missing.
Overall housing convictions have increased rapidly since the 2004 Housing Act was introduced, rising from just one in 2006 to 428 in 2014. Several local authorities, including Doncaster, Wigan and Corby have been to court just once each, while councils in east London have prosecuted 256 landlords.