Jon Snow: The slum landlord is alive and doing well

Laws to protect the most vulnerable in our society from greedy landlords have failed, and the spirit of Peter Rachman lives on
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The Independent Online

He was the bogeyman of my childhood; his name was synonymous with exploitation and cruelty meted out against the most vulnerable in our society. What he did in the 1950s and early 1960s entered the Oxford English Dictionary as Rachmanism. In short, Peter Rachman bought up swathes of slum housing in West London, forcing out the long-term white tenants and replacing them with high-density new afro-Caribbean immigrants.

Rachman is back. The man may have died in 1962 but the housing abuse that he pioneered is returning. The Rent Act of 1965, the myriad laws and regulations that were drafted to protect private rental tenants, have failed.

We had not the slightest difficulty in finding today's Rachmans. After chosing an area in the north-western part of Greater Manchester, we found three rogue landlords with empires of housing that numbered in the hundreds.

One of them, the Meridian Foundation, even operates as a charity designed to provide low-rent, no-deposit homes for poor people in housing need.

Visiting one of its properties, I found Hazel and her three children in a house in which you would not leave a dog for a night. I could not enter by the front door; it had been nailed up with plywood after a break-in four months ago.

When I was let in at the back door, the stench of fungi and assorted other growths in the kitchen and bathroom were overwhelming. The sleeping 16-year-old's face was no more than a foot from creeping black and grey fungi. No wonder her asthma is so bad.

I also met Mr and Mrs Halstead, a couple in their late seventies whose home, in which they had lived 42 years, had been bought from beneath their feet. They were promised that they could stay on at a low rent for the rest of their lives. Four years on, they were forced out by the very rent hike they were promised they would never suffer.

In an area west of London we even found large numbers of illegal immigrant workers housed in their hundreds in garden sheds.

It perplexes me that British society can be so consumed with the state of education and health provision, and yet turn so active a blind eye to the true state of where people live.

The housing charity Shelter estimates there is a shortage of a million homes in the UK. Shortages push better-off people further down the housing chain, squeezing the vulnerable into unsafe, squalid homes. Britain today has a housing crisis on a level with that at the end of the Second World War and yet is building fewer homes than at any time since the First World War.

We were told by a number of housing officers that local authorities dare not inspect many establishments for fear that they will have to re-house those inside.

They have nowhere to re-house anyone. We asked every council in the UK how many landlords they had prosecuted. The answer was, on average, fewer than two landlords in three years. Far from showing that standards are rising, it reveals an unregulated market in which bad landlords operate as they wish.

The Government's own figures reveal that 40 per cent of all housing in the private rental sector is in "poor condition"

I am no stranger to the rump end of Britain's housing crisis. When I was 23, I ran a day centre for homeless and vulnerable teenagers, underneath St Anne's Church in London's Soho. The New Horizon Youth Centre was an open door project; young people would wander in and out at will. I had lived a privileged life. What I saw of poverty and homelessness in London's West End has informed my life ever since.

Yes, teenagers died in squats in those days. Many slept rough in the doorways of West End theatres. Others lived in sub-standard hostels, and still more were the victims of callous landlords. I little thought that nearly 40 years after I gave up my job at New Horizon, such widespread abuse and exploitation would still play such a role in the private rented sector.

Dispatches: Landlords from Hell airs tonight at 8pm on Channel 4