Instead of cracking down on racist landlords, the Government wants to introduce a law that will let them flourish

Their plan to jail landlords who let to illegal migrants will have disastrous consequences

Samir Jeraj
Tuesday 04 August 2015 06:29
Theresa May
Theresa May

The Government’s new plan to jail "rogue landlords" for renting out homes to undocumented migrants is an extremely unjust measure for everyone involved in the private housing market. As well as harming undocumented people and needlessly punishing those who rent to them, it will only make help fuel discrimination among landlords and letting agents.

The punitive measures are all part of the Government's knee-jerk response to the "migrant crisis" currently unfolding in Calais. They'll say it's an effective response, and proof that they're taking immigration seriously. But what they're actually doing is introducing a law that will terrify landlords and make many see renters who have "foreign-sounding" names as a huge risk to their livelihoods.

As such, you'd imagine that they must have a lot of evidence that they're basing this new policy on. But you'd be wrong. It's been less than a year since the current system of fines for these rogue landlords was piloted in parts of the West Midlands. The evidence gathered so far from the pilot has not been publicly released. Consequently, we have no idea as to whether discrimination has increased, or whether migrants end up in even poorer and more vulnerable situations. What we do know is that the special helpline set up to support landlords implementing the checks received an average of five calls a day, and there has been one prosecution so far.

Yet once the measures are introduced, it's much more likely that we'll be seeing an increasing number of landlords going to jail. Immigration documents are complex pieces of paperwork, and most letting agents or landlords aren't qualified to understand them. And yet it will be their responsibility to do just that, and their competence in doing so could now be the difference between five years of imprisonment and freedom.

Although of course it's not just the laws impact on landlords that we should be worried about. Racism in the rented housing market is nothing new. But the pressure on housing – particularly in cities – means landlords now have much more power that they can potentially abuse. At present, black and minority ethnic (BAME) people are twice as likely to live in rented housing, more likely to live in housing that is in poor condition, and more likely to experience retaliatory evictions. BAME households in the private rental market are also six times more likely to be living in overcrowded homes. And back in 2013, the BBC found evidence of racism among letting agents in London. In this case, they were discriminating against African-Caribbean renters in favour of white tenants. When challenged on this, the agents said they were simply meeting the requests of the landlords.

The measure also risk having a significant impact on the quality of housing available to many renters. With landlords under huge of pressure to avoid renting out to potential migrants, it's likely that more and more people to will be forced to look for rentals on the underground market. We already have an idea as to what this looks like. Garages, sheds and even industrial buildings are being used to house those in vulnerable housing situations, including both migrants and UK-born people. These buildings are often extremely dangerous, lack of proper wiring, water, or smoke alarms. Since 2009 they have led to more than 438 fires in London alone, and caused at least 69 serious injuries and 13 deaths.

The Government risks taking us back to the days where tenants who aren't white and British are routinely discriminated against. Although it's not just the housing market we should be worried about – like dominoes, it doesn't take much for state-sanctioned discrimination to become entrenched throughout society, until the humanity of people belonging to ethnic minorities is no longer recognised at all.

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