Most of the shoes I own have rubber soles, so this may be an inaccurate claim. But it could be that I now know the meaning of shoe-leather journalism.
The lesson came after being asked in the spring if I would join an annual data project the publication has been conducting over the past few years – a freedom of information trawl of local authorities in England and Wales to collate all housing act prosecutions of landlords and agents during the previous 12 months.
This exercise has always produced excellent stories that expose rogue operators who have been convicted time and again. But this year the idea was to go further than reporting the data. We wanted the stories of the tenants, as well the convictions of the landlords, and an understanding of how many of the rogue names kept cropping up, year after year.
The effort meant that in October, as part of our series investigating rogue landlords, we were able to reveal how convicted landlords, who have been ruled unfit to rent out their properties, are continuing to operate by exploiting loopholes in the law that is supposed to protect the most vulnerable tenants.
Getting to that stage meant spending much of the summer pounding the streets of various areas of the country. If the data project is clearly desk-based, it is equally obvious that to find out if there are people renting a rogue landlord’s property, you have to get out.
I drove to Rotherham to knock on two doors – only to be told on each occasion I was months too late: the rogue agent, who had previously been managing the properties, had moved on.
There were addresses in Birkenhead and Shirebrook where, having arrived, I could get no answer at any of the homes at all. And – most frustratingly – a property in Brent, north London, where I was so desperate to speak to the tenants that my log records 14 unsuccessful visits. (I eventually made contact via telephone, and the residents were not all that keen to play ball.)
Even when folk answered the door, you were not guaranteed a story, or even a conversation. Very few tenants would be brave enough to go on the record – landlords can evict without giving a reason. The renters often seemed to fear that I might not be who I claimed and, let’s be honest, they almost always would have had more pressing things to do with their time, like fixing the kids’ tea.
That’s all fine, of course, it is part of the job and the effort achieved some swift results. Theresa May pledged to give tenants access to the government’s new rogue landlord database after the investigation revealed that not a single name had been entered into the system in more than six months since its launch – and that even when landlords’ names were listed, the public would not be allowed to see them.
Meanwhile, as part of a Labour consultation on the private rented sector, the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, came out in support of a national licensing scheme, “in order to make regulation consistent for all landlords across the country and to stop the rogues from switching local authorities”.
But while that appeared positive, what irritated was how often those you might expect to help the media seemed determined to frustrate.
Council press officers love trotting out the soundbite about how they have “a zero tolerance of rogue landlords”, but then plenty refuse to assist newspapers looking to highlight the issue and what appear to be their triumphs.
There were numerous boroughs that took months to be persuaded just to share court documents on landlords they had announced they had successfully prosecuted – whatever happened to open justice?. And then there was Westminster city council, which simply refused to help at all.
In the end, the publication had to go to court to gain information on a case that Westminster said it was proud of. A judge quickly ruled that all of the documents should be publicly available, leaving Westminster to argue it had only been trying to protect the anonymity of witnesses. Yet, most of the witnesses had previously been identified in open court.
The documents were revealing.
Apart from showing that Westminster had previously introduced homeless tenants to the defendant Katia Goremsandu – a woman now dubbed “Britain’s worst landlord” – the papers stated how she was statistically far worse than anybody without access to the evidence had previously known.
Goremsandu has “at least 60 convictions” for housing offences – dwarfing the seven convictions in Haringey, north London, that led to her topping a list of landlords convicted for housing offences in 2014. The papers also gave clues to how housing prosecutions were enforced (or not) with the publication being able to use the documents to establish that Goremsandu, who has a multimillion-pound property portfolio and an estimated rental income of £188,000 a year, is paying off £100,000 of outstanding penalties at the rate of just £1,000 a month.
So for all the cross-party support to crack down on rogue landlords, this project has left many involved with the feeling that the deck is stacked against tenants ever being consistently and properly heard – or the law being effectively enforced.
As many housing law experts will tell you, the legislation is drafted in a way that is not necessarily that helpful to tenants, while the enforcement system exaggerates that issue further.
Even then, if you are a journalist or campaigner with the luxury of the time to walk the streets and knock on the relevant doors, the bureaucracy slows you down further – and in some cases seems intent on stopping you.
All of which gives the appearance of a system that can benefit the country’s rogue landlords. Well, rogue landlords and the nation’s cobblers.