If you live in rented housing, then there’s a chance that your personal details are being stored and shared without your knowledge. It has recently emerged that landlords have been setting up websites to share records about their previous tenants, effectively giving them the ability to create a blacklist.
An episode of the Radio 4 consumer affairs programme You and Yours, which was broadcast on 19th March (the programme is still available on iPlayer and the relevant segment starts at 12:50), interviewed the founders of several of these sites, who claim that it is a necessary precaution for landlords to protect themselves from tenants who get into rent arrears or damage properties. Considering that nearly every landlord will obtain references for a prospective tenant anyway, these sites might seem a bit redundant, but referencing sites offer landlords a source of information that tenants have no control over.
Tenant ID founder Lorna Stevens claims that her site can tell landlords “anything from their previous address, through to their tenancy payment performance. We can tell you whether [previous landlords have] claimed against rent guarantees, whether they’ve withheld a deposit amount, or whether there’s been any reports of antisocial behaviour.” All you need to do to get access to this database of tenant information is fill in an online form claiming to be a landlord, then sit back and wait to be approved as a member.
Stevens claims that her website is “not Big Brother-y at all”, but from the sounds of it, tenants have good reason to be concerned. Many would consider this level of monitoring to be an invasion of privacy, and considering that the site exists to distribute information about people without their knowledge or permission, it’s treading on thin ice as far as data protection legislation is concerned. In some cases, it may even compromise tenants’ personal safety, as it could potentially be used by an abusive ex-partner to track someone down.
Tenants History offers a similar service but goes one step further, notifying landlords that their current tenant has been looking at other properties if someone else searches for their details. Site owner Steven Hanbury said: “I don’t think it’s intrusive at all, as landlords we always like to know whether a tenant is looking to move, so we can minimise the risk of them doing a runner, maybe not paying the last month’s rent – effectively getting their deposit back – and leaving the property in a mess.”
I can see how this might be tempting for a landlord who has had tenants disappear on them before, but the suggestion that all tenants should be treated this way is a little creepy to say the least. If you’re thinking about moving, is it any of your landlord’s business? I’m not suggesting that a moonlight flit is the right way to end a tenancy, but it does occasionally happen, and this is the kind of risk that landlords have to accept. Landlords are making an investment, and that always involves risk, but it’s the nature of the game – the value of your investment can go down as well as up. A rental property isn’t a magic cash machine, and landlords shouldn’t be able to use questionable surveillance methods on their tenants to try and turn it into one.
Of the three sites featured on You and Yours, Landlord Referencing is probably the least invasive one, as it keeps a list of the tenant’s previous landlords so that they can be contacted, rather than an address history. However, it’s still a little creepy, particularly as it specialises in what creator Paul Routledge calls “lifestyle referencing”, and is designed to send out notifications to members when someone who has been identified as a “problematic tenant” is moving house.
The issue here is that the definition of a “problematic tenant”, and whether their lifestyle is considered to be objectionable, can be highly subjective. What about the tenant who inconvenienced their landlord by insisting that repairs were carried out, or took them to small claims court over a deposit that had been unfairly withheld? There are some landlords who would consider that to be “problematic”, and giving them the power to harm the tenant’s reputation for years afterwards would unfairly punish an innocent person.
There’s also no way of even verifying that the people who sign up for the site are even landlords, and not just a random person with a grudge. Landlord Referencing’s blurb makes the point of telling the reader that tenants can’t be trusted to give the correct information about where they used to live, and if a landlord has bought into the idea that referencing sites are the only reliable source of information, who are they going to believe if the details held by a prospective tenant doesn’t match what is held in the database?