Lewisham Council is cracking down on rogue landlords and seeking to improve housing conditions in the private rental sector.

This comes as the council increases the number of landlord prosecutions through its rogue landlord team from an average of one per year to 13 this year.

Lewisham Council re-merged its private sector housing agency in 2017 to include empty homes, licensing and support for the elderly and frail.

The merging also included a refreshed rogue landlords team, Lewisham Council private sector housing agency manager Madeleine Jeffery told the housing select committee members.

But court penalties were often low and did not act as a deterrent for offending landlords, Ms Jeffery told the committee.

“Sometimes after all the work we do to take cases through court the actual penalty is very low,” she said.

One landlord who was renting out two windowless basement rooms to young men from Romania was fined £2,000 and court costs of £3,000 but “she could make this in a week of letting those two rooms out,” she said.

Other examples included a letting agent who removed the waste pipe from the toilet and cut off facilities to encourage the tenant to move out following a request for minor repairs, she said.

In such serious cases the council seeks a criminal conviction for the landlord, she told the committee.

The agency had also increased the number of licensed rental properties by 58 per cent in the last financial year – an increase from 231 to 336 – as part of the government’s mandatory licensing scheme.

This comes at a time where half of the borough’s private renters are aged over 35 and more than a third are families with children, Ms Jeffery said.

In 2001 there were 14,000 privately rented homes in Lewisham, but in 2016 the estimate was 27,800.

“Private renting, as people may know, is no longer just a short term solution for single people. That was what it was in days gone past, but that isn’t the case now. Over half the renters are aged over 35 and more than a third are families with children,” she said.

“More than a quarter of people have lived in private rented sector for 10 years or more,” she added.

But while the majority, 73 per cent, of private housing stock was identified as “good” or “very good” in south-east London, private rentals were more likely to be non-decent, she said.

“It seems that a lot of people are happy – the majority of people live in relatively good accommodation, but property conditions can be worse,” Ms Jeffery explained.

“More than a quarter, 28 per cent, of private rental sector homes didn’t meet the decent homes standards, whereas you compare that to the social sector [of which] thirteen per cent and 18 per cent of owner-occupiers [did meet standards].”

The government will extend the mandatory licensing scheme to include all homes with five or more occupiers who are not one household from October 1.

This is anticipated to bring 500 more properties into the scheme, she said.

But landlords were disputing whether their properties needed to be licensed, with 103 out of the 105 properties identified as needing a licence in dispute.

“It can be easy for landlords to get around legislation if they want to. The easiest way is around occupancy. They can say ‘there aren’t five people living here. There were yesterday but one is moving out tomorrow,'” she explained.

“This is a real, constant struggle with us to try and get landlords to work with us and see the benefits for themselves and the tenants,” she said.