A rogue landlord couple who rented their properties to ‘ghost tenants’ to avoid paying thousands in council fees have been fined almost £190,000.
Mohamed Lahrie, 55, and wife Shehara, 51, claimed they were letting six of their staggering 600 properties to a single tenant, which was in fact their letting agent.
It meant Waltham Forest Council did not know they were houses of multiple occupation, so authorities did not inspect them or charge HMO licence fees.
Between eight and 16 individuals were crammed in each ‘bedsit’, Wimbledon Magistrates’ Court heard.
The Lahries’ defence lawyer, appealing for leniency, told District Judge Andrew Sweet the properties were just “one per cent” of their property portfolio, which they have now been forced to sell.
But Mr Lahrie was fined £126,500 and Mrs Lahrie, who did not attend court, £60,500 for eight counts of failing to license an HMO. It is believed to be the largest fine in the UK for such a scam.
Judge Sweet said: “With all these cases there is an erosion in public confidence and that has a detrimental effect on society.
“It seems Mr and Mrs Lahrie have now accepted full responsibility, but all of this litigation would have been avoided some time ago had they taken the decision then that they have now.”
He added he had to choose a “fair and proportionate” financial penalty that would deter other offenders.
The couple, who live in Hoe Street, owned 600 properties in north and east London through a network of at least 28 companies.
The court heard one in Eastfield Road, Walthamstow was home to seven people under four tenancies, which they claimed was one household.
Mr Lahrie’s lawyer, Imran Khan QC, insisted the financial benefit of not declaring these six HMOs was “miniscule”.
He said: “Mr Mohamed arrived in this country with little money in his pocket and built up a portfolio over two or three decades, through hard work with his wife.
“That property portfolio has been engaged in providing safe and fit homes for many of the residents of Waltham Forest and these six represent one percent of that portfolio. The financial benefit to him was miniscule.
“Mr Mohamed, as a result of this case, has sold his portfolio of properties, he has sold them all.”
Waltham Forest’s legal case began in 2017 but was delayed for four years due to an unsuccessful legal challenge by the Lahries.
Councillor Louise Mitchell, cabinet member for housing and homelessness prevention, said: “This case was vitally important not just for Waltham Forest but for local authorities across London and the country as a whole.
“There is a desperate shortage of affordable family homes and by turning these six homes into bedsits – so that they could make more money - they were not available for families to rent.”
Council lawyer Dean Underwood added: “The aim of the licensing regime is to protect the health and safety of those who occupy the most at-risk private premises, that is HMOs.”
He added that the couple had profited “significantly more than market rent” by renting to separate tenants, although the exact figure was not stated in open court.
For example, for a Leytonstone property, in Napier Road, they received more than £33,000 in rent a year without having to pay the £1,000 licence fee or management costs.
Mr Lahrie appeared in court, sitting in a black suit with his arms folded.
Outside he told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “I have learned my lesson and I regret what I did.”
The addresses involved were in Eastfield Road, Chelmsford Road and Thorpe Road in Walthamstow; Napier Road and Leasowes Road in Leyton; and Ashley Road, Chingford.
At the start of the hearing, letting agent Station Estates Limited was formally cleared of charges against them after the council offered no evidence.
According to Companies House, the agency entered bankruptcy in May 2019.
Although there were concerns about overcrowding in some of the properties, there were no safety or quality issues found at the buildings.