When Sarah* wanted to know if her rental deposit was protected and why her energy costs were so high, she was shut down with accusations she was paranoid. The property agent managing her flat in St Paul’s started sending her abusive and intimidating emails.
“May I ask if you’re taking any medication or drugs that may have [a] side effect of paranoia,” read one email. “[She] is a very unstable and dangerous little girl or she has mental health issues,” read another sent to Sarah’s boyfriend, who she shared the flat with.
“The whole thing was just so horrible and confusing,” says Sarah, who rented one of seven flats in her landlord’s Portland Square property between 2016 and 2017. “In the end I did actually end up being paranoid… they were gaslighting us every step of the way.”
Her landlord’s name was Thomas Flight. She didn’t know his name at the time, because he was hiding behind aliases and fake addresses, deploying ‘agents’ who would intimidate his tenants into paying maintenance fees, before withholding their deposits.
The 56-year-old businessman, who owns and lives on the Miss Conduct pleasure yacht docked in Bristol Harbour, was convicted in January of four consumer protection offences against his tenants between 2019 and 2020.
Flight was ordered to pay £37,000 in fees and costs, but was not banned from letting properties in future. Seven of his nine flats in Portland Square are now on the short-term lets market, rented out on Airbnb.
A Cable investigation has found that his reckless and misleading practices may have been deployed against more than those tenants whose cases were heard in court. Some of them, including Sarah, are still out of pocket.
We also found that some guests who book Flight’s Airbnb properties have experienced issues having security deposits returned to them.
‘Endless amount of fines’
Olly says he was one of the “lucky ones”.
He and a group of friends rented Flight’s penthouse apartment in Portland Square between 2016 and 2017. They encountered “aggressive” agents who sent “bizarre” and “sometimes threatening” emails.
Under their tenancy agreement, Olly and his housemates were liable to pay as much as £25 for a single phone call to the property maintenance line, and £15 to send one email. By the time they moved out they had been charged £5,370 worth of damages and fines, which they refused to pay.
“We had an issue with the gas hob – the knob broke and the gas was permanently on – and I thought fuck I need an actual number to deal with this quickly,” he says. “This is what led on to the endless amount of fines for using that number.”
He says the £25 fine for the phone call was doubled every day it wasn’t paid.
After Olly enquired about the return of their deposit, the agent demanded he provide an onward address to post a cheque, threatening to contact their employers if they didn’t do so.
Olly’s housemate informed the agent they did not have an onward address as they were yet to secure a new tenancy. The agent accused them of lying and taunted them: “Let the games begin… You are out of the flat now and play by my rules and not yours.”
Olly says that unlike other tenants, their deposit was eventually returned, but the ordeal “hugely affected” his mental health at the time.
The agents who handled Olly’s tenancy were from a company named Landlord Support Alliance Bristol (LSA). Its website no longer exists online, and the Cable were unable to trace an official representative of the firm.
Olly and his housemates were unable to connect the LSA, who said they acted as an intermediary between tenant and landlord, to Flight. Like Flight’s other tenants, they were unaware that he was their landlord.
The LSA’s controversial tenancy agreements were the subject of a BBC investigation in 2019. In a statement at the time, LSA insisted the charges for phone calls and emails were “legal, upfront and clear”.
But most of these charges were soon made unlawful by the Tenants Fee Act (2019). The Act banned landlords and letting agents from charging unreasonable fees for things like requesting references, administration or credit checks.
The offences Flight was convicted of in January, however, did not relate to fees. He was prosecuted for misleading and reckless commercial practices that are unlawful under Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (2008), which protect consumers against misleading trading practices and aggressive sales tactics.
One of Flight’s seven luxury Airbnb apartments in Portland Square is a penthouse suite which can set guests back up to nearly £600 per night.
There have been calls for regulation of the short-term and holiday lets market in Bristol. Past reporting by the Cable shows that landlords in the city are cashing in on Airbnb lets at inflated prices, while renters have limited access to affordable homes.
An analysis of the reviews left on Airbnb for Flight’s properties in Portland Square showed that while his company is raking it in from holiday lets, some guests are also being subjected to fees and charges that appear unreasonable.
“The host also made a claim for money from us for things that were already damaged… and claiming £70 just to move some mirrors that we’d needed to move into the bedrooms as they didn’t have adequate mirrors in those rooms,” one review from August last year reads.
And it’s not just Flight’s Portland Square apartments that are on the short-term lets market.
In May 2021, Louisa booked an Airbnb lodge in Frome for herself and a group of friends. They were unable to go on the trip – coronavirus lockdown restrictions tightened – so she requested to change the date of their booking but the agent refused.
The agent also denied her the return of her £700 deposit. When she tried to escalate her claim, Louisa says the owners of the lodge denied knowledge of her booking and that the email she received from them was “unprofessional, dishonest and aggressive”.
In a Tripadvisor review, she writes: “I would be very suspicious booking this place when they hide behind different names, companies and avoid reviews through other social media.”
Louisa says the company she dealt with when trying to reclaim her deposit was Maxin Limited, which is owned and managed by Flight, and is the same business in which some of his longer-term tenants paid their deposits into.
‘It was so exhausting, I just wanted it to be over’
The address for the lodge in Frome was the same given to Sarah when she enquired about her landlord’s contact details.
Her property agent had demanded she stop making complaints about her flat because her £1,200 deposit had already been “gobbled up” by administration fees for her maintenance enquiries.
After ending her tenancy, she contacted the deposit protection service (DPS) and was told that as her landlord refused to use its services she would need to pursue her deposit in court.
Sarah said she sent a court order to an address given to her, but never got a reply and she gave up.
“Thinking back, by the end of it I was so exhausted and just wanted it to be over,” says Sarah, who, five years later, still hasn’t had her deposit back.
Councils lack the power to take action
In a statement following his court case, Bristol City Council said that Flight had not been banned from letting properties as the offences he pleaded guilty to were not Banning Order offences under the Housing and Planning Act 2016.
Tom Renhard, the local authority’s cabinet member for housing, said: “Mr Flight took advantage of tenants and that is simply not acceptable. We will continue to do all we can to pursue unscrupulous landlords where evidence of criminal exploitation is found.”
In January, Bristol councillors committed to introducing a public database of enforcement notices given to landlords who break rules, if the government doesn’t bring in a national landlord register
Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, tells the Cable: “The massive demand for rentals coupled with the lack of proper regulation means private renting can seem like the Wild West.”
She adds: “Sadly, as we see through our services, it’s not uncommon for would-be renters to be asked to cough up unreasonable fees, or for rogue landlords to try and unfairly pocket people’s deposits.”
Flight refused several requests for comment on the issues raised in this article.
*Names changed to protect identity.
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