Tackling poor living conditions in the private rented sector

Posted By on March 28, 2016

Swindon Housing Action Campaign wrote to David Renard and Emma Faramarzi proposing that they use some of the extra income from the Council Tax increase this year to employ an extra 2 Environmental Health Officers (see letter below). These are the staff who are responsible for enforcing the law on private landlords. This would have cost £81,000 out of more than £1.4 million extra available. Emma’s initial response was that our proposal had been “thoroughly thought through”.

However, sad to say, after discussion with her colleagues, our proposal was rejected. Emma explained why.

It is with a heavy heart that I say I am unable to support your suggestion. I would welcome more EHOs and extra budget but I have to accept that pressures are greater elsewhere.”

Trying to enforce our way out of this problem isn’t the right option. We need to encourage better behaviour and practice as well as using the new legislation that is emerging from the Housing & Planning Bill…As you will no doubt be aware there are pressing challenges in both adult and children’s social care where the Council needs to directly prioritise services to work on a cross-portfolio piece of work. It is my belief that poor accommodation effects both adults and children’s health and well being.”

There are a couple of contradictions here. On the one-hand Emma says that she would welcome more EHOs but on the other she says that “trying to enforce our way out this problem isn’t the right option”. Quite how the Council can encourage “better behaviour and practice” from exploitative landlords is not clear. The role of EHO’s is to enforce the law. As we explained in the letter the scale of the job they face is way beyond their resources. Indeed they have to concentrate on Houses in Multiple Occupation, because there are over 16,000 private rented homes in the town. They do not have the resources necessary to inspect the rapidly growing private rented sector.

Emma recognises the link between poor accommodation and health. There are costs which the NHS has to cover as a consequence of poor health linked to poor living conditions. Yet these can only be overcome by forcing landlords to improve the living conditions in their properties where they are sub-standard. If some landlords are refusing to make the living conditions in their properties habitable, without risk to health, then appealing to their better nature is hardly likely to make them pay to do the necessary work.

Although the Council has hundreds of complaints from tenants each year about their accommodation we suspect that many more are too fearful of being evicted to complain. We know that there are virtually no complaints from HMO’s because the people who live in them know they cannot afford anything else and many are too fearful to contact the Council.

The shortage of genuinely affordable homes for rent in our town is such that Council officers have come across between 10 and 15 cases of garages being rented out by landlords for people to live in. This is the canary in the proverbial coal-mine.

We know that Swindon, like other Councils, is under extreme financial pressure as a result of the government’s ‘austerity’ programme. However, dealing with the housing crisis and in particular poor living conditions in the private sector should be a major priority of the Council. Unfortunately, it does not appear to be. Four qualified EHO’s and two trainees, is clearly insufficient to deal with a growing private sector. Our proposal for 2 additional EHO’s was modest.

As it stands, with the government encouraging the growth of the private rented sector, no prospect of significant numbers of Council homes being built, and prices outstripping earnings for those who would like to buy, the private rented sector is liable to continue growing. In turning down what was a very modest request, the Council has failed to accept its responsibility for improving living conditions in the private sector. They are asking a small number of Council staff to carry out a workload which is simply impossible given the continued growth of the sector.

Martin Wicks

Addendum

To:

David Renard, Council Leader, Swindon Borough Council

Emma Faramarzi, Lead Member for Housing

From:

Swindon Housing Action Campaign

Re improving conditions in the Private Rented Sector

Dear David and Emma

I am writing on behalf of Swindon Housing Action Campaign in relation to the private rented sector (PRS). For the first time in a number of years your administration is proposing to increase Council Tax. Obviously we are aware of the extreme pressure on finances as a result of the government’s ‘austerity’ programme. Given the rapidly declining central government grant the extra income you will have from the Council Tax increase could be spent on any number of areas of service. However, we are calling on you to devote a small amount of the extra income to employ 2 additional Environmental Health Officers (EHOs). We have been informed by a Council officer that this would cost around £81,000 a year.

We understand that there are currently 4 qualified EHOs and 2 training. These are the officers responsible for enforcing the law in the whole PRS. They deal with all Houses in Multiple Occupation, Mobile homes, site licensing, Grant work, Home energy, and complaints from private sector tenants (585 complaints in the first seven months of financial year 2015-2016). However, the scope of their job is much wider. In addition to the PRS they cover all environmental & protection team work as well. This includes 

Statutory nuisance work – 2,100 neighbour complaints last year

Petroleum licensing

Public Health

Contaminated land

Environmental Noise Directive (assessment)

Monitoring local air quality – 26 absorption tubes around the borough

Paupers graves and exhumations.

This is a very heavy workload for a small team.

Houses in Multiple Occupation

Moreover, there is more work coming their way. The government is currently consulting on increasing the scope of HMOs subject to licensing (possibly applying it to all of them) and is introducing banning orders for landlords and letting agencies. Local authorities will be given the right to impose civil fines for breaches of banning orders. SBC says that HMO’s have traditionally fulfilled a need for cheap accommodation, though it “has often been associated with the poorest housing conditions and highest risks to health and safety”. This was exemplified by the recent action taken against a landlord in County Rd for various safety breaches and over-crowding. Government research shows that households living in bedsit accommodation are 6 times more likely to die in a fire than the national average for all households. This risk rises to 16 times the national average if  the bedsit is on the third or higher story. Keeping track of these premises, whether or not they require a license, is therefore, important.

The Council’s policy in relation to HMOs is contained in its document, “Policy for the Regulation of Housing Standards and for the Licensing of Houses in Multiple Occupation.”  The Council “aims to maximise the availability of private rented accommodation in Swindon and ensure that it is of a decent standard to protect the health and safety of tenants.” In addition to your legal obligations in relation to HMO’s the Policy document says that Swindon’s HMO standards are considered appropriate for all types and sizes of HMO whether or not they require licensing.”

Indeed, “routine risk based inspections of HMO’s will continue whether or not a license is required”.

HMOs are supposed to be inspected once every five years. In practice the team tends to concentrate on the HMO sector because the standards of housing are often the worst  within the PRS and frankly because they do not have the resources to cover the other 15,000 properties in any systematic fashion. The Swindon Advertiser has just reported that the Council knows of 660 HMO’s and that there may well be another 700 in Swindon1. With a change in the scope of licensing due, dealing with HMO’s alone is more than enough work for the existing staff.

When the County Rd case was reported in the Advertiser a Council representative was quoted as saying

“Tenants of larger houses of multiple occupation like this are particularly vulnerable because they may be less able to seek an alternative accommodation and therefore endure squalid conditions. Our enforcement work focuses on this area, as such properties can be riddled with hazards, ranging from rat infestations or inadequate fire exits and faulty electrical installations,”

Emma told the Advertiser that she had visited some of these places and said that “the state they are in is shocking. It is dreadful that some people have to live in these conditions”.

This is obviously an important focus of their work but even if there are 1,300 HMOs that still leaves around 15,000 houses and flats in the PRS which need to be covered. Clearly  the team does not have the resources to do so.

“Explosion of the private rented sector”

The scale of work which this team and previous incarnations have faced has increased significantly. There are less resources for a greatly expanded sector. In 2001 there were less than 6,000 PRS properties in the town. By the next Census in 2011 it had increased to more than 14,000. The number of people living in the sector rose from 11,359 to 32,811 over this time-scale. Today it is estimated that there are well over 16,000 properties in the sector. The Council itself has described this as “an explosion of the PRS”.

Housing Hazards

According to the English Housing Survey almost a third of the PRS fails to meet the government’s Decent Homes Standard. Statistics forwarded from SBC to the government for 2014-15 estimated 11,250 Category 1 hazards in the private sector. Whilst we don’t have a detailed breakdown between privately owned homes and the PRS, officers have informed us that they would expect a majority of these to be in the PRS. It is possible, therefore that around a third or more of the PRS has Category 1 hazards. These are defined as constituting a serious risk to the health and safety of occupants. It might be dodgy wiring, inadequate heating, damp/ mould; there are 29 hazards listed. As you know the Council has a legal duty to rectify Category 1 hazards. Whilst some of these may be reported to the Council, the lack of security of tenure in the private sector commonly makes tenants reluctant to complain for fear of eviction. The likelihood is, therefore, that there are thousands of hazards of which Swindon’s staff are unaware. These are not just technical issues. Poor housing conditions impact negatively on the lives and the health of tenants and may have knock-on costs to the public purse by way of the NHS having to deal with ill-health caused or exacerbated by poor living conditions. Tackling these problems should, therefore, be a major priority for the Council.

Living in garages

The housing crisis in Swindon is reflected in the shortage of genuinely affordable homes for rent in the PRS. In the last year Council officers have discovered 10-15 cases of  people renting garages to live in.2 This is an indication of the pressures in the sector. Most people who rent in the PRS don’t do so because they want to but because they have no other choice. They stand little chance of getting a Council tenancy and cannot afford a mortgage. There is so to speak a surfeit of renters and a shortage of decent and affordable rented accommodation, as a result of which, people have to take whatever they can get. In a ‘seller’s market’ some sellers will take advantage of their tenants, and that includes providing sub-standard accommodation.

Additional resources?

In the Housing Strategy document presented to the Housing Advisory Forum in October 2014 it was stated that:

“…it is clear that the Council’s enforcement team that ensures that properties meet certain standards with regard to safety, amenity, repair and management cannot be expected to keep pace with the growth in the private sector without additional resources (our emphasis).”

When this was written there were 3 Enforcement officers who worked in the PRS. Since then a reorganisation has taken place which combined the PRS and Environmental work. As you can see from the (not exhaustive) list of responsibilities listed above, more staff may well be able to deal with PRS work but since they have other work as well, overall there has been no increase in resources to deal with “the explosion in the PRS”. Given the fact that there is no prospect of an increase in resources to the Council to build Council housing and there is no sign of the ratio between earnings and house prices coming down, the likelihood is that the PRS will continue to expand to fill the need for rented accommodation.

If the Council wants to address the housing crisis and improve the conditions in the PRS then it needs to reinforce the existing team. Notwithstanding the difficult financial circumstances, some extra resources are urgently necessary to tackle the situation, otherwise Council officers will be fighting a losing battle as the sector continues to expand.

What we are proposing is modest. It is simply a question of whether or not the Council considers it to be a priority.

Yours sincerely

Martin Wicks

on behalf of Swindon Housing Action Campaign

February 9th 2016

1We assume these figures have come from a Council officer.

22 They can’t give an exact figure because of issues with the computer system.