With multiple tenants crammed into decrepit properties, one London borough is taking direct action
Outwardly, Sunny and Sonal are typical students – they share their house with lots of other people and their room is a mess. But, unlike your average students, they don’t know how many people they are living with or who those people are.
Their room smells of damp and is a million miles from the new wave of modern hi-spec university accommodation springing up across Britain’s major cities. There is thick black mould growing up a wall and at any one time there can be as many as six people sleeping in the shared front room. None of these are fellow undergraduates crashing out after a big night out; they are total strangers, usually men.
Sunny and Sonal are two of thousands of tenants across the London borough of Newham – one of the most deprived parts of the UK – who live in substandard accommodation that their landlord illegally lets out to multiple occupants. Like Sunny and Sonal, who came from India to study for Master’s degrees in business administration a year ago, many of these tenants come from overseas and don’t stay in one place for long, so much so that there is a 25% change in the population of the borough every 12 months, according to the council. Some occupants are students, but many of them are workers and increasing numbers are families, forced out to the fringes of the capital by low wages and escalating rents.
The problem of substandard housing is not confined to Newham. The largest study of private renters to date, by housing charity Shelter, found that one in nine renters says their health has been affected by their landlord failing to carry out repairs or deal with poor conditions in their home. This is against a backdrop of rents that have risen by a typical £300 a year over the past 12 months, the charity says.
In January 2013, in a concerted attempt to tackle the issue of poor private sector rented housing, Newham became the first borough in the country to introduce compulsory licensing for all private landlords. Elsewhere, mandatory licences required by landlords are merely for the multiple occupancy properties they own.
In Newham, landlords now need to show they are “fit and proper persons”, which involves a Criminal Records Bureau check. They also need to demonstrate to Newham that any gas and electrical installations have a safety certificate, tenants are on written tenancy agreements, and anti-social behaviour and repairs are effectively managed.
So far more than 15,000 landlords have applied for licences for 29,000 properties – not all of which will be granted. However, there are a further 10,000 homes the council believes are under the radar, and these are the priority for licensing enforcement agents. Twice-weekly “dawn raids” are carried out by a council enforcement team in conjunction with the police and the UK Border Agency. For the council, these are primarily concerned with identifying and cracking down on properties where landlords have not bothered to apply for licences, as well as identifying illegal backyard “sheds” which landlords have increasingly been converting into illegal living spaces.
Newham mayor Sir Robin Wales blames the government’s recent caps on benefits for making the problem worse. “The government are barbarians, and their policies are disgraceful,” he says. “You cannot suddenly tell people who have three or four kids that the money is not coming in any more. We cannot allow a position to occur where we end up with lots of people and families in one house as a result.”
Wales estimates that about a quarter of landlords in the borough are “criminals”, adding: “We are now going after those who are not fit and proper. It may take us three years to find them all, but we will do it.”
The scheme has already started to show results. One of the borough’s most problematic landlords recently became the first to be turned down for a licence because he failed the fit and proper persons test. He owns more than 50 “units”, so called as some are nothing more than converted sheds. The landlord will now have to come up with an alternative licence holder for the properties, whom the council will also vet and either offer a temporary licence to or turn down. In the latter scenario, the council can make an interim management order, giving it the ability to take control of the properties.
Rogue landlords primarily advertise in newsagent windows. Outside East Ham tube station, we visited a newsagent’s where the entire window is covered with accommodation adverts. “Double bedroom for £85 per week. 2 students can also share the room at £50 each,” one ad says. “Rooms for rent. Couples, students, boys or girls. From £30 per week,” says another. However, some landlords target those coming out of mental health care facilities or hostels, offering to help with benefits and promising a cheap rent.
When we arrive at the Victorian terrace Sunny and Sonal call home, the telltale signs of an unloved rented property are immediately evident. Cracked paving stones in the front garden are riddled with dandelions and strewn with litter.
Christine Lyons, head of planning enforcement at Newham, and her colleague Ryan Ward knock on the door. This is one of the many houses they or one of their 23-strong team inspect every day, usually because the properties are not licensed as Houses in Multiple Occupation (a licence is required if there are more than six unrelated people living together). A warning notice was sent to the landlord’s home address after a previous council visit found there were 12 people living at the address.
A small, balding, middle-aged Asian man opens the door and is happy for us to come inside. “He says there are 10 people now in the property, and three to six of these can be living in the front room at any one time,” Lyons says, after talking to him. The man then explains quite openly that he and his brother are the head tenants and manage the property on behalf of the landlord, who lives outside the capital, sub-letting to people, presumably for a cut of the rent.
Upstairs, Sunny and Sonal, the only other tenants home that day, invite us into their room. It contains just a double bed and a wardrobe and is strewn with clothes. Their rent is £120 a week between them. The rewards for letting to so many people are immediately clear: if all 10 residents are, like Sunny and Sonal, paying £60 a week each, that is netting the landlord an income of more than £30,000 a year. Lyons says she always asks about how much tenants are paying in rent as it is possible to prosecute for proceeds of crime.
Lyons turns to Sunny: “Does anyone come to remove this?” she says, indicating the mould under the window. “Someone did about two months back,” 26-year-old Sunny says. “But it came back again. We’ve cleaned it lots of times, but it always comes back.”
The poor condition of the property and the cramped conditions are fairly shocking, but Ward says he has seen worse: “Last week I went into a property and saw a cat shoot across the room. My colleague pointed out that it wasn’t a cat – it was a rat.”
Sunny agrees to have his picture taken, but Sonal wants to stay away from the camera. “We are moving on,” she whispers to me in the doorway. “We have no idea who is going to be in this house at any time and who is coming and going. We have no lock on our door and nowhere to dry our clothes. We don’t always feel safe.”
Back on the streets of east London, we knock on the door of a second property. A young woman in a red sari opens it; she has clearly just woken up and looks flustered. “No, only my family lives here,” she says when Lyons asks her about other occupants. “We’ve been here five years. There is certainly only us here.”
The council’s records from a previous visit show otherwise. Then there were 16 seemingly unrelated people in the property. Inside, clothes are hanging everywhere, including across the windows, and there are rows and rows of shoes in the corridor. Outside in the yard, strewn with broken pushchairs, cardboard and empty suitcases, is a concrete outhouse with a locked UPVC door and window, the inside blocked from view by net curtains. Outside its door is a sink with a mirror and what looks as if it could pass as a bidet. The council believes the building is being used as accommodation.
“We use aerial photography as one of our tools to identify illegal dwellings,” Ward says. “The problem we have is that if a converted shed like this has been here for more than four years, under planning laws we can’t do anything about it.”
Back upstairs inside the main house there are three bedrooms. One is a tiny box room, which evidently has someone sleeping in it, and in the next room is a double and a single bed and what looks like four more sleeping areas on the floor. There is an old man asleep in one of the areas and the woman who opened the door says that is also where she sleeps. In the next room is a double bed and a cot. A lady is in there with an 11-month-old baby. “She says the baby has never seen a doctor,” Lyons says after talking to her. “I’m a mother myself and that sort of thing concerns me.”
Lyons and a team from the council’s private sector housing unit will now return to the property and go for a joint prosecution of its landlord.
Sunny and Sonal are in the fortunate position of having just enough money to move on; a recent survey from Shelter found that more than half of renting families have £50 or less left over after paying rent and other essentials. “We have found a studio flat nearby. It is a stretch to afford, but we can’t live like this any longer,” Sonal says.
There are no comments yet. Why not be the first to speak your mind.