A housing horror show

Yesterday the problems facing the English housing system got some much needed airtime. Channel 4 is performing an important service in raising the profile of some of the most pressing issues. Perhaps a week focusing on housing problems can really give the debate some momentum.

Last night’s first offering was Dispatches’ continuing investigation of rogue landlords. Then we had The Great British Property Scandal, looking at the coincidence of Empty Homes and housing needs that are either going unmet or are met through grossly inadequate accommodation.

Dispatches provided some vivid illustrations of the appalling conditions to be found in temporary accommodation and at the bottom end of the private rented sector. Cockroaches, bedbugs, dodgy wiring, streaming damp, mouldy carpets and leaky slates – all were clearly in evidence. There were also illustrations of the less tangible risks of poor management and fears for personal safety.

One of the most striking things about the story was the absence of effective regulation. In particular, the temporary accommodation featured should no doubt have fallen under the Housing Act 2004 HMO provisions. Yet there didn’t seem to be a lot of engagement from the local authority in terms of inspection and enforcement. Cross-boundary issues were hinted at at one point – not our role to enforce because the property is in a different borough – but that is surely only a small part of the story.

The problems are clear. We’ve known about them for a long time. But arguably they’re going to get worse. The Localism Act will mean more homeless people being housed in the private rented sector. Welfare Reform will mean those people are likely to have less money to pay the rent. Yesterday also saw the publication of research by Homeless Link into services for young homeless people. The number of people presenting to local authorities is increasing, with the breakdown of relationships with parents on the increase. Local authorities’ capacity to respond appropriately with housing or support is increasingly constrained.

The demand for HMO type accommodation going to increase as a result of the proposal that the LHA will only pay for shared accommodation for single people up to 35. But the supply of such accommodation is limited. One might argue that the overall cap on LHA will increase landlords’ incentive to subdivide properties from self-contained to shared in order to maximise rental income. But that won’t happen overnight. And it isn’t unambiguously a good thing, because we need large self-contained properties as well.

Shortage of supply and tenants who are short of money is a recipe for crowding properties and unscrupulous landlords not worrying too much about the quality of accommodation offered to desperate people. The need for regulators to be vigilant is greater than ever.

Yet, cuts to local authority budgets mean they will have even less money available to take enforcement action.

Pressure on the Government to act in this area is undoubtedly building. So what is proposed? Last month’s housing strategy contained very limited discussion of the issue. The strategy reaffirms the Government’s commitment to avoid unnecessary regulation on landlords. It then goes on to state that:

we are … looking at measures to deal with rogue landlords and encouraging local authorities to make full use of the robust powers they already have to tackle dangerous and poorly maintained homes.

That’s pretty much it. Local authorities do have powers. It is arguable how robust they are. But the broader context of fiscal restraint means they are unlikely to be able to use them as extensively as they would like or need. This statement lacks nuance in its understanding of the way in which regulation operates in practice. The statement also restricts concern to property standards, whereas quality of management clearly goes well beyond that.

Many have suggested that there are structural problems with the sector – short tenancies and no offence of retaliatory eviction mean that tenants are reluctant to enforce their rights. The Government has not indicated that it is willing to act on these fronts.

It is to this Government’s credit that they have brought the issue of Empty Properties squarely on to the agenda. But the premise of the Great British Property Scandal was that there is more that could and should be done. A concrete proposal is for a national investment fund that would allow small amounts of money to be spent on individual properties to bring them back into use. It looked like George Clarke, the presenter, was talking about a revolving fund of some sort. This seems like a sensible proposal. The programme did a good job of illustrating that relatively small expenditures could unblock a system struggling with a lack of liquidity in order to bring properties back into use and to move households into more appropriate accommodation.

But overall I felt that the programme’s implicit premise, which was that the right thing to do is always to bring empty homes back into use unless they are beyond salvaging, perhaps needed probing a bit further. It also tended to suggest that dealing with empty properties would deal with the housing problem. But I don’t think that is the case because there is a mismatch between the location of empty properties and locations with high housing demand. Increasing new build has got to be part of the solution.

Much of the programme focused on Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder areas. You could see why. They undoubtedly work for television – offering row upon row of empty and boarded up properties. But they are a very specific type of situation, where the housing market had been judged to have failed and the only option was to bulldoze and start again. Now those judgements of “failure” are hotly contested, but the pathfinders are undeniably very particular types of location.

The programme could usefully have explored more fully how we have arrived in the situation we are currently in. There wasn’t really any discussion of the link between the housing market, the local economy, in and out-migration. Nor did the programme really get to grips with the issue of obsolescence. Are there properties that have reached the end of their useful life and are not worth saving? And the programme didn’t address whether low demand is a function of the built form or of the social fabric and environment. It is relatively easy to find areas within close proximity were the built form is the same but one is a thriving neighbourhood and the other is in a spiral of decline. It is only, at most, partly about the housing itself.

One thing that the programme captured, albeit indirectly, is the Value for Money constraints under which social landlords operate. The sort of remodelling that George Clarke (rightly) thought was necessary to increased demand for some of the useable empty properties would reduce the rental income, quite possibly to the point at which you’d never get the numbers of stack up using current financial parameters. So the property stands empty, while families sit in temporary accommodation.

But, having said all that, the programme demonstrated that we’ve got ourselves into an oddly dysfunctional situation. And that making relatively small-scale interventions can improve the lives of disadvantaged households. For that it must be commended.

It will be interesting to see the response from politicians in subsequent programmes. I’m not expecting them to be offering significant additional resources. Perhaps this is a case where getting things done is going to require some more community-based innovation, mutual aid and self-help.

But the key thing is that people are talking about housing. And people are getting angry about the mess we’re in. We’ve been storing up housing problems for years, but it just didn’t feature prominently on the political agenda. So while individual and families knew only too well that there were problems, the issue didn’t really lodge itself in the public consciousness. Finally, we’ve got to the point where it is being propelled to the top of the agenda. Whether the politicians want it there or not.

Image: © Amy Walters – Fotolia.com

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