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HMO Licensing: From Bad To Worse?

manonbench

The story of the negative impact of Portsmouth City Council's efforts to "improve" housing standards for a number of poor souls it might be assumed were already at the bottom of the heap in terms of both social support and housing...  

The Forgotten of Stamshaw

There is a two-storey terraced house in Stamshaw built like so many others across the city before 1914. The front door opens into a narrow hallway, with two rooms on the right then, where the house narrows, a winding stair, after that the "back door" (to the side), then into the kitchen, and lastly a modern bathroom formed where the outside loo and coal shed would have been originally. Upstairs there are three bedrooms. The main chimney has been removed completely, so 2 rooms downstairs and 2 upstairs are a bit larger, and lend themselves better to furniture arrangement, than in similar houses without that improvement. Total floor space is circa 88m2. If it was a new-build project (per "Technical housing standards – nationally described space standard"), the size and layout of this property would currently be defined for Planning purposes as providing 4 "bed spaces".

This old house is on a busy avenue without street parking, so not particularly well situated these days for use by a family. Since 2007, it has been let and appropriately managed as a small HMO in compliance with all statutory requirements for occupancy by 4 adults. The double room (12m2+) upstairs is let in fact for single occupancy, and one of the two original reception rooms downstairs then allocated as another single bedroom instead. This is the most common and practically useful way to allocate space in such a house when shared by 4 single people whether that's a joint let to friends or let as individual rooms. The other downstairs room, the one closest to the kitchen, is provided for use by all tenants as a communal lounge. Although, in reality, this communal room is not used by any of the present occupants in the manner intended, it has just become a junk room with the tenants discarding unwanted possessions there that otherwise clutter their private rooms, so the landlord periodically needs to clear out this "lounge".

Through to March this year, the house was occupied by one very reclusive gentleman in his 50s with complex health issues and three others in their 60s. Two of the latter are ex-alcoholics and one poor fellow counting down his days with a terminal health condition. One has a hearing disability and puts the TV on rather loud in the daytime but his house-mates are understanding and tolerant, and he does keep it off in the evenings. That said, there is a neighbour on one side rather less forgiving of his hearing disability and who has made more than one complaint to the landlord.

Two of these tenants have been living there for over 15 years, one around 8-9 years, and the most recent arrival having had the same home for over 4 years. These are not gentlemen who are inclined to look after themselves very well. They have no family support, and no social worker assigned either. The only person providing any level of pastoral care and support at all has been their Landlord whom I will call Owen. Owen who does not live on Portsea island himself but has been coming to visit 2-3 times a week, ensuring at the very least that the wheelie bin is put out and returned to the forecourt as these gents are completely self-absorbed much of the time and lose track of the day of the week. In recent months, Owen has been visiting every day to provide a wide range of ad hoc assistance to the gent who is dying.

Three tenants were having their rent paid from the housing element of UC and one was on legacy benefits with an even lower budget for rent. The Landlord, Owen has not only left the rent at the same level as frozen benefits in recent years, but has been covering the full cost of the utilities, absorbing the very sharp rises in tariffs; all from that below-market housing allowance too. The total rent retained by Owen, after paying for the utilities, has been recently approximately only 2/3rds of the typical market rents.

Late last Summer PCC publicised details of their new Additional Licencing Scheme. Owen reviewed the details, and found that, whilst this house meets all statutory requirements, and is practical for the four gentlemen actually residing in it, it did not meet the local discretionary standards defined by PCC on some technocratic principle. Nor was there scope to make alterations to the property and retain the occupancy level as an HMO for 4 persons. PCC would expect occupancy to be reduced to just 3 tenants for want of an additional 8m2 of communal space (a purely local requirement).

Owen cannot afford to take just 3/4ths of the 2/3rds market rent he has coming in now, and reluctantly determined that he needed to switch the use to a single household let and, so, then served two months notice (Section 21) on all 4 tenants in mid Sept (2023). He then applied to PCC for a Temporary Exemption to the Licencing requirement, which was granted. The notice periods to the tenants expired on 15/11/23 and Owen, to honour the commitments made to PCC, then commenced possession proceedings on 22/1/23 (paying £355 in fees for each); initially excluding the terminally-ill gentleman.

Owen approached PCC to seek re-housing for the tenant with the terminal condition. A council officer came and interviewed the tenant and initially said that he would not be re-housed. It's shocking to think that PCC find that someone dying with no family who needs daily care is a borderline case for council assistance. Owen, with no other option, was then preparing possession proceedings for the room of this terminally-ill individual too when the Council changed their position late in February and said they could offer Supported Housing after all. That place became available mid-March. PCC provided no assistance whatsoever with the move. The tenant was unable to do this himself. It was Owen, the Landlord, who took care of this seriously ill person's move into a Supported flat in Buckland.

Two of the remaining tenants appealed the possession claim purely on the basis that they had nowhere to go. To make some allowance for this, the Judge allowed them four weeks to 22/3/24 to vacate and return possession rather than the standard two weeks. The Court Order for the one who did not appeal came back later and they were ordered to vacate by 30/3 too. A Request for Warrant of Possession was made during the 1st week of April to cover all three (more expense for Owen) and Court Bailiffs have determined that enforcement will be on the morning of May 9th.

Owen has been aiding all 3 tenants in their communications with PCC Housing Needs team in an attempt to secure suitable alternative accommodation on the most timely basis. The tenants have simply been told by PCC to present themselves to the Housing office on May 8th, the day before Bailiffs arrive, and that they will then be allocated Temporary Accommodation. Two of them are either sanguine or stoic and resigned, and the other is extremely anxious and distressed by the situation.

The Landlord expects that, again, he will need to personally assist all three with their move into that Temporary Accommodation. It remains to be seen if this will be a place in a hostel or in a B&B.

Owen has a full-time regular job and family commitments as well as being a Landlord of other properties besides this one which makes his level of dedication to such intensive hands-on support of these "high maintenance" tenants all the more admirable.

Owen finds the whole situation frustrating knowing especially that even if he could have magically provided the extra 8m2 of communal space expected by PCC's discretionary standards, that these gents would certainly not have utilized it; that the costs of supporting their accommodation needs from May 8th will be significantly higher for DWP and/or PCC than what it has been costing to date; and for some period these 3 gentlemen will be in limbo, with no clarity on what to expect for a longer-term home. This is all the more infuriating when they were all quite well settled and content with their housing situation as it was; plus there's the impact on their mental well-being, in at least one case.

It is not obvious how to improve the lives of individuals like this, who don't particularly look after themselves, who have destroyed relationships with their families through their years of alcoholism, and are overlooked or forgotten by others. But plainly, it is social care and support they lack more than anything, not space for a larger sofa or extra dining chair in a room they wouldn't use. Implementing local policy that forces them from somewhere they regard as home -- where they had a Landlord willing to put up with their peculiarities and foibles, and who was willing to provide at least a modicum of pastoral support whilst also accepting well below market rent -- only serves to make a bad situation worse for these tenants, that PCC claim this scheme is intended to benefit.

Fragile Fratton Residents on that Same Path

In Fratton, there is another two-storey house of similar size and vintage. This is similarly occupied, but owned by a different landlord who made the other choice back in the Autumn and applied for an Additional Licence. The layout is slightly different. The middle ground floor room has been opened up with the corridor to create more useful space in the communal Lounge. The Landlord was confident when applying for the Licence that this house would meet all of PCC's criteria as it had been previously licenced and inspected in the Additional Licencing Scheme of 2013-18 (which covered PO1, PO4, PO5 postcode areas).

Without any reference to the professionally produced, independent Fire Risk Assessment provided with the Licence application, PCC are adding an extremely onerous Special Condition to the Licence on the basis that it should have fire safety arrangements more commonly associated with a 3 or 4 storey HMO; a requirement that is not stipulated for two-storey houses in the nationally published fire safety guidance (LACORS) or Building Regulations.

Whilst that unjustified Special Condition should be straight-forward to contest robustly if appealed to an independent Tribunal, the Landlord (I'm calling Derek) is in his 70s and in poor health himself and does not feel up to dealing with the stress of an appeal to Tribunal. So, Derek has, perfectly understandably and rationally, decided on what he hopes will be an easier path and has instructed his agent to evict the tenants and market the property for sale with vacant possession.

In this house, one of the 4 rooms is currently vacant. The occupants of the other 3 rooms are all male in their 40s-60s. Two were housed there during the pandemic having been long-term homeless and have complex health issues. The other is an asylum seeker from a war zone who has been in residence for the last 18 months, and is at college to bring his English language skills up to a standard needed to obtain a job. All three have just been served two months notice (Section 21) to vacate. This is directly as a consequence of PCC including an unreasonable and unjustified Special Condition when issuing a Draft Licence. It is highly unlikely that any of them will find alternative accommodation within their budget based on the UC housing element.

It is inevitable that, in roughly 7 months time, these three individuals with complex needs will find themselves in the same situation as Owen's tenants are now – with the date of the bailiff's warrant for enforcement approaching fast and nowhere to go other than back to a hostel for the homeless. These gents have been in a similar situation before, they know what hostel life is like. They are understandably anxious and find the situation distressing. Their anxiety will not really be alleviated until they have another proper home again, which will take the best part of a year, and that will also take it's toll on their mental well-being in the meantime.

Again, we can only expect that PCC will be paying a premium from their housing budget not only whilst these chaps are in unsuitable temporary accommodation but for an extended period afterwards to re-establish a sustainable private sector tenancy for each of the three.

The agent has stressed to me that he vehemently hates undertaking evictions and only pursues them when there is no other option. He works routinely with PCC's Housing Options team and commends the individuals there for the work they do. They are effective at finding housing in the private sector for individuals who will be challenging for the most tolerant and experienced landlords and with whom a tenancy is almost as likely to fail as succeed. But as the impact of the Licencing Scheme bites and properties continue to be withdrawn from this corner of the market, these arrangements come at an increasingly steep price.

The asylum seeker has skills and a strong work ethic but his challenges with the language will most likely consign him to minimum wage work. If PCC's Housing Options teams place him in a good room that costs £693 per month, as they have recently some others, how on earth can he meet that rent and live decently when he comes off benefits? His housing problems won't be over with a Housing Options placement like that at a rate 75% above his current rent. 

Are These Examples Typical?

 These are not the first nor the last of the forgotten and fragile to be displaced because of PCC's Additional Licencing Scheme. In telling me his story, Owen reminded me of the impassioned speech another landlord made at a PDPLA meeting in front of PCC staff in August last year about the impact on her "old boys", again tenants with previous experience of being homeless.

The six individual cases detailed above, I estimate, will represent approximately half of one percent of the total number displaced to temporary accommodation, or perhaps driven as economic migrants to neighbouring boroughs by this scheme (a form of social cleansing of the city?). And even those who find alternative accommodation for themselves at the end of the chain displace someone who is a less desirable tenant. That is, this scheme is detrimental to circa 1200 of the city's most vulnerable residents.

Why?

What is driving the onerous "discretionary" elements of PCC's Licencing Scheme that are not seen or required in other parts of the country that have also implemented Additional Licensing for small HMOs?

There is an intense desire in PCC Private Sector Housing to "do the right thing", but also a naïve belief that the more intensely and comprehensively they tackle the work the greater the value of the outcome. It's analogous to: "if 30psi in your car tyres is good then 60psi must be excellent" kind of enthusiasm, with no understanding of the consequences of over-inflation in the real-world.

PCC PSH rely on lots of overly-simplistic assumptions, and seem oblivious to the fact they can easily and often do create just as many serious issues as they solve when they extend themselves beyond the standards and guidelines defined nationally by real experts.

Certainly, there's nothing to be gained in the local discretionary standards that's worth the brutal impact it is having on the most fragile and forgotten residents of this city.

By Simon Fletcher.

Authors note: Names have been changed and street addresses omitted to protect privacy of the subjects. 

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