Complaints rise as landlords shun new scheme to improve standards

HMOs Evelyn ward, Lewisham

Evelyn ward, Lewisham, had the highest number of HMO complaints last year Pic: Thames Menteth

Complaints from tenants living in multiple occupation houses in three Eastlondonlines boroughs have increased rapidly over the past seven years, an ELL investigation can reveal.

The flood of complaints from such tenants in Lewisham, Hackney and Croydon comes despite a new Government scheme, which extends the mandatory licensing of Houses in Multiple Occupation [HMOs] to include smaller properties with five or more people and shared facilities.

Click here to read stories from our rental nightmare miniseries, Evicted after fifteen yearsCharged £1K for a door handle and My landlord disappeared

The Government scheme, which came into effect in October 2018, is intended to improve standards in HMOs across England and give tenants greater protection from unscrupulous landlords.

However, our investigation shows that take up of the licenses is very low: in Hackney only a quarter of potential properties have applied to join the scheme while just over a third have applied to do so in Lewisham.

These figures are based on Lewisham and Hackney councils’ estimates of the number of shared properties in each borough, taken from council tax and planning enforcement. Given this, the figures are likely to be conservative estimates.

This comes as freedom of information requests submitted by ELL to Lewisham, Hackney, Croydon and Tower Hamlets councils show that significantly more HMO tenants are complaining about their housing conditions than did in 2012.

The sharpest rise has been in Lewisham, where the council received 580 complaints from HMO tenants about housing conditions last year. This is up from 464 complaints in 2017 and is more than 13 times that of 2012, when just 42 grievances were lodged.

However, an FOI submitted by ELL also reveals that since the new licensing scheme was launched, Lewisham council has received just 144 new applications for HMO licenses as of March 2019. This is out of 400, the council’s most recent estimate of the number of properties across the borough enforceable under the scheme.

There were an estimated 1,350 shared houses in Lewisham as of March 2018, meaning that almost one in every two HMO households complained to the council about their housing last year.

Across Lewisham the number of complaints concerning conditions in HMOs now outnumber those from residents in other private rental properties.

Evelyn ward, the borough’s most deprived area, received 198 complaints last year – the highest by far. While Lewisham council attributes this to the relatively high proportion of people in this ward living in HMOs, complaints from Evelyn made up more than one third of the total across the borough’s 18 wards.

Given that 27 per cent of all private rented sector accommodation in Lewisham is considered non-decent, defined as a property which fails to meet certain standards, the high volume of complaints indicates that many HMO properties in Lewisham are likely be in a state of disrepair, or contain more serious hazards.

Hackney council has also seen a rise in the number of housing complaints from residents in shared flats, jumping almost 70 per cent from 71 complaints in 2012 to 119 in 2017. Hackney council did not provide figures for 2018.

In a borough where there are now 34,000 privately rented homes, 13 per cent (4,000) are HMOs. Almost a quarter of these properties suffer from serious hazards or disrepair, such as leaking roofs, dangerous boilers, exposed wiring and vermin infestations. This is 10 per cent higher than across Hackney’s privately rented properties as a whole.

Similarly, Croydon council has seen a 17 per cent increase in complaints from HMOs, up from 279 in 2012/13 to 540 in 2017/18. This means that out of an estimated 3,000 HMOs across the borough, nearly one in five shared households have complained to the council about their housing.

Tower Hamlets is the only ELL borough to have seen a decrease, falling from 27 HMO complaints in 2012/13 to 19 in 2016/17. Figures for 2017/18 were also unavailable.

The response to the FOI request to Hackney council shows that there have been 1,338 applications made since October 2018 for additional and mandatory licensing in the borough, as of March. This represents only one quarter of the estimated 4,000 HMO landlords in the borough who should have applied for a new license.

ELL did not submit FOIs to Croydon and Tower Hamlets, so figures on these councils are unavailable.

In response to these findings, Lewisham council told ELL that it was “committed to delivering substantial improvements to the private rented sector across the borough” and had in fact seen a 58 per cent increase in numbers of HMOs licensed last year.

Lewisham council launched an additional scheme in 2017 to tackle poor conditions in HMOs above commercial premises and are currently working on a project to deliver an “all borough” licensing scheme application. If successful, this will see all privately rented properties subject to a licence.

Councils like Lewisham and Hackney, which introduced an additional licensing scheme last year, and selective licensing scheme for properties in Brownswood, Cazenove and Stoke Newington, are taking active measures to stop rogue landlords operating in their boroughs.

In recent a report, Lewisham council also admitted the challenge of identifying all rogue landlords. Many use a range of tactics to avoid being counted, having to pay for a license for their properties and bring them up to a certain standard, according to the council’s report.

However, the increase of complaints from HMO tenants shows that councils should be doing more to improve the conditions for those renting in shared housing, according to housing advocacy groups like Generation Rent.


Lewisham HMO private complaints map

Maps showing distribution of complaints across Lewisham from tenants in HMOs and tenants in private rental accommodation in 2018 Source: Lewisham Council Chart: Thames Menteth

Lewisham council’s spokesperson claimed that the growing volume of complaints from HMO tenants indicated that “residents feel empowered to come forward to report unacceptable housing conditions to the council”.

Yet data gathered from local authorities across England by housing campaign group Generation Rent reveals that when private renters do complain to their council about poor conditions in their home, they could suffer revenge evictions and are unlikely to be protected by their council.

The figures from 2017/18 show that just one in every 20 private renters who complained to their council about their home saw their landlord issued with an improvement notice. These prevent landlords from serving a Section 21, or ‘no-fault eviction’ notice, which allowed renters to be evicted without reason after the end of their fixed-term tenancy period.

Data given to ELL by Generation Rent shows that in Lewisham, where the council carried out 796 inspections of private rented homes last year and identified 170 category 1 hazards in those properties, just 11 improvement notices were issued.

Performances across other ELL boroughs were better.

In Tower Hamlets, 309 complaints were made to the council while 34 improvement notices were served while in Croydon 758 complaints were made and 235 improvement notices were served – that’s one in three tenants protected from eviction. No data was available for Hackney.

The Government’s recent landmark decision to ban Section 21 notices is a huge victory for tenants.

It is hoped that the new plans will protect renters from “unethical” landlords and give them more long-term security.

However, there is still a question over how many tenants were evicted prior to this reform, and how many simply did not complain because they feared being made homeless in return.

The ban on Section 21 notices is also unlikely to improve the rate of prosecutions of landlords who fail to comply with council improvement notices, or landlords operating unlicensed properties.

Figures obtained by the Residential Landlord’s Association (RLA) has found that two-thirds of councils in England and Wales have brought no prosecutions against private landlords since new measures were introduced in 2017.

This is despite local authorities’ obligation to take action if a landlord has failed to complete repairs within a reasonable time period.

Numbers of prosecution were slightly higher across London boroughs: Lewisham council has brought seven prosecutions over the past two years. The Mayor of London’s rogue landlord database, which contains publicly available information on private landlords and lettings agents who have been fined, shows that Tower Hamlets brought 19 successful prosecutions since May 2018.

There were no results listed for Hackney or Croydon. This may be because some boroughs have uploaded records which cannot be viewed publicly, but which are available to other London councils to help with their enforcement activities.

ELL has approached both councils for comment.

Jacky Peacock, director of Advice4Renters, who estimates that as few as 0.1% of private landlords letting non-decent homes in the UK are prosecuted every year, suggests that many local authorities simply lack the necessary staff and resources to “identify, inspect and enforce on every non-decent property in the private rented sector.”

“We once calculated that, to deal with all the properties in poor condition at a given point… it would take an active and reasonably well-resourced local authority 80 years to bring them all up to standard.”

Currently, there is no national regulatory model that requires landlords to prove that their properties meet basic health and safety standards.

If you live in an HMO and have experienced problems with your housing, you can contact your local council to report hazards. Your landlord can be fined and ordered to repay up to 12 months’ rent if you live in an HMO that should be licensed but isn’t.

You can also read about how our reporter Briony Pickford solved the problems in her flat without getting evicted here.

Follow our Rogue Landlords series this week to find out more about the difficulties of renting in London #RogueLandlords


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