Property licensing: who benefits?

Haringey Council say that ‘good quality housing is a basic right of every resident’. They say they’ve found a solution which will make life better for everyone, tenants and landlords alike – property licensing. However, our member S has had a very different experience. As the council consult on whether they should expand their licensing scheme, S’s story raises questions about how a scheme like this really benefits tenants. Who is it for? Who has the power? And will it ever help S to get what she needs?

When S first came to our meeting, she told us about the conditions in which she and her child were being forced to live. After becoming homeless, they were placed in a flat in Haringey as temporary accommodation, but quickly discovered that it was riddled with problems. The walls were constantly damp and mouldy. The property was also extremely cold, dark, invaded by rats, and smelled bad. By chance, HHAG had already met the previous tenant, who had received an offer of alternative accommodation while we were still struggling to make the landlord improve conditions. As soon as S mentioned her address, we knew that we were dealing with a property which had some major unresolved issues.

picture of the mould on a wall

mould on S’s wall

When S told us that Property Licensing were inspecting the flat, we hoped that this could be the start of some real progress. S lives in an area of Tottenham where the council already operate a licensing scheme: this covers all ‘Houses in Multiple Occupation’. When they grant a licence, the council can order works to be carried out to improve the standards of the property.

Yet, more than a year since the first inspection took place, S’s living situation still hasn’t improved. Since the licence was granted, the landlord has made some small repairs and amendments. But adding a couple of vents hasn’t fixed the damp, and bleach won’t do anything to address the cause of the mould. Over the past year, they’ve bleached the wall twice, but mould is already growing back again. S’s child, who has asthma, is still living in conditions that put her health at risk.

‘They’re prioritising the landlord and the building rather than the humans who live in it.’

The problems with the house go much deeper than the licensing scheme seems willing to address. To maximise profits, the landlord has crammed four flats into one small terraced house, leaving the tenants in poky rooms with no adequate ventilation or natural light. Yet S is the one who’s been criticised for failing to air it properly (although there’s one window in her entire flat), or to heat it adequately (though the walls don’t retain heat even with the heating turned up to maximum).

In their consultation proposals, Haringey are keen to reassure landlords that they will benefit from an expansion of the licensing scheme. A few ‘rogue’ landlords will be punished, but ‘good’ landlords with be rewarded with an improved reputation (which, of course, will give them an excuse for charging higher rents…) Based on S’s experience, it doesn’t look like landlords have much to fear. When Property Licensing first visited her flat, the Tottenham scheme had already been running for two and a half years, while the previous tenant was struggling with disrepair. In theory, a landlord who failed to apply for a licence promptly could have been fined, ordered to repay rent, or even forced to give up the management of the property. But S’s landlord faced no such consequences. If they’re so eager to keep landlords on side, will property licensing ever do more than request a few small changes which do nothing to address the underlying issues?

It’s my home, I’m the one who has to live there, but they say it’s not my business.’

Haringey argue that licensing does help tenants who fear that their landlord will evict them if they complain about disrepair. Rather than waiting for a complaint, the council say they will take responsibility for inspecting all properties, so that the tenant can’t be blamed. However, in S’s experience, this seems to mean that the tenant has been completely removed from the equation. Rather than supporting her to raise her concerns safely, Property Licensing have acted if she has no right to be informed about her own home.

When the licence was granted, Haringey Council gave the landlord and letting agent a list of works to be completed. The council have repeatedly refused to give S access to this, depriving her of the information she needs in order to chase up undone works. S’s situation is confusing at the best of times: her accommodation is managed by a letting agency which has carried out some minor works, but they say that others are the direct responsibility of the landlord. Though the property is in Haringey, she was placed there as temporary accommodation by Enfield. If she’d been fully informed about the property licensing assessment, she could have used this information to hold all these people accountable. Instead, Property Licensing are going over her head to talk to them.

‘They’re not friendly, they’re not transparent, no respect at all, they’re undermining me.’

What’s more, Property Licensing themselves have made it clear that they don’t want to listen to what S has to say. Since they won’t even give her the details of their current assessment, she has had no opportunity to give feedback, ask questions and raise concerns about issues that haven’t been addressed. When S tried to query the inappropriate use of bleach to treat the mouldy walls, she was treated as if she was too ignorant to understand. When she suggested that the underlying causes of the damp needed more investigation, the officer dismissed this without even explaining why he disagreed. When she asked for an explanation of instructions given to the letting agent, she was accused of non-cooperation. They’ve ignored our letters, and complained about HHAG members being present to support S during inspections of her own home.

In their consultation documents, Haringey Council are very concerned to ensure that landlords police and monitor ‘antisocial behaviour’ by their tenants. They’ve put a lot of emphasis on all the ways in which tenants could be a problem. But when tenants like S are trying to call landlords to account for their own bad behaviour, the scheme stands in their way. Haringey may say that they want to protect tenants, but it’s striking that they don’t say anything about empowering them. In S’s case, it seems like their approach has been to silence her, blame her and try to keep her powerless.

For S, the failure to centre tenants has been disappointing and frustrating. For others, the consequences could be far more severe. Tenants don’t have a choice about whether or not a property licensing inspection takes place – the council say that this will protect some tenants from revenge eviction, but will it put others at risk? If tenants are evicted in order to meet the overcrowding standards, where will they go? If they don’t have a secure immigration status, will they be safe? In Newham, where a property licensing scheme has been in operation for the past 5 years, the council report that they’ve worked alongside ICE to arrest 547 people for immigration offences. Given Haringey’s track record of working with the Home Office to deport rough sleepers, can we trust them to put residents’ safety first?

If they want to show that their new scheme will benefit all tenants, Haringey have a lot of questions to answer. But before they think of expanding the scheme, our first question is: how will they support S to get the ‘good quality housing’ which is her ‘basic right’?

We’re holding our own consultation at 10 Station Road, Wood Green, 9.30-11am on Wednesday 21st February.
Come and support our member to present her feedback, and share your own experiences!

February 20, 2018  Tags: , ,   Posted in: HHAG ACTIONS