Submitted by: Laurence Budge
For increasing numbers of tenants in Waltham Forest life is now so bad it is leading to health problems and relationship breakdowns according to local campaigners.
Waltham Forest fuel poverty charity, HEET, was set up in 1999 and they have always had plenty of work helping local people in the private rented sector but in recent years they have noticed some worrying developments.
HEET works with health and social care professionals to identify vulnerable people whose health may be adversely affected by cold and damp living conditions. They then identify and, where possible, install home improvement measures aimed at restoring healthy living conditions and reducing household fuel bills.
Each year HEET surveys hundreds of properties and, as coordinator Tom Ruxton explains, the situations faced by many private tenants are getting worse: “The private rented sector has always thrown up a few horror stories for us, but in the early days the big shock for me was older home owners living in unmodernised homes with no bathroom, running hot water or heating.
Increasingly now though we get referrals, in particular from asthma nurses and Children’s Centres, for young families placed in privately rented flats that are riddled with damp and black mould which is causing breathing problems for both young children and adults.
A number of the residents HEET helps are living in privately owned flats and houses provided by Waltham Forest Council and other local authorities as far away as Ealing and Westminster, as ‘temporary’ accommodation.
Despite the ‘temporary’ label, some families are housed there for years at a time. Quite a few of these properties were previously owned by the Council or housing associations but were sold at a massive discount under the government’s Right-to-Buy scheme before being sold on to wealthy individuals and companies as ‘buy to rent’ investments.
While the condition of some of these properties is extremely poor, owners are still able to charge huge rents paid out of the public purse via housing benefit.
The result is that homeless and low-income families are now trapped in overpriced and under-serviced accommodation whilst also getting the blame for the amount of Housing Benefit that their landlords are being paid.
The response from central government has been benefit cuts but not rent caps. Having seen dozens of such homes and spoken at length to their occupants, HEET say the situation now is worse than at any previous time in their experience:
“Whole families are crammed into one bedroom flats, not because they have outgrown their accommodation but because it is now deemed acceptable to place them there. Three bedroom houses are being subdivided into five tiny self-contained units and each one allocated to a single parent household with a rent of £180 per week (£45k per annum to the owners).”
Despite the high rents, tenants are not getting a comparable high quality service: “Requests for repairs may get no response or a curt reminder from the agency that the tenancy will expire in two months the amount of notice required to terminate a shorthold tenancy.”
Many tenants are rendered powerless by this lack of security and of alternative housing choices. Fearing ‘revenge evictions’ they do not pursue complaints with their landlord or agency, let alone taking them up with Environmental Health.
A private members bill to protect tenants from such evictions was talked out by Conservative backbenchers in parliament recently despite government support.
Unfortunately, as HEET explain, most tenants can’t just move somewhere else: “The absence of affordable alternatives prohibits moving as an option. Rents are hiked at every change of tenancy. Benefit claimants and low earners can’t even register with letting agents. Letting agents screw absurd fees and thousands in upfront payments from prospective tenants and continue to bid up rents and house prices. “
The wider consequences of this situation extend far beyond housing. The stress on tenants can be unbearable. Physical, mental and emotional health suffers. Children’s development suffers. Relationships come under strain. Anxiety and depression proliferate.
Waltham Forest Council is attempting to tackle the problem by designating Waltham Forest a Private Rented Property Licence Area. That means that from April 2015 most of the 26,000 private rented flats and houses will have to be licensed.
There are a range of new requirements on High rents, low standards Laurence Budge on the grim reality for many of Waltham Forest’s private tenants landlords, managing agents and tenants as well as penalties for noncompliance.
There are no minimum standards laid down but hazards (categories 1 & 2 as specified by the Health and Housing Safety and Rating Scheme) must, in theory, be removed.
Tom Ruxton explains: “Although this new measure is to be welcomed and it should improve quality, its effect on rents and supply could be less beneficial. The capacity of the Council, with its diminishing budget, to make landlords remove category 1 hazards from homes also has to be questioned.”
Some local authorities, including neighbouring Enfield, have set up their own companies to buy homes for re-letting to people on their waiting list or as temporary housing.
Shelter are campaigning for more secure tenancies to enable greater stability for families and communities and the National Housing Federation is running a campaign Homes for Britain that aims to ‘end the crisis in housing within a generation’.
Co-ops are again being talked about as part of a solution. What is clear is that the market driven approach to the supply of affordable housing has failed completely and, especially in the light of benefit cuts, low wages and insecure employment is thoroughly dysfunctional.
Radical reform is needed. With a general election approaching the issue of housing needs to be raised more often through community action and campaigns. If those lucky enough to have bought their own home before house prices spiralled out of control stand alongside the 73,000 private renters in Waltham Forest decision makers might be persuaded to create new laws to protect private tenants, guarantee minimum standards and shame landlords into being more responsible.
There are currently two local campaigns tackling the issue: Waltham Forest Renters www.wfrenters.org.uk – an independent group of private tenants campaigning for a better deal.
And the Home Sweet Home campaign supported by Movement for Change and Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy.
This campaign encourages residents to vote for the worst (and best) landlords in the borough www.surveymonkey.com/s/e17housing.
Tell us about your experience with housing in Waltham Forest in the comments section below.