Housing commission report recommends action to improve renters’ rights in Waltham Forest

Panel of industry experts reveals its findings to Waltham Forest Council after series of private meetings, reports Josh Mellor, Local Democracy Reporter

View over Leytonstone

Renters’ rights should be protected by a new team of Waltham Forest Council “tenants rights officers”, a team of housing experts has advised.

The eight housing experts formed a commission earlier this year to “look afresh” at how the council can push for more affordable homes in the borough.

The commission – which included executives from housing developers, housing associations and academics – met in five private sessions before publishing a set of actions the council should take.

It noted that private renters are “disproportionately impacted” by the housing crisis, with their health and wellbeing affected by the “broken market”.

To help protect their rights, the commission said Waltham Forest should create a team of tenants’ rights officers to support renters with advice and “health and wellbeing initiatives”.

A committee of councillors met on Wednesday (14th) to scrutinise the commission’s final report and voted to “strongly” support the idea of a tenants’ rights team.

Uzma Rasool called for “more boots on the ground” to protect tenants from landlords who act unlawfully. She added: “I’ve had tenants who report issues and say that if you complain to the local authority the landlord will try to get you out. “

The commission also called for the council to come up with a “private rented sector strategy” to increase the number of affordable homes. This could include council-built rental homes and tactics to tackle “rogue landlords”.

Committee chair Andrew Dixon agreed with this, saying a major concern in private renting is “unaffordability” with some landlords setting “tests of income” which exclude low-income tenants.

Overall, the commission said the council was a “leader” in delivering new housing and praised the council for delivering the highest proportion of affordable homes of any London borough.

However, commission chair Geeta Nanda wrote that the borough is on the “frontline” of the nation’s housing crisis, with a private renters market that is “at breaking point”.

The council should have “honest conversations” with residents about issues such as inflation and shrinking budgets which “constrain its ability to act” and may require “compromises”.

A key recommendation of the commission was that the council should build its affordable housing plans on the basis that inflation, increased build costs and market uncertainty will continue.

Such plans could include borrowing on a longer-term basis than usual, offering “intermediate rent” homes to residents on the housing waiting list and “character-led intensification” in the north of the borough.

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The council should also prioritise the borough’s most vulnerable, such as black residents who are “disproportionately” hit by homelessness, the commission said.

Data shown to the commission suggests the number of black residents in Waltham Forest, the only ethnic group to decrease in the last decade, have fallen by 3,000 since 2011.

To prevent families at risk of homelessness from being placed in hotels or far from their support networks, the council should immediately build or buy “purpose-built” temporary accommodation.

The commission also suggested the council “review” the way it challenges viability assessments, which developers often use to reduce the amount of affordable housing in their projects.

Recent examples of this include the Marlowe Road Estate regeneration scheme, which the council and its development partner Countryside claimed was “in deficit” to justify an affordable housing cut from 56% to 45%.

But documents uncovered by the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) in February suggested the scheme has a projected profit of £14m.

Committee member Emma Best, who is also a Conservative London Assembly member, questioned the commission’s focus on London Affordable Rent homes, which she suggested City Hall plans to stop funding in coming years.

However, Cllr Dixon rejected Cllr Best’s suggestion and made a formal recommendation underlining the committee’s “support for London Affordable Rent”.

The final report comes after the commission met behind closed doors five times between January and February this year. Despite claims of wanting to hold a “transparent process”, the commission excluded residents, the media and most councillors from its discussions.

At the commission’s launch in January, cabinet member for housing and regeneration Ahsan Khan said there was “no real reason” for excluding the public.

However, a council spokesperson has now told the LDRS the commission needed “time and space” for its members to “have honest and independent discussions”.

The spokesperson did not respond when asked why public access would hinder honest discussions.

In May this year, the Echo reported on the data shown to the commission to inform its findings.

The housing commission’s full report can be read on the council’s website here.

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