Shops_on_Smithdown_Road,_Liverpool_(1)

lowres_cml201210250031With 40% of private rents failing to meet basic standards, city landlords may be about to face tighter regulation. Next week, residents and landlords are being invited to find out more about proposals to introduce a licensing scheme for Liverpool’s private rented properties.

Consultation is taking place about the proposal which would mean all property owners who rent out their properties would need to apply for a licence, agreeing to comply with a set of conditions. The scheme hopes to drive up the quality of the private rented sector in the city – a sector comprising some 50,000 properties.

So how bad is Liverpool’s private rental stock?

Maria’s experience of renting in Liverpool is depressingly familiar. An international student with no maintenance loan, she was forced to opt for the lowest rent she could find. The search for budget accommodation led to a run-in with the city’s housing problems in the form of a twelve month tenancy on a terraced house in Wavertree. She requested her name be changed to protect identity.

“We went for the cheapest house we could find. I wasn’t expecting anything much,” Maria says. “It was completely neglected. The windows didn’t close and there was damp everywhere. They refused to deal with it. The doors leaked. It was freezing cold. The heating went straight out of the window in every sense of the word.

“One day one of the kitchen cupboards came down completely. They said it was our fault, but there was damp behind it. They tried to pass the blame to us. We emailed, and telephoned, but never got a reply.”

580_Image_terrace_street_liverpoolMonths after moving in, the decision was finally made to replace the windows: “They decided to tear them all out, and put new ones in, because January is a good time to do that!

“The builders completely trashed the house, I’ve never seen anything like it. The electricity topup metre box was above the door and they just tore all the chords out and were left hanging around. The same in the kitchen. The front room was just full of mud because they tramped through it. You’d have needed a steam cleaner to get it out.”

Although Maria did ask Hope University for help, the best they offered was a space in university accommodation out of her price range. When she finally moved out, the landlord docked the deposit by £200 citing spurious cleaning charges, a common complaint from student tenants.

Despite the house changing hands during her tenure, she never met either landlord and dealt exclusively with an agency. Throughout the tenancy, Maria never received a single reply to an email from them.

Maria and her housemate were lucky in one important respect: they had other places they could stay to escape the relentless cold and damp. That wasn’t enough to prevent it affecting her studies though, “I was just ill the entire time through the six months of uni. There was mental stress as well as physical stress.”

Long term exposure to poor housing conditions has long been linked to an increased risk of respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, depression and anxiety. Government experts estimate the cost to the NHS at around £600m a year.

“Many areas which suffer blight in the city are characterised by large numbers of poorly managed private rented properties”

There is no shortage of accommodation in Liverpool which fails to meet basic standards. A 2010 survey for Liverpool City Council found that 40% of private rented dwellings fail to meet the government’s Decent Homes Standard. A significant minority are in a state of disrepair, hazardous or overcrowded.

Nationally, research by the Guardian found of 86,628 complaints that were made against landlords, only 270 were ever successfully prosecuted.

Maria found her experience in stark contrast with her native Germany: “It’s more normal to rent. People who live in big cities always, always rent, unless they have loads of money they need to invest somewhere. There is more force behind it: if everyone rents then the state needs to have more legislation.”

However, the situation in the UK is changing. The aftermath of the financial crisis has seen the first fall in home ownership for a century. Between 2001 and 2011 the number of private rents increased by 88%, and in Liverpool they account for one in five of all homes. Inevitabley, pressure on political leaders to safeguard the rights of tenants is rising.

Voluntary accreditation schemes, one run by Liverpool City Council (CLASS) and another for students by Liverpool Student Homes (LSH) across the three universities, have brought some measurable improvements in standards. In 2006, 52% of private rents were substandard.

Perhaps with this in mind, Mayor Joe Anderson’s council is now designing a compulsory landlord licensing scheme. If instigated, it would become the largest such project in the country. The move has already been cited by housing charity and pressure group Shelter as a major campaign victory.

Granby-Kensington-Picton-hoCllr Ann O’Byrne (pic), the cabinet member for housing, says “It’s vital that we do all we can to work with landlords across Liverpool to drive up the quality of our private rented properties. Many areas which suffer blight in the city are characterised by large numbers of poorly managed private rented properties, leading to problems such as anti-social behaviour and fly-tipping.

“Licensing would create a minimum standard for the private rented sector, with landlords needing to show that they have adequate systems in place for their tenants.

“It is very important that people understand fully what is being considered. There has been some misinformation issued, for example, about the likely cost of a licence and we want landlords, tenants, businesses and other organisations to have the correct facts so they can feed informed opinions into the consultation process.

“This proposal is about us encouraging good landlords and letting tenants be more aware about the quality of the management of their homes.

A similar scheme in Newham gives clues of what might be on the table: it requires all landlords in the borough to register and face inspection. Landlord’s renting without a licence could face fines of up to £20,000.

The most eye-catching change is compulsory electricity testing. Although holding a gas certificate is a requirement for all landlords nationally, electricity testing is not despite electrical faults being a major cause of accidents and fires.

Amanda Kerr, head of Liverpool Student Housing, told us: “Housing standards in the private student sector have continued to increase year on year driven by the high expectations of students and the mass development of high quality inner city halls.

“The landlords that operate through the LSH do so with the understanding that they are required to comply with the LSH Standards pertaining to all aspects of management.

Those who look for housing outside the scheme, particularly international students, still fall victim to criminal scams, often run through unregulated advertising websites like Gumtree.

In 2011/12, the University of Liverpool student union LGoS dealt with a spate of cases where some international students were duped into subletting from fake landlords, who promptly did a runner with the cash.

Amanda Kerr says the voluntary schemes have brought measurable improvement: “The LSH Standards and the Liverpool City Council Class Accreditation Scheme have been pivotal in the student sector in ensuring the continued improvements of standards and a means of redress when expectations are not met” but also admits that “there are landlords who fall outside the remits of our services and where standards will fall short of higher standards in accommodation and management.”

Despite the success of voluntary schemes, not everyone is convinced by the council’s enthusiasm for a compulsory one. Gavin Dick is the Local Authority Policy Officer for The National Landlords Association, who have been in discussions with Liverpool City Council since January.

When SevenStreets asked what he thought of the policy, the reply was unequivocal: “This will not resolve the issue.

“Landlords want to work with the council, but putting additional charges on the good landlords will only allow the criminal landlords to flourish. They won’t have as many fees and charges. They will be able to charge lower rents, which will push the more vulnerable in society towards them.”

The NLA advocates a combination of self-regulation and tough action to prosecute criminal landlords: “There’s a very early educational process that needs to be faced.

“There are properties that are rented out which are substandard and need to be brought up to standard. Now that needs to be done by telling the landlord the property is not up to standard and to bring it up to standard. If they fail to do that, yes they should be prosecuted.”

“We’d like to see a much stronger emphasis from the council on tackling the criminals and ensuring those landlords who are prepared to engage have an educational programme on what to do to bring properties up to standard.

“We believe what’s needed is a partnership between landlord and tenant obligations.”

Despite thinking the council is missing the point, Gavin is upbeat about the consultation: “We understand where the council is coming from, we disagree with them, but they are taking a lot of our concerns into consideration … I think it’s quite easy to knock councils, but we’ve had a positive dialogue with them going forward over the last nine months.”

Merseyside has a long history of housing problems: from the 19th century slums “not fit for animals”, to the dilapidated council estates that provoked the Kirkby rent strike.

Will compulsory landlord licensing prove sufficient to tackle the problems of the 21st century city, or is it simply a revenue raising exercise by the cash-strapped authority? After all, many senior councillors sit on the boards of housing association’s with their own fair share of complaints about standards.

Maria’s landlords, and others like them, already flout national law on private rents. Tenants are in a difficult position when it comes to pursuing complaints and exercising their legal rights, even assuming they are fully aware of them.

Maria said “as a tenant you can become powerless. You live in someone else’s house and they do whatever they want. That’s not how it should work. Particularly in low income areas, there needs to be more intervention and inspection.”

For his part, Gavin Dick warns “licensing is not the end of the problem, it’s more the starting of a process. We’d like to know what the long term process is and where the resources are coming from. How can landlords interact with the council? At the moment it’s not all out there, and that’s what we’d like to see.”

FIND OUT MORE

As part of the consultation – which ends on 16 June – drop-in sessions for residents are being held at:

The Chamber of Commerce, Number One, Old Hall Street, Liverpool L3 9HG on Tuesday 3 June, (9.30am- 12pm)
Kirkdale Neighbourhood Centre , 238a Stanley Road, Kirkdale on Tuesday 3 June, (4pm -7pm )
Wavertree One Stop Shop, Picton Road, Liverpool, L15 4LP on Wednesday 4 June ( 9am-12pm).

Meetings for landlords will take place at St George’s Hall in the Reid Room on Monday 2 June at 1pm-4pm (starting 1.30pm) and 6pm-9pm (starting 6.30pm) and on Wednesday 4 June at 1pm-4pm (starting 1.30pm).

Places at the landlord meetings should be booked in advance. To register please call 01792 824741 or email liverpool.licensing@ors.org.uk

Written by James Margeson. Photos for illustrative purposes only

  • Christopher Beckett

    The problem with this scheme is that is won’t give any power back to the tenant, but will centralise it into the City Council, as well as adding extra charges. And how will the Council assess ‘adequate systems’? Having been in the private renting sector as a student in Sheffield, I can echo some of the experiences of Maria, although it wasn’t as bad. Landlords literally have you by the balls and the University of Sheffield’s similar scheme did very very very little to enforce anything.

    Additionally, all these schemes only mask the major problem facing the UK – a serious lack of affordable and adequate housing for working people. Large parts of this City need knocking down and rebuilding, and although the Council has knocked many down, when is the rebuild going to start?

  • Pingback: Better living through licensing? - SevenStreets()