Newham cracks down on Dickensian housing conditions
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Newham cracks down on Dickensian housing conditions
This article was sourced from The Economist, 31st December 2011.
Few tourists find their way to the borough of Newham in London’s East End, though that will change in 2012 when the Olympic games arrive. Tucked between Tower Hamlets and the Thames, Newham is a poor place, the second most deprived local authority in England. Its people have long been diverse and transient, many of them immigrants who came to escape persecution, or to work in its docks and factories, and left when they could. Today only about a third of Newham’s residents are white Britons, and almost one in three residents has moved in since 2007. High Street North in East Ham is a dizzying melange of South Asian fabrics, Polish stores, Africans clustering outside telecoms shops and room-for-rent notices in Tamil.
Given the low levels of income and high levels of churn, it is no surprise that housing is a particular problem in Newham. The borough has a roughly ten-year wait for public council housing. There is high demand for private-rented homes, which account for about one-third of Newham’s stock of housing. Despite the economic slump, rents are rising by about 6-7% a year. Yet many of the properties are scandalously inadequate.
One such is in Lathom Road. The blue garage door in a street of two-storey terraced houses gives no indication that people rather than cars are housed within. Access to living space totalling at most six metres by four, all of them visibly damp, is through a dilapidated lavatory. A small frosted window above a rickety strip of kitchen gives what little natural light there is. The double bed takes up most of the rest of the floor, with a table jammed next to it holding a laptop and a printer.
On these machines Shaheen Akhter Hamid, a university lecturer in her native Bangladesh and in Malaysia, produced 1,000 flyers to push under neighbouring doors, vainly advertising her services as a tutor. Mrs Hamid and her half-British husband moved to England this year to be near his elderly mother. They agreed to pay £350 ($547) a month for the garage, plus electricity, and handed over £1,100. Within 15 days everything was broken, they say—shower, toilet, oven. The landlord neither fixed the appliances nor returned their money when they found another place to live. Newham council inspected the property and deemed it unfit. On December 9th the landlord issued an eviction notice.
Others are even unluckier. Among Newham’s horror stories is the small house in Forest Gate where inspectors found 32 people living last summer (another trip to the area on December 13th revealed 11 people sharing a single room). A commercial refrigerator in Romford Road was housing two. “Where you have lots of desperate people there are lots of opportunistic crooks,” says Toby Lloyd, director of policy at Shelter, a charity.
Newham’s housing problems are extreme. But the borough also signals a bigger, and growing, problem. Throughout Britain, private landlords are absorbing all the pressure in the market at a time when council housing is harder to get, not many homes are being built and fewer people can raise the money to buy a home. In 2010 the private-rental sector provided 17% of all accommodation in England, up from 9% in 2000. Things are likely to get rougher as central-government cuts to housing subsidies come into full effect next year. Other welfare reforms too will probably push people from the pricier parts of London into places like Newham.
The borough is cracking down on rogue landlords. Officials have started bringing cases under the Proceeds of Crime Act, designed for use against drug dealers and the like, which allows stiffer penalties including prison sentences. Five cases have gone all the way, with the biggest recovery to date over £62,000 (the council gets to keep less than half). There are 45 cases in the works, and Newham is out looking for more. Scrutinising aerial photographs for signs of inhabited outbuildings, its gumshoes have inspected 13,000 properties since October. Another section of town will be overhauled in January.
Like other local authorities, Newham wants to use planning rules to restrict sharply the conversion of family homes to “houses in multiple occupation”. The results of a consultation on the matter are due to be presented in January. It is also consulting on setting up mandatory licensing of all private landlords throughout the borough. If this goes ahead, it will be the first such scheme in England.
No room at the inn
For Sir Robin Wales, Newham’s mayor, these moves are part of a bigger plan. Newham has an opportunity, thanks partly to money pouring in before the Olympics, to become a place where people put down roots. This means making sure there is decent housing (as well as jobs) available. As for what happens to people who lose their homes, however appalling those may be, “that is not my responsibility,” he says. “All we can do is squeeze the supply here until a reasonable number of people are living in reasonable accommodation.”
Is Newham right to throw the book at private landlords? Some argue that basic accommodation fills a need. Some young male migrants choose rock-bottom properties in order to save money. Others point out that the sector attracts rogue tenants as well as rogue landlords. “There are multiple examples of sharp practice on both sides,” says Julie Rugg of York University, the author of a study commissioned by the previous government. Landlords complain about rent arrears, damage to property and anti-social behaviour.
A third argument is that landlords can sort out problems on their own. The poor condition of many private rental properties reflects their age; standards are rising as newer homes come on the market. Over-regulation in the past arguably led to the dwindling of rented accommodation, which was in no one’s interests. The government has made clear that it wants the private-rented sector to expand, and as far as possible to regulate itself.
Considered from inside the Hamids’ mouldy garage, these arguments are not persuasive. The property is not so much cheap as degrading. It is not just able-bodied young Poles or Tamils who are moving into garden sheds and boxrooms; over 1m families with children are now in privately rented properties in England, a good many of them substandard. And less than a fifth of landlords have so far joined a voluntary accreditation scheme in Newham.
It is precisely because of the soaring demand for cheap private housing that Newham and other like-minded boroughs need to crack down on offending landlords. They should be tough on themselves, too. Local authorities are large and frequent purchasers in the privately-rented sector—Newham spends about £120m a year subsidising rents for poor people—and should make sure they inspect the properties they send people to. When demand outstrips supply against a background of profound housing need, tough action is required. Especially when the Olympic games are bringing millions of visitors to the doorstep.