An important part of my role as Tenancy Support Officer at the NextDoor project is to manage the expectations of our clients regarding the type of accommodation we are able to find them. We do not expect our clients to live in properties which we consider to be substandard but with LHA rates now based on the 30th percentile of rents in a given are finding appropriate accommodation this is no easy task. This is particularly true in an unregulated sector, where it is all too easy for landlords to exploit the intense demand for accommodation which exists in London.
Since the inception of the Private Rented Access Scheme we have developed relationships with landlords and agents who consistently offer accommodation which is decent and well maintained but unfortunately we also see a lot of substandard housing.
Judging whether the general condition of a property makes it fit for human habitation is fairly straightforward, what constitutes an acceptable size for a living space is a much thornier issue. Westminster HMO standards specify that the minimum floor area for a self-contained studio flat is 11 square metres. However many studio conversions do not fall within the definition of an HMO and so do not need to be licenced.
Landlords are very adept at cramming a shower, toilet and cooking facilities into a space the size of a small bedroom. Precisely because their former incarnation these studio flats would have been exactly that: small bedrooms. Recently I was shown a flat in a prime location where what had been a corridor had been partitioned off, it was approximately 1.5 metres wide by perhaps 5 metres long.
The benefit cap (which restricts all means tested benefits to a maximum of £500pw) has been rolled out across the UK over the past few months. Families were informed of the proposed changes back in March. As the deadline loomed we started receiving enquiries from families entitled to 3 or 4 bedroom properties willing to consider two or even one bed flats, and single mothers with one or two children child so desperate they were prepared to live in a studio flat.
The UK is the only European Union country with no Statutory Minimum dwelling area. The standards for the statutory definition of overcrowding are set out in the Housing Act of 1985 (using the standards developed in 1935). The Housing Act 2004 also sets out minimum guidelines for floor space for bedrooms (The Housing Health and Safety Risk Rating System) and Environmental Health officers do have the power to make inspections and assessments.
Council’s do have the power in extreme cases to issue ‘Category 1 hazard notice’ on Landlords. In theory this obliges the landlord to provide alternative accommodation but in practice is almost never enforced. Instead a ‘suspended prohibition order’ is made, the suspension lasting for the period of the tenancy, with Landlords having the frequently exercised right, to issue possession proceedings and offer alternative accommodation outside the borough. All a landlord is required to do is show that they are making ‘reasonable efforts’ to find tenants alternative accommodation.
Category one notices are rarely issued, much more common is a Category 2 notice, which states that a hazard has been assessed, but the council does not have a legal duty to take further action. The information packs which Westminster has for tenants in such circumstances gives advice such as ‘Make the best use of the limited space in your home and consider space saving storage solutions to free up some living space’.
Z2K is seeking information from Westminster City Council as to how many Category 1 and Category 2 hazards were issued in the last twelve months, and whether any legal action was taken against Landlords for failing to comply with a Category 1 Hazard Order. Meanwhile I will continue to do my best to find our clients living spaces using my own personal ‘big enough to swing a cat in’ standard.