HMOs ARE THE BOTTOM OF THE HOUSING LADDER

Under the heading 'The Lowest Rung of the Housing Ladder' the BBC News on Tuesday, 20 October 2015 carried the following story ...

A growing number of people on low incomes are now living in shared housing - known as "houses in multiple occupation" - where each room is rented separately. But there's concern that many tenants are living in poor conditions.

In a dirty entrance hall of a large run down sea-front building, Alex Bracken vigorously shakes a can of flea spray. She sprays everyone's legs thoroughly.

"There are quite a lot of fleas in this property. We were badly bitten last week," she explains.

Bracken, Blackpool's Council's housing enforcement manager, leads the way up the badly carpeted stairs, followed by two colleagues and a police community support officer. They check a fire extinguisher in the landing. It is empty.

A dog barks inside one of the 24 flats. Bracken knocks loudly: "Blackpool Council. Open up please. We need to come in."

After some minutes the door opens and two pale women peer out. A strong musty smell drifts outwards.

A roll of sticky paper hanging from the ceiling is covered in dead flies. An empty vodka bottle stands on a dusty table. The Staffordshire terrier barks and a scrawny cat paws the dirty furniture. The tenant is not there, his girlfriend says.

Bracken is here to deliver letters warning tenants about anti-social behaviour. Neighbours have been complaining about noise, drunkenness and threats of violence.

On the way back downstairs she meets the tenant, a young man in a hoodie whose teeth are stained yellow and brown. "This is serious," she tells him. "If you continue your anti-social behaviour we will take further enforcement action which could result in prosecution."

He nods and agrees to contact a local charity to rehouse the cat.

This property, right on the sea-front and a short distance from the tower, is one of Blackpool's 4,000 Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs). Many of them are at the bottom rung of Britain's housing ladder.

Finding accurate information about the number of HMOs across the UK is not straightforward. Each local authority keeps figures, but these are only estimates as not all HMOs have to be licensed - only larger properties over three storeys high with five or more unrelated tenants and shared facilities.

The National HMO Network, made up of local authorities, environmental health officers and landlords, says there were 543,000 HMOs in England in 2013/14. The number is rising and more and more people are living in them.

Badly run HMOs are a problem across the UK, but in Blackpool they have become one of the town's most urgent priorities.

With the decline of its tourism industry, many former guesthouses have been turned into HMOs without needing any change in planning permission.

A 10-bed property in Blackpool can cost as little as £60,00 to £70,000. Landlords can collect £85 per week for each room, often from housing benefit. This lucrative trade is attracting landlords from all over the UK and overseas.

Next on their round of inspections, housing officers visit a property in a road of red brick terraces. In the front garden the rubbish bins are overflowing. A tattered mattress lies across a bed of weeds.

In the downstairs flat, lives Michael Buckley, with his partner Shauny Goodman and their two small children. He has two other children who stay at weekends.

Housing officers are here to inspect the property because he has complained about damp. Buckley shows them dark musty patches on the walls.

"It's horrible living here. It's damp," he says. "I've got kids who are in it every day. My little girl is even saying: 'It smells in your room Dad.'

"So we have to constantly wash our clothes. The washing machine is blasting all the time. My clothes are fresh, but when I put them in the room there's a musty smell."

Housing officers find several problems with the property. Bracken tells him she will send a schedule of works to the landlord. He has 28 days to respond.

Last year her team made 4,000 inspections like this in Blackpool. Half the properties were found to be below standard and her team ordered landlords to make improvements.

"Blackpool has a major problem with HMOs," says Tim Coglan, Blackpool Council's head of public protection. "You have some badly run properties that are rundown, dangerous and the focus of anti-social behaviour and crime.

"The vast majority are run on the basis of spending the minimum on upkeep, cutting corners as far as possible."

Blackpool Council says it has prosecuted more landlords than any other unitary authority in the UK. It also runs a selective licensing system in some areas, requiring landlords to register properties.

Blackpool is the seventh most deprived area in England, according to statistics published last month by the Department for Communities, based on employment, housing, health, crime and income levels.

Coglan says many unemployed people from all over the North West move to Blackpool. "'Transients' are a problem in Blackpool. A lot of people with no connections to the town and a high level of social need come here," he says.

"There are poor people some who have no connection to Blackpool housed in substandard accommodation whose needs are not being met - they may have issues with drugs and alcohol. So it is not just enforcing against bad landlords it's about making sure tenants get the help they need."

However, there are some who think not enough is being done to stop the growing number of HMOs. Charlie Docherty runs the Astoria Hotel in Hull Road, a guesthouse near the sea-front.

"It used to be great living here. But it's not anymore," he says. "All we talk about is the same issue - HMOs. We hear ambulances going by, sirens going past… people lying in the street off their faces."

"The council's mantra is 'we want families back'. Families won't come back when they are approached by aggressive begging, drug dealing, prostitution, anti-social behaviour."

Docherty, a Glaswegian who worked offshore before buying his hotel, points out a four-storey former guesthouse, now an HMO which he says has been a focus of anti-social behaviour.

"It's the worst house on the street. The police are constantly round here," he says.

At that moment a car pulls up and out steps a suited man with a large chain of keys around his neck and a yellow torch in one hand. John Bartram, owner of JJ Property Services, manages 400 HMOs in Blackpool.

He has come to inspect the property, but Docherty challenges him. "Properties like yours are the reason people are not coming back to Blackpool."

Bartram stands his ground. "If properties are run properly, which I do my utmost to ensure, I can't see anything wrong with these places."

Bartram says he has evicted problem tenants from this building and works hard to resolve any problems. But

Docherty continues his complaint, pointing at the exterior of the property.

"Look at the railings. The bells. This is one of the best streets in Blackpool. Clean it up. A lick of paint. If you want decent tenants you need a decent property."

"On behalf of my landlords, they are on budgets, they have big mortgages," Bartram argues. "As long as the inside complies with what is acceptable to the local authority."

Bartram worked as a coal miner until 1993 when he used his redundancy money to buy a Blackpool hotel. Nine years later he sold it and began his lettings business. He has landlords from across the UK and some from overseas.

John Bartram and Charlie Docherty part with a handshake, agreeing to differ.

However, while much of the UK is suffering from a shortage of homes, some think Blackpool's problem is that it has too many.

Like many councils, Blackpool's is also facing steep budget cuts. The workload of its housing enforcement team is unlikely to slacken off any time soon.