NEWS: Housing boost for Erdington as Witton Lodge CIC becomes official Registered Provider

Words by Steve Sharma / Pic of refurbishment supplied by WLCA

Hundreds more homes could now be refurbished and built across Erdington, as Witton Lodge Community Interest Company (WLCIC) has successfully become a Registered Provider.

The official status will allow the Perry Common based WLCIC to apply for funding to refurbish derelict properties, as well as to build new affordable and social housing – helping to address the city’s ongoing housing crisis.

According to the Birmingham City Council, Birmingham is facing a population increase of around 156,000 people by 2031 – leaving a housing shortage of nearly 90,000 homes.

Gareth Hopkins, Homes and Assets Manager for Witton Lodge, said: “Achieving Registered Provider status enables Witton Lodge CIC to progress its housing development aspirations.

“There are currently around 17,000 housing applicants on Birmingham City Council’s waiting list (May 2021) and over 9,000 empty properties across the city (August 2019)

“Homes England (the national government agency for development and regulation of affordable housing) has a national funding pot to address the housing shortage.

“By becoming a Registered Provider we can now apply directly for funding to develop and manage properties.

“We can now pursue the refurbishment of even more empty properties, those which have become a blight on local communities and can cause issues such as anti-social behaviour.”

Before/after refurbishment by WLCIC

Witton Lodge Community Interest Company was formed in 2015 as a subsidiary of Witton Lodge Community Association (WLCA) to progress housing and community asset development goals.

WLCA is a charity with a successful track record of community-led housing and capital asset development across North Birmingham – established by local residents in 1994, in response to plans to demolish the Perry Common estate.

Since then, WLCA have built and manage 187 properties, as well as developing other community assets such Perry Common Community Hall and Perry Common Library.

The Association organises and delivers a rolling programme of community support and engagement activities – tackling issues from employment and digital poverty to health and wellbeing, many of which became crucial lifelines during lockdowns.

WLCA are also currently running special employment support services from Perry Common Library as part of the Ignite Aspirations initiative, to help people over 29 get back to work after Covid.

Chief Officer, Afzal Hussain, said: “We’re delighted that Witton Lodge CIC has achieved Registered Provider status. The team and Board have worked hard to get us to this stage, however, in many ways the real work starts now as we know there is huge demand for good quality, affordable homes.

“Another important feature is the ‘community-led’ element, where we are able demonstrate that there is a different model to developing new housing, which works with the grain of local communities.

“The work of the CIC will also complement the charitable activities of the Association which provides health, employment and community support services to hundreds of local residents.”

For more on Witton Lodge Community Association visit wwwwittonlodge.org.uk

EXPLOITED: Part 3 – The unchallenged rampage of HMOs and shared houses, wreaking havoc for a profit across our community

Words by Adam Smith

In the third instalment of EXPLOITED, Adam Smith looks at the oversaturation problem in the HMO and supported living sector – hearing from the top of two housing associations and going right down to the root cause of the misery.

It’s a license to print money,” one former employee of a housing association tellingly revealed.

And it stands to reasons where there is easy money on offer there will be a queue of people ready to take it.

On the Birmingham City Council website there is a list of HMOs where landlords can charge the benefits system £900 for a room, which often can be more than £500 over the private rented market value. And the list runs into the thousands.

Across Birmingham there are 2345 HMOs with six or more people living in them, with applications pending for another 758 properties – including houses in Mere Road, Queens Road, Chester Road, Hillaries Road, Norfolk Road, Kings Road, Slade Road and George Road in Erdington.

As well as the licensed HMOs there are thousands more smaller HMOs and shared houses which fall into the category of ‘exempt’ or ‘supported’ accommodation. There are hundreds of companies which can apply for an HMO license in Erdington, many of which have been arguably set up just to take advantage of the system.

Spring Housing Association (SHA) is a Birmingham based Housing Association which operates HMOs, hostels and social housing – an organisation that has been referenced in previous Exploited articles. SHA has close links to Birmingham City Council and is one of the biggest housing associations in the Midlands, managing or owning more than 700 properties.

SHA, which has Edgbaston MP Preet Gill on its board of directors, has lobbied the Government to tighten up regulations and is now even turning shared houses into family homes.

SHA group chief executive and founder, Dominic Bradley, told Erdington Local there should be tighter regulations on the mushrooming number of companies which can run HMOs and shared accommodation.

He said: “We believe that there is over saturation of exempt shared housing provision in Birmingham. This is not to say that this type of housing doesn’t have an important part to play in the prevention of homelessness in all of its forms. In fact it’s essential.

However, we have long recognised that in parts of the city we are over saturated with this style of housing – which is disruptive to local communities. Stockland Green is an obvious example of this.”

Dominic added: “It’s one of the reasons we are about to purchase a shared house in Erdington and convert it back to a family home. We are aiming to do something similar in Edgbaston, which has had similar community issues to Stockland Green.

Whilst this is a start and one we are keen to develop further there are wider more systematic issues that need to be tackled around strengthening existing regulations about what we mean about care, support and supervision and work with providers to curb the current unmitigated growth and target provision linked to local strategy which we know Birmingham City Council are very keen to achieve.”

In the last article, Exploited – Humans Must Obey,  we outlined the rules tenants have to follow whilst living in supported housing and HMOs.

In the housing sector the term used is ‘Exempt Accommodation’ because in 1996 Housing Benefit regulations were changed to include ‘non-commissioned EA’ which were defined as ‘accommodation which is…provided by a non-metropolitan country council, a housing association, a registered charity or a voluntary organisation where that body or a person acting on its behalf also provides the claimant with care, support or supervision.

‘If a provider or landlord meets these criteria, they are exempt from rent restrictions within the private rented sector and are able to yield rent levels, paid for from housing benefit, far in excess of ‘general needs’ social sector rents and, often, market rents.’

These two paragraphs provided the starter of the sector gun, as landlords and housing associations realised they could charge more rent without the hassle of tenancy agreements – and the introduction of Universal Credit in 2012 massively increased the sector. The Conservative government’s change of rules, that the tenant received the housing benefit and not the landlord, meant it made sense for landlords to claim their houses were ‘exempt’ so they could get the cash directly as had been the case for decades.

The last Parliamentary research into HMOs, published in 2019, revealed there were more than 497,000 HMOs in England in Wales in 2018. And that number is growing.

Spring Housing Association, the University of Birmingham, and Commonweal Housing combined to produce a 60 page report – Exempt from Responsibility? Ending Social Injustice in Exempt Accommodation – which detailed the shocking state of housing provision and detailed how thousands of people were stuck in negative housing situations across the city. 

Ashley Horsey, chief executive of Commonweal Housing, a charity formed to ‘implement housing solutions to social injustice’, described the damage exempt housing is doing to tenants and communities.

He said: “The findings of this report are stark. That over 11,000 people in Birmingham – and many thousands more across the country – are living in potentially unsafe and unsuitable ‘exempt’ accommodation should concern us all.

Residents interviewed for this report described feelings of ‘entrapment’ in financial instability; exclusion from decision-making processes; lack of control over where, and with whom, they are housed.

At the same time, the nature of too many of the business models involved in this space are causing some concern, not least inflation linked leases from property owners requiring ever rising rents.

In addition, the deficit-based tenant modelling – talking up your tenant’s weaknesses to justify your income stream – is all too common, and a tricky place to be morally. Especially where there remains little oversight.”

Ashley added: “The ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ nature of some of the governance and regulation of this sector is alarming. Of course, everyone accommodated in the exempt accommodation sector is in need of a home. But asking no questions simply because this sector is putting a roof over a head is not good enough.

In particular, the exempt accommodation sector is too often the only housing available for the marginalised, the overlooked, the undervalued and the de-valued in society. They are the women who find themselves here after fleeing domestic violence, as their only housing option.”

The next instalment of EXPLOITED will reveal the shocking stories of women who have either lived in, live in, or have been affected by HMOs, exempt, or shared housing.

To read Exempt from Responsibility? Ending Social Injustice in Exempt Accommodation, visit www.springhousing.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Spring-Housing-Final-Report-A4.pdf

To read the 2019 Parliamentary briefing paper on HMOs, visit www.commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/sn00708 

For more on Spring Housing Association, visit www.springhousing.org.uk

For more on Commonweal Housing, visit www.commonwealhousing.org.uk

If you have been affected by HMOs or any of the issues mentioned in this article, we want to hear your side of the story – email Erdington Local on exploited@erdingtonlocal.com

EXPLOITED: HMOs – the cruel rules that Humans Must Obey

Words by Adam Smith / Pics by Ed King

Erdington Local continues its investigation into the frightening world of HMOs (homes of multiple occupancy) shining a light on the cruel rules and regulations thousands of tenants are forced to live under.

Chief reporter Adam Smith talks directly to the tenants living in uncertainty and fear across Erdington and the UK, wading through the inhumane bureaucracy behind HMOs – in his next article for EXPLOITED.

It took centuries for tenants to get legal rights so ruthless landlords could not evict them on a whim.

After a string of slum landlord scandals in the 1960s and 1970s several acts of parliament safeguarded renters rights – preventing enforced evictions, rent hikes, intrusion and intimidation.

However, right now thousands of Erdington HMO tenants are living as if the 20th Century never happened, in fear of being made homeless at any time.

HMO companies force tenants to sign license agreements, which leave them at the mercy of a raft of rules – many of which are vague and subjective, but which if broken can lead to eviction.

Three HMO tenants have shown Erdington Local their license agreements – relating to properties from Three Conditions Housing Association (3CHA), Green Park Housing (GPH), and Spring Housing (SH).

All three agreements are remarkably similar in their authoritative tone and demands on the tenant; the multiplicity of rules needed to be adhered to might as well see Houses of Multiple Occupancy redefined to Humans Must Obey*.

Green Park Housing and 3CHA warn tenants they could be evicted in a ‘REASONABLE’ amount of time. Although ‘REASONABLE’ is spelled put in capital letters on the official documents, an actual unit of time is not mentioned.

In the first EXPLOITED, Erdington Local revealed how social housing giant Spring Housing could evict tenants within seven days.

However, a whistle blower from another housing association, which has homes in Kingstanding, contacted Erdington Local to say: “Our housing association could evict within three hours if they wanted, the rules  people sign up to are vague so the housing associations can use them to evict immediately – if they say the person is in danger or other tenants they can remove them in three hours. That is what reasonable means.”

A consistent feature with all the HMO licence agreements is the stress on the importance of tenants paying a weekly service charge. Despite housing benefit covering the rent, often in the region of £800 to £900 a month for one room, housing providers demand a further weekly fee – Spring Housing £12, 3CHA £15, and Green Park £13.

Which the tenant has to pay, meaning tenants on benefits have to stump up 20% of their monthly money.

Unscrupulous landlords have realised the money spinning benefits of turning their house into an HMO, so now rooms are advertised for ‘£15’ per week and can only be rented to benefit claimants. Tenants sign up for ‘supported living’ in their licence and then Birmingham City Council will pay in the region of £900 a month for a room.

All the licence agreements are explicitly clear, if the weekly service charge is not paid then the tenant will be evicted.

What’s more, HMO tenants are forced to live under rules which means their house can never feel a home. Rules include: ‘no pictures can be hung on the walls.’ They cannot drink alcohol, smoke, or even swear in their own home.

3CHA‘s licence agreement says in bold black letters: ‘You cannot have anyone stay with You at the House overnight’ which bans adults from having the comfort of sleeping with another human being.

Spring Housing‘s agreement states: ‘You will not allow any visitors on site’ – meaning tenants in their properties cannot invite friends, family members, partners, or anyone in for a cup of tea or chat.

Even prisoners are allowed visitors, a right that is seemingly not extended to you if you live in an HMO.

A female HMO tenant, who did not want to be named for safety reasons, said: “I’ve lived in several HMOs and it always feels like they are trying to isolate me. I can’t even have my friends round for a laugh; I can’t decorate my room. The only time I hear from the support worker is when they demand the service charge.

And the rules are vague and open to interpretation, if they come up with a scenario which they say I am in danger or a danger to others then I have three hours to vacate. I’m old enough to remember when tenants had rights, but HMOS are different, they are evil. HMO for me stands for Humans Must Obey.”

Shamir Hussain, who was evicted by Spring Housing during the COVID-19 lockdown, said: “I just signed what they wanted me to when I got the room, but Spring used the small print rules to evict me during the pandemic. 

They used the fact that the kitchen was messy to evict me because of some rule they said I was breaking.”

The lack of privacy is another feature of living in a HMO, staff can enter a room whenever they want. Erdington Local has obtained a recording of a ‘landlord’ and ‘support worker’ entering a house at 11.30pm – demanding residents names, despite having no identification and refusing to give their own names.

GPH‘s licence agreement explicitly says on the first page: ‘This licence does not confer exclusive possession. GPH and its staff have the absolute right to enter Your Room at any time without notice.’

And even more disorientating is the fact that tenants can return their rooms and find them altered, as Spring Housing states: ‘Spring may change Your Room from time to time without notice or Your agreement. This can be done for any reason.’

Housing charity Shelter gives advice to tenants and tells them what they should legally expect.

Shelter states: ‘Landlords must let you live in your home without unnecessary interference. Your landlord should not let themselves into your home without your permission. Your landlord should not harass you or make it difficult for you to live in your home.’

However, thanks to the introduction of the HMO into the housing market these basic rights that tenants should expect have been removed.

3CHA boasts on its website: ‘It is a 21st century social landlord for 21st century customers.’

Which, sadly, is true – in the 20th Century tenants had more rights than the 21st Century. Because of HMOs.

*Humans Must Obey is copyrighted by Napier Productions – pertaining to the name of a forthcoming documentary about HMOs.

If you have been affected by HMOs or any of the issues mentioned int his article, we want to hear your side of the story – email Erdington Local on exploited@erdingtonlocal.com

EXPLOITED: HMOs – when greed meets vulnerability, carving up communities for a profit

Words by Adam Smith / Pics by Ed King

Erdington Local launches a series of articles investigating the devastation caused by the mushrooming number of HMOs (homes of multiple occupancy) in Erdington and Kingstanding.

Chief reporter Adam Smith spent the last year living in HMOs and has seen first-hand how housing associations and rogue landlords are ripping off taxpayers – whilst exploiting the most vulnerable people in society.

Do you pay tax?

If so, then your hard-earned money is lining the pockets of ruthless housing associations and rogue landlords – whose greed is wrecking the lives of Erdington residents, tenants, and the most vulnerable people in society.

Nationally the taxpayer shells out billions of pounds for eye-wateringly inflated rents for benefits claimants’ rooms in HMOs – which get planning permission, despite Erdington residents and politicians bitterly complaining they are destroying the very fabric of the local community.

Hundreds of Erdington houses, including historic and beautiful Victorian properties, have been turned into HMOs – creating a living hell for both tenants and local residents who watch helplessly as the area they love becomes blighted.

Stockland Green is one of the worst examples in the country for the negative effect of HMOs and supported accommodation.

Those classed as ‘vulnerable’ and living in HMOs and/or supported accommodation are locked in a vicious circle; landlords charge the taxpayer £900 a month for a single room, leaving the tenant no motivation to get a job as the rent will be too high on a low wage. This investigation will explore examples of housing association staff actively discouraging tenants to work.

Tenants in ‘supported accommodation’ should get an hour of professional support a week, which qualifies their extortionate rent from benefits – but instead of proper psychiatric help, staff often only see tenants to demand a weekly ‘maintenance charge’, usually between £12 and £20, out of their benefits.

Instead of tenancy agreements which offer some protection to renters, those living in HMOs are forced to sign ‘licenses’ containing pages of draconian rules and potential infringements – which if broken can see the tenants made homeless with just a week’s notice.

Staff can enter rooms when they like and there have even been examples of male staff bursting unannounced into women’s rooms after 11pm.

HMOs radically changed the rental market in Erdington, with landlords now preferring benefits claimants and even advertising rooms for the price of the maintenance charge. Meanwhile, working people are trying to find somewhere to live from a dwindling amount of properties – which are increasing in price due to their scarcity.

This scandal crosses political lines too.

Legislation from the Conservative government has allowed ruthless companies, landlords, and housing associations to exploit the benefit system – whilst Birmingham’s Labour administration has allowed thousands of HMOs to be created in the city, without the ability to scrutinise the conduct of those organisations running them.

This investigation will unveil the close links between Birmingham City Council  and to the companies profiting from the system.

During the Government’s ban on evictions during the coronavirus crisis, housing associations in Birmingham have been quietly evicting people during the deadly pandemic.

Recently, Edgbaston MP Preet Gill called on the Government to extend the evictions ban. However, Gill is on the board of Spring Housing Association, which works extremely closely with Birmingham City Council – but which also evicted vulnerable tenants during COVID-19 lockdown.

One evicted Spring Housing tenant, Shamir Hussain, told Erdington Local: “I was evicted during lockdown by Spring Housing, just when I thought I was as low as I could they made it worse. They made me homeless during a pandemic where people were dying all around us, I will never forget that.

They (Spring Housing) were getting £900 a month for me to live in a room; I could have paid a mortgage on a nice house for that obscene amount of money for one room. And when I did put a claim in for a much cheaper rent amount, for a whole flat, I was refused. It seemed like they were happy to pay £900 to Spring Housing but not a fraction of that to sort my life out.”

The area’s two most powerful politicians, Labour’s Erdington MP Jack Dromey and Erdington Councillor and leader of Birmingham’s Conservatives Robert Alden, both recognise the damage being done to the area by the scourge of bad landlords.

Dromey said: “I know how angry residents are about this issue, I went to a meeting on Frances Road two years ago expecting six people to be there and 70 residents turned up. And the problem has worsened in that time not got better.

Stockland Green is where the problem is at its most acute, where the most prosecutions of landlords in Birmingham have been due to work with the police, and with the disproportionate dumping of vulnerable tenants into the area by landlords who do not give a damn about them and not give them any help.

Some of these landlords let their tenants live in squalor in Erdington whilst they live in the lap of luxury in Sutton Coldfield. However, there are some very good landlords out there, which is all the more the shame when the bad ones undercut them to cram an extra person in.”

In the 1980’s Dromey helped residents in London fight a bitter dispute with slum landlords and even created a ‘Hit Parade of Bad Landlords’ with help from Radio 1 DJ Alan Freeman – who would regularly do a run down on television of the worst offenders.

The MP said: “We have use imaginative ways to fight these type of people but in Erdington we also need proper joined up action with the police, council, probation and mental health services working together to solve the problems created in the last five years in the housing sector which coincides with the Tories being in power.”

Councillor Robert Alden laments the changing face of the area’s housing stock, which used to be the envy of the rest of the city in years gone by.

He said: “Erdington has been blighted by HMO’s run by bad landlords.

Erdington’s large stock of larger Victorian family homes have sadly often been taken over and turned into swathes of HMO’s – in many places seeing whole rows of housing turned from the purpose they were built for, to provide housing for families, into a collection of substandard and often below even minimum standard room size bedsits.”

He added: “Often quiet residential streets have suddenly found themselves besieged by bedsits acting under exempt housing placing drug addicts, alcoholics, and ex-offenders into our local community.

Sadly, those rogue landlords have used loopholes in the system to convert houses far and beyond the scope they were designed for, often seeing three bedroom homes turned into six or seven room bedsits.

Sometimes they also claim for alleged support provided to people while failing to provide anything like that – in the process taking huge amounts of tax payers money for services barely provided, failing their tenants, while also leaving communities like Erdington to suffer from the fallout.”

As well as the co-operation of all relevant agencies in Erdington, there also needs to be strong political leadership to stop the situation getting worse – but to also undo the systemic problems caused by five years of loopholes being exploited by those who had the most money to gain from flooding Erdington with high profit dangerous housing.

Throughout this series of stories, a light will be shone on some very murky corners and shocking practices – and this investigation will follow the money.

This investigation will explore how neighbouring HMOs crammed full of men have created ‘no-go roads’ for women and teenagers fed up of cat calling, sexual harassment, and threatening acts of misogyny.

There will also be stories from the female perspective, from suddenly having men moved into your safe space, as well as the unique HMO experiences of trans refugees.

This investigation will challenge those responsible on their behaviour – reporting them to the appropriate authorities if any laws were broken. Expect explosive revelations and, as readers, you have the right to demand resignations.

If you have been affected by HMOs or any of the issues mentioned in this article, we want to hear your side of the story – email Erdington Local on exploited@erdingtonlocal.com