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