This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society. Click here to access the article.
In the last decade, the number of Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs), houses with private bedrooms but shared facilities such as kitchen and bathroom, in the UK has increased from approximately 300,000 to over 500,000. Representing the cheapest rented accommodation, HMOs house those with fewest housing options, including a high proportion of tenants with multiple and complex needs (MCN). This includes people leaving care, the former homeless, prison leavers, people with mental health and/or substance abuse issues, and those with learning difficulties. With no shortage of those with the fewest housing choices, HMOs are often concentrated in areas with lowest house prices and cater for a high turnover of tenants.
The growing number of HMOs has been identified by government and local authorities as problematic due to their association with anti-social behaviour, crime, and environmental problems. In a policy approach that largely overlooks the needs of tenants with MCN, the government has led on new enforcement powers such as limiting the numbers of HMOs, expanding licensing schemes and funding more enforcement officers. Whilst HMOs are far from ideal, further limiting the supply of housing for those with the fewest housing choices could have profound implications. Instead, solutions to problems associated with HMOs are more successfully addressed by balancing enforcement with greater support for tenants with MCN.
Underpinning the growing number of HMOs is a UK housing crisis driven by insufficient supply where the market provides housing to a market optimum rather than a social optimum. Whilst the gap between the market and the social optimums has been filled by housing associations and council housing, a decline in council housing and reduced funding for housing associations in the last decade has made the gap harder to bridge. This has created what the government recognises as ‘economic opportunism’ whereby the shortage of affordable supply is increasingly met by those investing in HMOs. In effect, HMOs are becoming the neoliberal model of social housing.
Interviews with HMO tenants reveal a picture of fear and exploitation, with tenants not speaking out for fear of eviction. Many spoke of being threatened by drug dealers living in the HMOs as well as theft and burglary by fellow tenants being a weekly occurrence. One tenant spent all day away from the HMO, fearful of other tenants’ behaviour, whilst another was unable to leave his room. There were accounts of tenants with mobility problems being housed on the first floor, no heating/hot water in winter, and bathrooms without locks. One tenant with learning difficulties was told he was in debt and unable to leave the HMO until the debt was repaid, though he did not know how much he owed or why he was in debt. Another HMO tenant interviewed had now begun carrying out debt enforcement for the landlord in lieu of rent, forcing entry into people’s rooms and taking property even if the tenant owed as little as £20.
In addition to interviews with tenants, there was evidence from attending local multi-agency groups co-ordinating strategies for working with the private rented sector that frequently discussed the disproportionate problems caused by HMOs. Problems included drug dealers living in houses with reformed addicts, people being paid in alcohol for maintenance work, and a recently released sex offender living in the same house as a single woman without her knowledge. Additionally, there was emerging evidence of HMOs being used in modern day slavery and concerns that they will play a role in sexual exploitation. Amidst this environment, vulnerable tenants can be exploited and intimidated whilst, for some, other vulnerabilities are exacerbated making them more likely to become both victims and perpetrators of problematic behaviour.
In contrast, there were HMOs where tenants’ MCN were recognised and support provided. One such HMO was run by a charity housing people with MCN, including recovering addicts and prison leavers – the same demographic of tenants in other HMOs. Whilst the charity had strict rules and enforcement, tenants were supported through help to claim and manage their benefits as well as advice on employment, education, cooking, and health. Furthermore, they were supported to engage in volunteering and training, with weekly house meetings giving tenants a sense of empowerment and stability that shaped their optimism for the future.
In a similar example, the manager of a large chain of private sector HMOs housing many tenants with MCN spoke of tenants needing support during difficult times in their lives rather than housing making their situations worse. Working closely with a range of statutory and voluntary agencies, the manager recognised that there were no commercial benefits to this approach and nor did it lead to higher rent, meaning that many private sector HMO landlords would not follow this approach. However, tenants’ needs were identified, they were housed appropriately, and they were actively signposted to support.
Moving forward, it is important for housing enforcement to be balanced with support for vulnerable tenants in order for HMOs not to exacerbate the vulnerabilities of tenants with MCN. Where support is provided to tenants with MCN, whilst not a panacea, outcomes can be improved. Importantly, therefore, the problems do not lie solely with HMOs as a method of housing but with the way in which concentrations of tenants with MCN find themselves isolated and unsupported. The underlying housing crisis needs addressing through a national housing strategy that recognises the under-supply of affordable and social housing and the limitations of market-led solutions. Additionally, such a strategy also needs to recognise the support needed by vulnerable tenants as they attempt to navigate the ‘economic opportunism’ of the housing crisis.
About the author
Steve Iafrati is a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Wolverhampton. Steve’s research mainly examines people’s access to and experiences of welfare, especially in areas such as food poverty and housing. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets at @steve_iafrati