Saturday, 17 November 2012

Field Study's Man in E17 on the exorcism of Rachman's spirit in Waltham Forest


Field Study’s Man in E17 has been preoccupied by problems at home recently and they have made it difficult for him to progress with field studies into the fats of E17 and neighbouring postcode areas. He doubts there is little or no concern (beyond his petty qualms) about his lack of progress in studying local aspects of the crisis in global food production however the causes of the preoccupation and hindrance are rooted in another global crisis; that of housing.
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Conditions are not so good in this here field student’s ‘zone zero’ (to purloin a permacultural term). Much of my domestic crisis is personal and private, involving others whose privacy has to be respected. I live in a shared flat or ‘flat of multiple-occupancy’. The conditions are certainly not as wretched as those endured by huge numbers of people worldwide e.g. in slums, refugee camps, war zones and areas of natural disasters. My (our) crisis is minor by comparison and many people would, I imagine, gladly change their habitation for mine or others similar.
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The crisis here is mainly, though not entirely, one of personal expectations and a sense of entitlement regarding private rented accommodation.  There is a notion that the Chinese character for ‘crisis’ signifies a combination of danger and opportunity and, with these forces in mind, this post is a tentative introduction to a series (of posts) aiming to explore some of the private and public territories of home here in ‘lost and found in E17’.
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I acknowledge my dissatisfaction is parochial and inward looking. What though is the collective or broader social consequence to an area or neighbourhood of (private rented) housing problems and their causes? Many people rent privately; perhaps as much as 32% of the housing stock in Waltham Forest is private rental property. Of this contingent there is likely to be a (large?) proportion disappointed by and aggrieved at what is provided in return for the rent. Locally and nationally, grievances may be justified and their causes can involve legal obligations on the part of the landlord and tenants. Low quality poorly maintained housing stock, often owned and let by private landlords, can cause a variety of adverse effects in a neighbourhood with the consequences paid for by all e.g. respiratory disorders/diseases, caused by infestations of mold, to be treated by the NHS.
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I’m reluctant to divulge details about where I live now however I have experienced some difficult situations with other landlords which do encompass circumstances of public and private concern. Here is a personal experience of a dispute with a landlord some years ago.
I had a room in a shared house and had been there for nearly 18 months and as far as I was aware none of the gas appliances (boiler/heaters/fires/cookers) had been inspected. I was particularly concerned about the gas fire in my room. I asked the landlord when the most recent inspection had been done. He said he would get it sorted out. By the time of the next rent collection no inspections had been done. I asked again. The same answer, with more irritation, came back. I asked again at the next rent collection and when the landlord tried to fob me off with the same reply, I explained I was very unhappy about the situation and I was going to get some advice. The landlord returned half an hour later with a letter giving me notice to leave. He told me he could not have tenants who did not trust him. For obvious reasons I did not really want to stay there however other circumstances meant moving was a difficult option; something I think the landlord was well aware of. We negotiated and the landlord withdrew his notice and gave me a carbon monoxide detector/indicator. About 6 weeks later a gas engineer visited and did some maintenance work, although no official record of the work was made and I was not entirely sure the engineer was appropriately certificated.
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Information regarding health and safety requirements for gas safety in rented properties is available via the Health and Safety Executive web site – here.
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In my opinion that landlord abused his position of power and neglected his responsibilities with regards to the safety of his tenants, and potentially the safety of neighbours. There were other long running issues about the maintenance of the property which the landlord failed to resolve while I was resident there. Given the experience with the gas safety inspections any thought of confronting the landlord usually concluded with the memory of that letter of notice. The message was clear; put up, shut up or leave. Unfortunately it took me quite a while to get out of that place.
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Shelter is running a campaign calling for rogue landlords to be ‘evicted’. ‘Evicted’, as I understand it, involves landlords having to be licensed (Selective Licensing) and if they fail to comply with the terms of the license the license is revoked and they cannot continue to let properties legally. Are there sufficient public sector resources to enforce selective licenses? Would selective licensing lead to an increase in rent costs without necessarily a proportionate improvement in the services provided by landlords? What would become of the tenants of landlords whose licenses have been revoked?
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There have, recently, been some motions made about a licensing scheme in Waltham Forest (in selected areas) following a pilot project taking place in Newham.  Here is a blog post by a landlord, considering buying properties in Waltham Forest now rather than in Newham, who considers the adoption of ‘selective licensing’ to be akin to ‘contagion’. Other landlord organisations consider selective licensing to be ‘draconian’ and an ineffective measure to deal with bad landlords – indeed, a measure that only serves to reinforce a stereotype of greedy/abusive landlords. Waltham Forest Council have produced a briefing document which aims to outline the core issues about selective licensing and some of the content seems quite obviously intended to placate the anger of landlords who consider themselves stereotyped, abused and penalized.
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It seems selective licensing will:
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Educate tenants ‘to ensure they only live in properties that meet a minimum standard’
and provide
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‘Support for landlords in dealing with anti-social tenants’
at a (proposed) cost of £900 per license, lasting 5 years, per property. That proposed fee is considerably more than in many other boroughs and councils. As far as I understand, the legal requirement for a ‘selective license’ would extend to ‘buy to let’ landlords with just one property. I don’t know if households with a lodger would also need to have a license.
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I think the license fees will be passed onto tenants, possibly at a higher cost than the actual license fee incurs (due to admin’, bureaucracy and profit), and will there actually be an improvement in the standard of private rented housing?
Council housing departments still may not be sufficiently resourced to deal with all the demand from private tenants and landlords in dispute over what constitutes acceptable living conditions. Even when some landlords are exposed as ‘slumlords’ - by local and national press, local networks, campaigning charities and national television – with incontrovertible evidence of letting malpractice there frequently seems to be inadequate resources to enforce the law.
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Jon Snow (Channel 4) presented, ‘Landlords from Hell’, a Dispatches investigation into the contemporary housing malaise which showed appalling living conditions endured by tenants and neglected by landlords. In the blog accompanying the documentary there is a comment, made by a local authority housing officer, Jefferson37, which gives a detailed first-hand account of the institutional inadequacies of local authorities that are so easily exploited by unscrupulous landlords (and tenants?). Does Waltham Forest Council have an adequate (at the very least) track record in local governance to manage such a fundamental shift in housing culture as is proposed by ‘selective licensing’ and is the culture of complaint about housing really just a perpetuation of the myth of ‘Rachmanism’; an all too willing participation in an oppressive system of housing? 


  

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