Opinion: We can’t let councils discriminate against house-sharers

With the option of becoming a first-time buyer becoming ever more elusive for young adults, increasing numbers are turning to the Private Rented Sector (PRS) for their housing. Nationally there will soon be more tenants living in the PRS than in social housing. In areas with high housing costs and in university cities with a young population, the PRS has become a major part of the housing mix.

This shift in occupancy type has led to rather rapid changes to some communities, which has understandably led to concern amongst the more established members of those neighbourhoods. However, the policy response of local councils to these concerns can be far worse than the problem itself.

Up and down the country from St Andrews to Falmouth, councils have been looking into adopting caps on the numbers of Houses of Multiple Occupancy. As an example, here in Oxford the Labour-run City Council proposes an HMO cap set at no more than 20% of dwellings in a 100 metre stretch anywhere in the city.

It’s hard to decide which is worst about such a policy:

    1. Restricting the availability of HMOs will allow landlords to push up rents on the HMOs that do fit within the cap. Pushing rents up even higher on struggling tenants is totally unfair and regressive.

    2. It is simply illiberal to create top-down social sorting on the basis of tenure. What an HMO cap says is “we don’t want too many of your type”, which is judgmental and discriminatory against young adults who are just trying to find an affordable way to house themselves.

    3. Once you look under the bonnet of these policies, all sorts of problems become apparent. For instance the Housing Act 2004 allows local authorities to define an HMO as any house containing three or more adults forming two or more households, where a household is an unrelated adult, blood relatives, married couples or civil partners, or a couple living like they are married. Enforcing all this will require officers to intrude and judge upon the way people choose to live. I also worry about how polyamorous relationships would be dealt with.

I was pleased to see Lib Dem-run Cambridge reject Labour’s call for an HMO cap. Sadly in Oxford, despite strong opposition from the Liberal Democrats, Labour (with support from the Greens) are forcing through this divisive policy.

I urge Liberal Democrat colleagues up and down the country to stop the spread of HMO caps.

* Duncan Stott is a Lib Dem member in Oxford.

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  • This country is unwell. The results of such caps are obvious:

    1. higher rents for the 20% HMO tenants
    2. lower rents for the low-level occupation PRS
    3. Increased homelessness

    So, a policy that punishes the prudent, rewards wealthy tenants and kicks the poor out onto the street or into the black market (renting a shed, etc). Nice.

    @Duncan Stott
    Keep up the good work.

  • this is the side effect of Localism enabling local influence on planning policy. Stopping Localism from being a Nimby’s charter, led by those with the loudest voices, encouraged by a local press with their own agenda, is the next great challenge for local planning authorities.

  • Sadly, the Lib Dem group in Guildford proposed this motion to council, I turned up to speak against it. I think there are some other points to be made:

    1. Those who currently let to sharers will be given the equivalent of automatic planning permission to continue to let to sharers. Why would a landlord surrender this? It essentially means that whilst HMO housing is restricted in other areas, in places where there are problems with substandard housing (uni ghettos for example), the policy will do exactly the opposite as intended. Landlords will not lose this permission by renting out houses to families.

    2. I quote one Lib Dem councillor from that meeting (which was recorded) saying “We’ve had enough of you” when he lost his temper (he was talking about those who live in HMOs). The promotion of said policies are rarely about what will fix the problem, but what will look good in party-political leaflets. Particularly in university towns, the association of anti-social behaviour with sharers provides the temptation for local politicians to pledge to come down hard on sharers. I don’t need to use similar analogies for other groups of people in the past who have had associations drawn between them and anti-social behaviour to illustrate exactly how damn wrong that course of action is.

    3. There is no real way of enforcing this. Landlords will either a) not let to students to avoid the hassle or b) let to students because they’re corrupt and won’t bother fulfilling their legal obligations anyway. The latter will be the type who apply for planning permission retrospectively if they get caught and will consequently try doing many other things till they do get caught.

    4. As I quoted from the LD councillor above, this is less about fixing a problem and more about addressing emotive issues surrounding community cohesion. The above article is excellent and is absolutely right – you should not punish sharers for the actions of a few. I don’t put my rubbish out on the wrong day, my housemates and I are not antisocial (although we have a family next door, not affected by the proposed policy, that is). If Lib Dems propose such policy, then they should question whether they are indeed themselves liberal. This policy essentially discriminates against anyone who shares because they are not married with kids. It’s not just students, it’s professionals too.

  • I couldn’t care less about the effect on “polyamorous relationships”, much more important and persuasive is Amanda Taylor’s point about “the unreasonableness of making ordinary families with lodgers register as HMOs” (one of the potential effects of Labour’s proposed HMO cap for Cambridge), which would seem to undermine the government’s ‘Rent a Room’ scheme. Also it should be remembered that an HMO is any property that was not originally built for multiple occupancy, hence depending upon the local authority this could also include B&B’s and small hotels.

    Yes Oxford (and I suspect like many other cities/towns with a large non-local young adult population) does have a problem with many family houses now being HMO’s leading to a shortage of family housing in some areas. So I can see some attraction to a council in trying to limit HMO’s. However, without an understanding of the local economy and the people living in HMO’s it is difficult to determine what the correct strategy should be.

    From my experience the PRS and HMO’s specifically have a significant economic role to play: firstly, many students live in such accommodation, secondly (typically) young adults starting out on their career will tend to rent as they follow the work before accumulating sufficient funds to settle down, thirdly, I have used rented accommodation as temporary accommodation for project teams, or for myself whilst working away from home. I hence agree with Amanda when she notes in the prescriptive nature of the cap sounds like ” we’ve got the answer before we’ve done the research” [http://www.rtaylor.co.uk/labour-anti-house-sharing-motion-defeated.html ].

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