Overly strict enforcement of regulations can lead to homelessness

This is the text of a letter I had published in today’s Brighton Argus (14th April 2017) in response to, and in support of, a letter from Mike Stimpson from the Southern Landlords Association who warned that the uncritical enforcement of regulations would result in an increase in rough sleeping

When someone speaks who has as much housing experience as Mike Stimpson from the Southern Landlords Association, we would be wise to listen. Few individuals have such in-depth knowledge, and he is one of the few landlords who will still accommodate people on the lowest incomes.

In his letter of 13th April 2017 he warns that a consequence of the enforcement of regulations relating to houses in multiple occupation will lead to more people becoming street homeless. We should all sit up and listen.

Regardless of what one might think of housing being provided through private landlords, the reality is that almost four times as many homes are let in this way compared to those provided by the City Council and housing associations. With spiralling house prices, fewer local people will be able to buy in the years ahead. We must work with private landlords to make sure housing need in the city is being met.

At the same time, Cllr Tracey Hill is attempting to ensure that family homes for rent are not lost. She rightly wants to avoid whole areas becoming blighted by studentification with small family homes being turned into accommodation for six or seven students.

Her efforts in this regard are to be applauded and should be seen as a challenge to our two universities where not enough accommodation is provided to houses the ever-increasing student population in the city. Whether we can reverse what already has happened is unlikely.

If there is an issue of a lack of basic amenities, fire risks and overcrowding, then enforcement action should be taken. Enforcement is right in some cases, but not in cases where there is cooperation by the landlords and where standards are marginally below what we would ideally like.

This week I heard of enforcement action being against a property that has been let as four bedsits since the early 1960s. I don’t know the property myself, but the provision of such accommodation is essential for someone’s housing journey. I myself once rented a property which falls beneath current minimum space requirements, but small though it was, it was my home and I was happy there.

The simplest way to avoid council houses for families being lost and becoming houses in multiple occupation is by ending the Right to Buy, and not extending it even further to housing association homes. One in four, and some studies suggest one in three, former council homes are now in the private rented sector charging rents four times greater than the previous council rents. How many of these homes in Brighton and Hove, are now let to students?

Shared housing is all that is affordable for many, and the only form of accommodation for which those under 35 can claim housing benefit. I am a harsh critic of government housing policy, but while it remains as it is, we need to ensure that there is a balanced provision of homes.

We need to get this right, and the City Council could do worse that having a very early meeting with Mike Stimpson to find a way forward.

My reaction to homeless people living in tents on the Brighton seafront

Over the last few days there has been some media coverage about homeless people sleeping on the Brighton seafront.  I have been asked for my views by the Brighton Argus, BBC South East TV, BBC Sussex radio, and Meridian TV.

This statement I gave to Meridian gives a flavour of my responses:

“The number of street homeless men and women in Brighton and Hove is increasing year on year. Four years ago we anticipated working with around 30 rough sleepers each morning in our day centre. That increased to 50, then 70 and 100 a year ago. Now we estimate there to be 150 people sleeping on the streets of Brighton each night.

“This increase s in spite of some excellent work by organisations such as the City Council, Sussex Police and charities including Brighton Housing Trust, CRI and the YMCA. Without this joint work, and the protection of funding agreed by all parties on the Council, that number would be 300 or more.

“There are many reasons for this increase I rough sleeping including the lack of affordable homes to rent, people moving to Brighton who are cashing in on property prices in London and displacing local people, students who stay after graduation, and a failure nationally to build enough homes.

“Of course no one wants to see people living on the Brighton seafront, nor in its public parks or its car parks. In one of the richest countries in the world, it is outrageous that in 2014 we have people living on the streets.”

I am pleased to hear that the small encampment on the seafront has now moved on.

What we are doing for Generation Rent: Davy Jones, Green candidate, Brighton Kemptown

I recently wrote to the representatives of the main political parties in Brighton and Hove regarding Generation Rent, asking what they and their political parties would be offering renters after 2015 on issues including high rents, insecure tenancies, and poor practice by some landlords and, in particular, letting agencies. I am posting all responses received, in the order I have received them. Today, the response from Davy Jones, Green candidate, Brighton Kemptown

I was Head of Housing Strategy for Hackney Council in the 1990s, so housing issues have always been important to me and something I really care about.

Housing is an absolutely essential basic right. It is the bedrock of so many important things – our health and well-being, our family life, our sense of belonging and security. But for many in the private rented sector, it doesn’t feel like that at all. Both my daughters are currently in private rented accommodation paying ridiculous rents with massive deposits and at risk of losing them over frivolous issues. With more than a quarter of all housing in the City in the private rented sector, way above the national average, this is a really important issue for the City.

 

Lots of people would like to buy their own flat or house, but prices are now so sky high that this is simply impossible for lots of folk. Speaking personally, I would like to see stamp duty abolished for first-time buyers for cheaper properties (up to £150,000). Others would like to be in council accommodation, but the policy from successive Tory and Labour governments of selling off council housing has made that even less likely. Clearly there is a national shortage of affordable housing for people – though if the very wealthy didn’t have such huge homes and so many of them, the shortage would be a lot less – something that really riled me during the debate on the “bedroom tax” which hit poor and disabled families, but not those with “spare” rooms in their private mansions!

 

So increasingly people are forced into the private rented sector, where rents have rocketed in recent years. I believe there should be a cap on rents in the private sector. I support the Living Rent Campaign in its goal of linking private rents to affordability (ie social rent formulas) rather than market levels which are unaffordable for many in areas like Brighton & Hove. The Green Party councillors moved a motion to the Council suggesting smart rent controls – pegging them to inflation and capping them if inflation rises too high. The Green Council has  introduced the licensing of small House of Multiple Occupation (HMOs) and more than 1500 applications have been received. More than 700 licences have been granted so far. The Green Council is also in the process of building new council homes in the City.

 

The Green Party has also called for:

  • 5-year tenancies with rents set at the market rent at the beginning of the tenancy and raised only by inflation during each of the five years of the tenancy.
  • The registration and regulation of letting agents, many of whom are unscrupulous.
  • An end to the sale of council housing, which Labour still supports. 107 council homes have been sold in B&H in the past 2 years, 76 of them in 2013-14
  • Lifting the cap on council borrowing to allow B&H to build more new homes.

The obsession (by both the Tories and Labour) with allowing the “market” and the private sector to sort out our housing problems has been a dismal failure. Housing is not an investment vehicle. It is a right and a necessity. And we need a new national commitment to both provide more housing (social and private), ensure that housing not in use is brought into use, and to regulate the private rented sector to ensure it is affordable and fair both to tenants and landlords.

 

Can Brighton accommodate another 5,000 students without building on the Downs?

The University of Sussex has announced a £500 million development plan which will see the number of students increase from 13,000 to 18,000. Together with Brighton University, the number of students in Brighton and Hove has increased from 26,000 in 1996 to 34,000 today and up to 40,000 by 2018. (Brighton and Hove News has a brief summary of the plan).

Sussex University alone makes an estimated £400 million contribution to the economy of Brighton and Hove, and its students add much to the vibrancy of the city.

My concern about the university’s ‘Making the Future’ plan (which is designed to keep it in the top 2% of universities in the world) is the impact on housing.

The existing pressure on housing supply has exacerbated affordability concerns. While the university plans a further 1,400 units of accommodation on campus, I wonder where the other 3,600 students will be accommodated.

Many parts of Brighton and Hove are increasingly blighted by studentification, and families and older people are increasingly being pushed out of the town centre and out of the city as a whole. There are areas which could be in danger of becoming student ghettos similar to, for example, the Hyde Park and Woodhouse areas of Leeds.

If we are to accommodate a further 5,000 students (and if we are to address the pressure on housing caused by those already here), the city will have to compromise. There are few options but building tall buildings is one, compromising on space standards is another. A radical solution would be to expand the city onto the Downs and into the National Park.

I can already sense the horror that any one of these three options will provoke, but I have to ask, what are the alternatives?

Increasing housing supply to safeguard Brighton’s economy

In July I wrote an article for the Brighton Argus on the need for more housing in Brighton. This is the text of that article which was published on 16th July:

The BBC’s Evan Davies once described Brighton and Hove as an ‘ideopolis’, a locality where the economy is based on the idea of the place rather than any particular industry like the steel industry, manufacturing, the garments trade, or mining. And Brighton is a fine example of a successful ideopolis.

It is one reason why the City has survived the recession so well and is likely to continue to flourish. But an ideopolis doesn’t just happen. It requires, flair, imagination, partnership, investment, courage. And it needs a good physical infrastructure.

The State of the City 2013 debate, organised by the rather wonderful Brighton and Hove Chamber of Commerce, highlighted several challenges faced by the City if it is to continue to remain such a vibrant economy. These challenges included the need for more jobs (higher end as well as entry level), the evolution of transport systems, getting the tourism offer right, and housing.

Gary Peters correctly highlighted the need for between 16,000 and 19,000 new homes. There are plans, like 750 homes at Toad’s Hole Valley (a no brainer, that one), but we do need to think the unthinkable about development in order to meet housing need.

I have a few suggestions. While my dream is for everyone to have a home with plenty of space, outside a lawn, perhaps an orchard and a lovely pond, the reality is living in Brighton already requires compromise. Further compromise will be necessary to meet the demand for housing in years to come.

We can’t develop north, south, east or west, but we can go up. Good design high rise doesn’t have to replicate 1960’s blight. We could also slay a sacred cow and build between Falmer and Woodingdean. I’ve seen areas of outstanding natural beauty. This isn’t it.

We might also need to have housing with greater density. Students from our two fine universities who choose to stay after graduation don’t have an abundance of graduate-level jobs. They compromise, which is why we have the best qualified bar staff in the country. And they need to compromise by living in shared housing.

By being more creative with our scare housing resource, for example by combining self-containment with an element of sharing (such as shared laundries and household equipment) greater density can still mean good homes.

I have confidence in Brighton’s ideopolis and its future, but we must resolve its housing crisis soon.