Next Meeting: 7-9pm, Tues, 9 Feb: drop-in service, letting agent fees, licensing

Please join us for our next meeting this Tuesday, 9 Feb, 7-9pm at the usual place: basement of St George’s Hall, 236 Cable St, E1 0BL.

We’ll be discussing our proposed drop-in service we hope to kick-off later this month, how we should engage with the council, what we should do next after completing our research into the borough’s letting agent fees, what action we should take after the privatisation of Balfron Tower, and the usual updates on recent events – including the introduction of landlord licensing in TH – and ones coming up.

Hopefully see you there

TH Renters

TH Council agrees to license private landlords in three wards

TH Council agreed to implement a landlord licensing scheme in three wards at its cabinet meeting last night.

All private landlords in Whitechapel, Weavers and Spitalfields and Banglatown – based on their pre-May boundaries – will be obliged to be licensed and meet its conditions from – it’s hoped – October.

The annual fee and exact conditions that must be met are yet to be agreed.

Licensing is aimed at improving the conditions of private rented properties, their management and to tackle so-called anti-social behaviour.

In Newham it has been successfully implemented since January 2013 and the borough now prosecutes more landlords than the rest of London combined.

Unfortunately the scheme is only being implemented in three Tower Hamlets wards after the Coalition government limited Selective licensing to a maximum 20% of a borough shortly before the election last year after intense lobbying by the National Landlords Association. Permission must be sought from the Department for Communities and Local Government before extending the scheme to become borough-wide, but recently blocked Barking and Dagenham’s request to do so.

However, Additional licensing, which only covers houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) – as opposed to HMOs and single family households that Selective covers – is not restricted and the council agreed to look into consulting on implementing it once the government finishes its own consultations on extending mandatory licensing to a greater number of HMOs. Legislation already covers HMOs with five rooms, three or more floors, and two or more households.

However, if it decides to act, the government is expected to implement a diluted version of Additional licensing that would not, for example, cover flats.

The key protections that licensing offers tenants is that the license becomes invalid if any of the conditions are breached rendering the landlord liable to a fine of up to £20,000 and unable to issue a S21 eviction notice.

The decision comes more than six months after the consultation was completed last summer following mayoral elections and a change in administration.

The council said that one of its problems in dealing with the private rental sector is that it relies on tenants reporting poor conditions and reacting to them with limited resources.

Licensing puts the onus on landlords to meet certain conditions and face penalties if it breaks them.

Some of the conditions that must be met include: carrying out repairs, particularly to furniture, fittings and electrical appliances, fitting and maintaining working smoke alarms and having an up-to-date gas certificate. However, each tenant will also be obliged to provide a reference.

In its report to cabinet, the council stated it would also use licensing to identify landlords of the approximate 1,500 empty properties in the borough and encourage their owners to bring them back into use.

It also said it would employ additional staff for its under-resourced environmental health team to carry out house inspections.

New TH cabinet member for housing fluffs lines on new eviction law

licensing demo 5

A sneaky picture from inside the chamber. It wasn’t me.

TH Renter Michael James was left feeling angry and offended last night after asking TH Council’s new cabinet member for housing, Sirajul Islam, what the council can do to speed up property inspections to make use of the new law to prevent revenge evictions.

Michael’s landlord attempted to evict him three times last year after he reported dangerous conditions at the 19-apartment block he lives in and so fully appreciates the importance of the new law that came into effect in October.

However, instead of offering any assurances or asking for an explanation if he wasn’t aware of the new law, Sirajul simply repeated the answer he gave to Michael’s previous question on landlord licensing.

licensing demo 2TH Renters are concerned that the councillor responsible for protecting private renters from callous landlords doesn’t seem to be keeping abreast of new laws aimed at doing just that.

The new law states that a private tenant cannot be evicted from his or her home for six months after the council has carried out an inspection and issued an improvement notice to the landlord following a complaint about sub-standard conditions.

However, as Michael found out, it can take up to a year for the council to carry out an inspection and 18-months to issue an improvement notice. To be fair to the council it was not one property they had to inspect, but 19. They then have to compile a report before issuing the improvement notice.

licensing demo 6But the reality is that TH Council’s environmental health team – who carry out the inspections – is under-resourced and so they are unable to quickly respond to complaints meaning a landlord could evict a tenant who has complained before the council has inspected the property and issued an improvement notice.

Hence Michael’s question: “can the [cabinet member for housing] outline how he will speed up inspections and the issuing of improvement notices, so private renters can benefit from the new law that is supposed to prevent revenge evictions?”

The answer is clearly: “no he can’t.”

TH Council commits to Feb 2016 Licensing decision

licensing demo 1

TH Council said last night it would decide on whether to implement a landlord licensing scheme in February 2016, however it’s still not clear what scheme they plan to adopt and how effective it will be.

TH Renters has been calling for the introduction of licensing, which provides councils with the resources to inspect properties and prosecute landlords in breach of basic conditions, for years.

Newham has been successfully operating licensing since 2013 and prosecutes more landlords than the rest of London put together.

To be licensed landlords must also pass a fit-and-proper person test meaning those found guilty of housing law violations, fraud or sexual, violent or organised crimes would be banned from acting as a landlord and would have to transfer the management of their property to a reputable agent.

However, the concern is TH Council only plan to introduce Selective licensing, which can only be applied to 20% of a borough (after the coalition government changed the law in April) – unless the case can be proved to the secretary of state to make it borough-wide.

So TH Renters would like the Council to introduce Additional licensing, which has no restrictions and so can be borough-wide, alongside Selective – as they did in Newham.

Additional licensing requires every property let to mixed households (ie where everyone in the property is not related, also know as ‘houses of multiple occupation’ or HMO) must be licensed.

The net result being that a far higher percentage of private landlords would be licensed than would be if only Selective was introduced to 20% of the borough.

The Feb 2016 announcement was made after TH Renter Michael James asked a question to new cabinet member for housing Sirajul Islam at Wednesday’s full council meeting.

Next TH Renters meeting: 7-9pm, Tues, 10th Nov: eviction resistance, letting fee research, landlord licensing demo

Next meeting: 7-9pm, Tues, 10th Nov, Unite Community Centre, basement of St Georges Town Hall, 236 Cable St, Shadwell, E1 0BL.

Please join us for our next meeting where we will be hearing about the eviction resistance network and if and how we can set one up in Tower Hamlets. ER is not only a great way of stopping people being kicked out onto the streets, but also to give support for people who often feel alone and powerless, to learn about housing law and our rights from one another, and to meet other activists and local people fighting for better housing.

We will also be looking to encourage people to get involved with our online letting agent fee research project and maybe finish the meeting with a group session for those interested. Generation Rent has made a special software application that had compiled a list of agencies that operate in the borough – it just needs us to fill in the blanks!

And finally we are thinking about holding a demo outside the Town Hall before the next full council meeting about the hold up in implementing the proposed landlord licensing scheme. The new mayor and head of housing have both refused to say what their plans are. TH Renter Michael James will be asking just that to the chamber.

We’ll also hear the usual updates and what is coming up not least the Radical Housing Network’s conference on Sat, 14th Nov.

Hope to see you next week

TH Renters letter of objection to the privatisation of Balfron Tower

IMG_3182Dear LB Tower Hamlets Planning Dept

please accept this letter as an objection to planning application PA/15/2554 for the refurbishment of Balfron Tower.

It is not that we are in itself opposed to the refurbishment of Balfron, in fact we wish it had happened thirty years ago when it was first mooted, or any one of the number of times since.

The problem is that instead of refurbishing the flats and maisonettes for Balfron’s tenants, Poplar Harca is refurbishing them for private buyers of which no doubt many will be investors who will either leave them empty or rent them out at rates that are unaffordable to most people.

Not only is this a breach of the promise Harca made to refurbish tenants’ homes if they voted for stock transfer in 2007 and then allow them to return, it is a betrayal of the highest order. If they had known Harca was going to kick them out shortly after they would have surely voted to keep the council as their landlord.

Harca would no doubt say that the former social tenants all left voluntarily but testimony shows that tenants felt they did not have an option – that their removal was a fait accomplis, while others were ‘seduced’ by the £4,700 buy-off, of which tenants are on record as saying they were not told that accepting it meant they lost their right-to-return.

Poplar Harca claim they cannot afford for social tenants to return given the estimated £20m cost of the refurbishment, but what has happened to the slice of the £45m they were given to refurbish the East India Estates which should have been for Balfron, and all the rent that has been paid since 2007?

And if money is so tight why did Harca swap the rent-paying social tenants for property guardians who pay them no more than a peppercorn rate, why have they voided so many flats so they can’t be rented out, and why are they paying leaseholders up to £1,500 a month since January 2014 to keep their properties empty – how many millions have been lost through this strategy to keep social tenants out of the block?

No matter, the cost of refurbishing the 146 homes comes to around £140,000 each – £20m in total. Harca says it’s not cost effective keeping them as social homes yet Barking and Dagenham Council has just spent £45m on a block of identical size. That makes refurbing Balfron and keeping it social a bargain.

But am I getting ahead of myself? The planning application makes no mention of the change of use from social housing to private sale and Harca has made no public announcement of its intention to do so. This is indicative of the sly approach Harca has taken all along: making false promises to tenants before transfer, bribing or bullying them into leaving, and failing to be open and honest about its intentions.

Throughout Harca has claimed it had taken no decision on the building’s future, yet we now know from a confidential 2012 report by the HCA that a privatised sell-off was their intention all along.

As you will know Tower Hamlets needs more truly affordable housing not less and this is what granting permission in the application’s current form will lead to. Harca will claim they can put the profit from selling off the flats to better use, but it will simply be used to pay back some of the £260m debt that its accrued under the guidance of its HSBC and property developing executives and the homes will be lost forever as we are seeing in other Harca developments.

On both Aberfeldy and Leopold estates it claims it is building new homes, but they are primarily for private sale. The number of ‘affordable’ homes it builds is less than the number of social homes it demolished. Harca is acting more like a private developer than a social housing provider.

Tower Hamlets Council should refuse to be complicit in the privatisation of social homes. Sure, allow them to build private homes for sale in and around the estates, but don’t ever let a development – or refurbishment – see a loss of social homes. If Balfron is privatised the Brownfield Estate will see a net loss of 99-social homes according to a recent academic study.

For this reason the application in its current form should be refused unless Harca agrees to keep it 50% social, which should not include any intermediate rated homes as these can in no way be considered social housing. The profit from the 50% sold would easily pay for the rest to be refurbished.

Yours Sincerely

Tower Hamlets Renters

Next TH Renters meeting: 7-9pm, Tues, 13 Oct @ 236 Cable St. E1

Please join us for our next meeting in the basement of St George’s Hall, 236 Cable St, E1 0BL.

We’ll be catching up with people facing eviction, how they dealt with it and what we can learn from it. If you’re facing a landlord nightmare come share it with us and join the fight for better conditions in the private rental sector.

We’ll also be looking at getting started with our TH letting agent research project and how to help with that. We hope to compile a list of the fees they’re charging and report the ones not displaying them – liable to a £5,000 fine – to the council.

We’ll also discuss Poplar Harca’s plans to refurbish and privatise Balfron Tower after it finally submitted a planning application. Should we get involved with any campaign to keep it social?

We’ll also be finalising arrangements for our first Chrisp St Market public meeting to discuss Poplar Harca’s plans to redevelop it and find out what people want to know and do about it.

If you have any private renter issues you would like us discuss or campaign on please get in touch or come to the meeting.

Hope to see you there

TH Renters