Tuesday, 2 December 2008

The Horror, The Horror Of HMO's

Since moving out of Dovecot Towers I’ve been staying temporarily in a shared house, which brought to mind the reader who commented here: “…how did this girl think she could afford to live on her own".
She probably didn’t mean to sound so snotty, but seemed to think that not sharing is haughty, wasteful and proud. I deeply resent the notion that anybody under twenty-five, indeed everybody, should be compelled to live amongst strangers.

There are various ways of sharing: as a lodger, for example or when good friends rent a house together. Just to make things clear, what I am discussing here are HMO’s (Homes in multiple occupation). These are increasingly let under the rules of those crafty ‘how to be a ruthless landlord’ seminars. In extreme cases, this means accommodation in the basement, attic, in tiny rooms divided by thin stud walls, with only one bathroom for up to eight strangers (and their overnight guests) and perhaps just the one cooker and fridge.

Should low pay force anybody to live this way, even if they feel intimidated, or where they are unhappy? Must people who work in the caring professions be condemned to live forever in overcrowded houses because they aren’t suited to a lucrative career in the financial sector? And what about older tenants?

I’ve shared with some lovely people, and have friends who lived happily this way for years. I also anticipate comments about how delighted other sharers are. While I’m glad for you, I declared enough is enough after one housemate was drunkenly sick on the carpet on the landing which led to my attic room. She covered the mess with a suitcase for weeks, until I wondered what the smell was (by way of explanation, she was a heavy metal fan.)

We all have horror stories. Another house-mate habitually waltzed out of the front door at night, leaving it wide open behind her. You just reach the stage, where – what with verucca plasters abandoned by the shower and the clamour when you just want some peace after a fraught working day – you can’t take anymore. Another friend regularly knocked on a housemate’s door to check she hadn’t taken the latest in a long line of small, non-life threatening overdoses. She was clearly very troubled, but he could only take so much.

Lovers of solitude are not divas, demanding rainbows and freshly laundered fluffy white kittens to order. Freelancers with insufficient job security to guarantee a mortgage aren’t profligate, arty-farty types without a proper career; but victims of outsourcing and mandatory employment flexibility. Why should they be compelled to live like teenagers? Wanting to live alone is a modest ambition (and these days there are definitely enough flats to go round, especially outside of London.)

Although now I think about, it makes sense for families to live communally. They could pool resources, even sharing childcare and household duties, like on a kibbutz. Imagine the money they’d save by cooking together in a canteen. What a brilliant idea; let’s billet unacquainted families together in one house.

Admittedly, there’s the lack of privacy as everybody sees your post in the morning; you know - hospital appointments etc. And you might not enjoy sharing a lounge with other families, voting on what TV shows to watch etc, stumbling over washing left to dry in the hall, having your food stolen, hearing private phone-calls, organising a rota for the bathroom (with hot water if you’re lucky) the daily challenge of other residents’ somewhat cavalier regard for hygiene, the screeching personal melodramas, petty vendettas and biological warfare in the sink, all set against the backdrop of a toilet which doesn’t flush properly.

You mean, you don’t like the sound of that? Well, guess what? Neither do I.


Caoilte said...

Being called snotty is fine since you're having a hard life, but I'm not a girl. Give me a break. Even half a seconds clicking on my "Blogger Profile" would have corrected that prejudicial assumption.

Anyway, freelancers aren't necessarily being over demanding, but you are often working in extremely competitive job sectors. A perceived sense of higher job satisfaction attracts bright people to become journalists (and other careers susceptible to freelancing) instead of accountants. Accountancy firms (or whatever) fight back by offering better pay, job security etc. Those who follow a career for the love of it are generally punished economically, it's always been that way.

The government has taken some steps to improve the situation for nurses, carers, families etc. They might be able to do more if Thatcher hadn't shot social housing in the throat.

There's probably a whole other blog to be written about the ways to live pleasantly in HMOs. I don't think I've ever found somewhere nice in under five or six weeks and dozens of visits. Living is not a task to be undertaken lightly.

RenterGirl said...

I called you a reader: you called me a girl (and I'm not.) We don't always have the luxury of a long, careful flathunt. And even if you look, as I have written before, you can't tell how things will turn out. Removing people from the equations banishses one major point of conflict. For me, HMO's are inherently unpleasant. If others are happy then all well and good. The rental secotr needs people to live in the many flats they've built.

Ella said...

Until recently I have suffered from a sequence of pretty awful houseshares.

Emotional abuse, homophobia, constant invasions of privacy,purposeful, consistent, though small, acts of destruction of property, disregard for personal space and sleep patterns, and no co-operation on bill payment or house maintenance was pretty much the norm. For the short periods things were bearable, it later resolved that the above abuses were going on, just bubbling under the surface and not in plain sight.

I dream of the day when I can live alone. I share your attitude that it's patently ridiculous that any one earning a full time wage cannot afford to maintain a modest one person household.

Although I currently live in a pretty great shared house, this is the exception, not the rule. Still, simple things like having a bathroom or even a fridge to myself currently seems like the feverish imagining of a madwomen.

Anonymous said...

Shame - I've appreciated this blog up until now, but this just comes across as moaning.

If you want to live somewhere nice, either allocate more money to live there, or compromise and share, or move further away, get a new job etc.

We can't have everything we want, sometimes we have to work for it. You can't blame everything on parasitic landlords I'm afraid.

RenterGirl said...

No; it's no more moaning than the other posts detailing the problems of rented housing. It's more about the tyranny of being forced to share. Moving isn't always an option; what if you've only just moved in, and have paid for a removal van (dear if you're broke) or are new to a different city/area, and can't afford another deposit just yet (there's always an overlap). Find a new job? Do you watch the news? Like I say, I know some people are happy. But it isn't all sunshine.

la glitz said...

RenterGirl - have to jump in to defend you here. HMOs are not a solution for adults on low incomes, and can frequently turn out downright dangerous, from threats of violence to, as detailed above, homophobia, theft or suicidal flatmates. The idea that those of us who are on low incomes have 'chosen' to live in inadequate or dangerous housing, in a market where there is a glut of properties, is a nonsense.

Moreover, most HMOs are family houses, ill-suited to sharing by adult strangers: there's often a boxroom too small for one resident, for instance, but which given to one luckless resident; only one bathroom with one toilet, and one stove with four gas or electricity rings. The common areas become run-down and degraded, even when the best of friends share - and in my experience, the best of friendships don't often survive a houseshare.

And furthermore, turning over family residential housing to HMOs 'studentifies' a neighbourhood. Too many people crammed into houses that are not their homes has a knock-on effect on the neighbourhood, running it down and rendering it noisy, dirty and often unsafe. I've seen it in Belfast, I've seen it in Leeds, I've seen it in Nottingham; families moving out of neighbourhoods where sofas start growing in front lawns, students come home and puke on the doorstep, and the streets are packed with roaming crowds of partygoers. It's not a solution.

RenterGirl said...

Thanks LaGlitz! All of that is so true, and pointing it out isn't moaning, but identifying a problem, and a need. HMO's also lessen the stock of houses suitable for families. But I shall repeat, how would families feel if they forced to live this way, in a house with other families. Rents are falling fast, and 'Dovecots' (them again) are increasingly a viable, affordable option. But that's a previous can of worms...

la glitz said...

RenterGirl - families do live like this in parts of Russia, or did quite frequently, in shared flats called kommunalkas. I have yet to hear that anyone thought this was the optimal situation to the Russian housing crisis. It puts huge pressure on families, and as far as I know drove divorce rates up.

Dave said...

I called you a reader: you called me a girl (and I'm not.)

I think Caoilte was commenting on your use of the word 'she' to talk about his comment:

She probably didn’t mean to sound so snotty...

Nor is it exactly fair to appear slightly affronted at being called a girl yourself - your screen name is RenterGirl after all!

Anyhow, back on topic, I do agree that there are some awful HMOs out there, but there are some pretty good ones too and it does often work out just fine.

Do you really mean your comment about long, careful flathunts being a luxury? I see it as an absolute necessity: something that is really worth putting time and money into getting right. It's a bit soul-destroying at the time but the investment has usually been more than worth it. Are you really saying that you haven't been filling your evenings trying to find a better (cheaper, better managed, more becupboarded, whatever) place than Dovecot Towers to live? Why not?

MattW said...

I agree with Dave. I wouldn't relish living in an HMO personally and so my time outside of work would be focused upon searching for that ideal pad for the next year or so.

RenterGirl said...

People! Calm down! Saying 'she' where I did is grammatically right, and as I point our, I called her a 'reader'. And you're right about the rentergirl (a title chosen in haste, slighly regretted at leisure I might add...) but girls are under 18, as far as I'm concerned. When I said: we don't always have time to look, I meant people, ie other people, such as tenants who have been given sudden notice if a landlord is being repossessed, sometimes and in extremes, and before someone says it - illegally - as little as one day! I am staying somewhere temporary so I can hopefully find somewhere better. For reasons I choose not to discuss here (I have a life outside of this blog, you know) I have plenty of decisions to make about where I shall go next. And if time closes in on me before I have found something close to what I want, I might have to settle for next best. Did everyone get out of bed the wrong way?

walt said...

I think the point is that Caoilte is a boy/man, not a woman/girl.

RenterGirl said...

A boy man? Or a girl woman? Or a reader? 'She.' Sorry; you're a bloke. But I did say 'reader.' And you called me 'that girl'. Folks, can we stop this now and save the renting world?

Anonymous said...

Families do live communally. "Family homes". And do in many cases face the same problems that anybody else sharing a home experiences. Or worse. It doesn't make it perfect because you happen to be related to or acquainted with those people that you live with. It can also be a situation based on exactly the same economic restrictions that you've outlined here and then perhaps not some people's first choice. So it's really not so "them" and "us". Especially in the current financial climate lots of people are making do.

However many people function perfectly well in those surroundings. As you've mentioned, some people do actually enjoy sharing. Just as it doesn't suit others. For those that need their own space I have to agree with some of the comments about compromise and how decisions regarding career and life style will affect where people can choose to live. That's really down to personal choice, priorities, etc.

Anyway what I really wanted to say was that you can't blame the landlords for this? Tyranny? Really? My understanding (apart from that there is a demand for this type of multi-occupancy rental and that the vomiting habits of individual tenants is barely related to the person whose name is on the deeds) is that there is plenty of legislation in place for landlords that own HMOs. Regarding fire safety, as just one example and it can involve a certain amount of investment to make a building suitable as a HMO. I really doubt that it would dominate any 'rip-off and get rich' property seminar. In fact it can be quite complicated process and would most likely put off all but the experienced landlord. There is information on HMO licensing and management here: http://www.communities.gov.uk/housing/rentingandletting/privaterenting/housesmultiple/

RenterGirl said...

No. It's not down to priorities and personal choice at all, especially in London where people often have to go to work, and where people well into their thirties, and forties may have to share. And mentioning a family home is missing the point entirely: families live communally, and there will be rationalorganisation of washing, hot water, rubbish disposal etc. You just try getting heavy in shared house when soemone knocks over the bin and leaves it for a week, or shave their legs and leave sit in the bath. I was suggesting an anology with forcing different families into one communal house (as LaGlitz said, like in Russia). And there are most definitely seminars about how to maximise profits from renting out a house. The mantra is avoid families, and cram in as many as you can, legally if possible, although as I've said before, many landlords understand and manipulate the transient nature of these houses thumb their noses at any legislation. Tackle them and you're out, which happened to me once. The studentification of areas is desolating neighbourhoods in cities everywhere. And there's the fad for formal flatmate interviews. If they don't want you to move in (a friend always as he did badly at these interviews) where are you supposed to go?

Dave said...

I meant people, ie other people, such as tenants who have been given sudden notice if a landlord is being repossessed, sometimes and in extremes, and before someone says it - illegally - as little as one day!

Sorry, just cos you've predicted that someone'll say it won't stop me from saying it - that really is very illegal. Physically preventing the residents from using their house is probably harrassment, and the damages that get awarded in such cases are typically much much greater than the loss the lender would suffer from following the proper eviction procedure. So they won't do that.

Once a house has been repossessed (itself a somewhat lengthy process) and the tenancy (presumed to be an AST or SPT) is to be terminated then that cannot happen without a court order served to the tenants giving not less than two months' notice [Housing Act 1988, Chapter 1, Section 8, paragraph 4(a)].

I could imagine that a mortgagee might write a letter that claimed a day's notice, but I repeat that I can't imagine any of them moving the bailiffs in before the proper process had finished - it'd be more than their licences were worth. As always, the CAB and the police would help in that situation too.

AndyD said...

Living as a family is very different to sharing as a student - there is a clear ladder of authority and division of tasks.

Having said that, I could imagine that having two or three families sharing a house could work, as long as it was big enough for every family to have their own space within it. Small children enforce things like noise disipline and bedtimes far better than any student house rules, and clearing up vomit becomes part of the daily routine. And having other adults around to share cooking/childcare/etc would be very handy. It would still take a lot of work, though.

RenterGirl said...

Dave, I've written about this before. What is by law supposed to happen still often doesn't. I know of people who were only alerted to their eviction ie the landlords repossession the next day by a kindly letting agent. Often, BTL landlords ignore their dire circumstances, or are so consumed with their problems, and to be frank self pity that they forget to inform tenants, who might only know by opening up the red letters which has happened to several people I know, including the owner of the removal van co who moved me out of Dovecot Towers. They could sue perhaps, but by then the owner will likely be bankrupt anyway.

G Orwell said...

"Although now I think about, it makes sense for families to live communally. They could pool resources, even sharing childcare and household duties, like on a kibbutz. Imagine the money they’d save by cooking together in a canteen. What a brilliant idea; let’s billet unacquainted families together in one house."
Under Labour that might happen one day.
Housing is too expensive now.

Caoilte said...

Longtangs were a very interesting shared family architectural style in China (although greatly abused).

Arabs have something similar. Although they were originally for extended families they have evolved towards shared courtyard and communal facilities.

It used to be common for terraces in Britain to share backyards and presumably washing facilities.

The privacy of the nuclear family unit is a relatively new phenomena and the privacy of the unmarried single person especially so.

Then again, I believe the plight of migrant families in England has always and forever been something chronically cramped.

I expect there will be a precipitous drop in rents next year (greatly advanced by the flight of migrants) and the acceleration of a long decline in the value of housing. My only gripe is that the reaction of many landlords may be to let their properties sit empty. Now that we should legislate against.

Anonymous said...

It is down to personal choice when as an educated person you voluntarily go into a career that is more creative but far less lucrative. There is a decision there that may affect where you can choose to live. Just as people who live on farms can't wear high heels too often. The really worrying thing would be if those farmers started crying about it all of the time.

For anyone who feels that all their needs aren't being met (and that's probably everybody) the question is what compromises are worth making. As one example - what's more important: enjoying your job or affording all the things you want? Lots of people with families (yes, them again) even put aside their dreams of an ideal job and can't contemplate anything as hazardous but potentially thrilling as freelance work because they have other commitments. No matter how talented they might be, they will never realise their dream because of the compromises they feel they need to make.

So I'd avoid using words like "forced" and "tyranny" in this instance as what you are talking about is one's right to choose from a number of different options based on personal preferences. A luxury that some people genuinely do not have. Including all those people all over the world who actually suffer far more indignity than simply discovering leg stubble in the bath.

Anonymous said...

A perceived sense of higher job satisfaction attracts bright people to become journalists (and other careers susceptible to freelancing) instead of accountants. Accountancy firms (or whatever) fight back by offering better pay, job security etc.

Well, it depends. In Denmark the situation is reversed!

I work freelance in Engineering & IT Consultancy jobs. The freelance salary is 3x - 5x times that of the permanent staff!

An added bonus is that, as an an employee of the business that I manage, I control my salary so I avoid paying top-rate tax.

Therefore I also earn the same net income in six months that I would by working full time; I have time to rest and recover between jobs so I even look better and think better than the poor slaves manning the oars, working "110%" for their perceived "career".

I am kind-of wondering how much abuse the ordinary working people getting screwed over and over in the name of "the financial crisis", "globalisation" and "competiveness" will actually take before burning and smashing stuff.

They are surprisingly placid. Almost like there is something in the water.

Dave said...

Dave, I've written about this before. What is by law supposed to happen still often doesn't.

That's true, if a little defeatist, but this is a general point that I really don't think applies here as strongly as implied...

I know of people who were only alerted to their eviction ie the landlords repossession the next day by a kindly letting agent.

A tenant's eviction is absolutely and completely not the same thing as their landlord's repossession by the mortgagee. That is the key point here. If a mortgagee reposesses a tenanted property then they take the place of the landlord, and all the other terms of the tenancy remain in place. If the landlord has not already served notice to quit then the mortgagee would have to go through the usual court procedure to remove the tenants, although as well as the usual grounds for eviction they may also have the option of using Ground 2 (vacant possession required by mortgagee) if the tenancy agreement permits it. In any case, that eviction procedure absolutely cannot involve less than two months' notice from the date that the tenants were informed in writing.

Now there are some remarkably ill-informed (or downright dishonest) letting agents out there who might not know all that, but the CAB certainly will tell you that and the police will enforce it if necessary. On repossession the *agent* has nothing more to do with the property and might insinuate or even lie that the tenants also have to leave, but that's downright wrong. The tenancy remains.

A blog like this one is exactly the sort of place to help tenants stand up for rights like these! Rights that many tenants (you included, it seems) don't even know they have, and that ignorance is costly: by leaving with a day's notice you're *voluntarily* giving up a fairly reasonable and very valuable notice period. This is not evidence of a broken system of rules, procedures and enforcement, it's evidence of a lack of tenants' education.

Often, BTL landlords ... forget to inform tenants

Forgetting to inform tenants certainly wouldn't wash in court. It's two months from the *service* of notice, not from the point where the landlord meant to serve notice but forgot. In a dispute, the landlord would have to prove that the notice was given to the tenants. It's common to take a photo or video of posting the notice through the door, or get the tenants to sign a copy, or occasionally to use an independent witness for that purpose.

Forgetting to do that might cause the mortgagee to try to sue the previous landlord for forgetting (although it might be hard for them to prove any actual financial loss) but that's not the tenants' problem.

RenterGirl said...

Dave, all most tenants know is that the bailiffs might be on their way, and they might by two month sinto a six month contract (and yep, I suspect there might be scop for a fraud case). And bailiffs might not know there is a tenant, in an unofficial BTl mortgage. And well; again, before anyone says it, bailiffs often don't tell the truth and might bully people out. And, it's scary, waiting to find out what's happening. And what would the courst do: order the occupants back in? Rights sound grand on paper, when you have found out that that repossession is due in fortnight, would you have the courage to brazen it out? And forget sould have been 'forget.' And fajensen, you're right. People here always assume that by freelancer I mean journalists. I don't. I mean it broadly: I know of freelance council workers, and computer engineers, and even supply teachers. Work is being outsourced. I'm glad you're doing well! Do people feel like a loser if they don't own a house where you are?

RenterGirl said...

The only place where sharing like that works, is where it is strictly controlled, like in prisons, or in the army, or in China where there were neighbourhood committees, and informants (and labour camps...) I wouldn't want to live like that. Times have changed. We know longer: go to church, work outside in fields, work for 18 a hours a day (I know, people do, but it's not right) and die at 40. In the tenements of Glasgow, people actually spent very little time inside, I am reliably informed. I know some people are happy. But when a house-share goes wrong, it brings with it misery and even danger, and crime (having stuff nicked from your room and being threatened.)

RenterGirl said...

I am writing about housing in England, and not about third world poverty. Shaving stubble is foul, but using the kind of argument that one of the many anonymouses did here of 'there are worse things in Somalia' is irrelevant. I once moved to a new city to take up a perfectly ordinary job, and found myself in the perfectly ordianry shared house with landlord who entered my room to 'inspect' my sheets.

Nic said...

Yes, but you are saying that you are "forced" into a situation when the truth is that you are in that situation due to your own decisions regarding what work you want to do. I think it's a disservice to all those people who genuinely do not have a choice and are genuinely "forced" into their living conditions (both here and abroad). Shaving stubble can be washed away in seconds. It's only hair for christ's sake. Some people - even in this so-called First World - will have never been offered the opportunities that you may have had and some will live their lives having never realised their full potential. I suggest that you put some of this into perspective as the argument you've offered so far is pretty thread-bare and smacks of "I want to live exactly where I want but can't because I don't have the resources and that is really unfair". Boo fucking hoo.

Anonymous said...

Another great post! However, I can't help noticing the parallels between a multiple-occupation house and Dovecote Towers itself. The problems you mention with the common areas -- kitchen, bathroom -- were solved in DT by giving each inmate his or her own suite. The problems with the other common areas -- hallway, entrance etc. -- remain. Is there any model that can be used to house (relatively) single, transient, anonymous and non-owner adults without this type of friction?

the reaper said...

'I expect there will be a precipitous drop in rents next year (greatly advanced by the flight of migrants) and the acceleration of a long decline in the value of housing. My only gripe is that the reaction of many landlords may be to let their properties sit empty. Now that we should legislate against.'

good post


The people I know that share in London initially relocated due to more scope for career development. And sharing seems to be treated as an essential part of the process. One obvious attraction is that it can be a much cheaper option while they find their feet but some of them get much more out of it anyway. They appreciate the company as they can be away from their friends and family in a strange city and they will indulge in the social side that sharing can offer. Although I know it doesn't work like that for everyone.
It will be interesting to see what happens with local housing when Salford's Media City is completed.

RenterGirl said...

Firstly, I am curious, and perhaps bemused as to why this post above all others has generated such controversy (and in one case, a smidgeon of vitriol.) Reaper and Caoilte: But to leave empty is something I have posted about, and it's a ticking time bomb. In 'Dovecots' they were sometimes stockpiled by investors who could unload at a huge loss. What would that do to the market. And anonymous: well spotted about the link with common areas. I think that short term tenancies create a lack of - I don't know emotional -investment. Some of the problems in DT's foyer were caused by trespassers, even rough sleepers who could force that broken door, all though not always. In buildings where there are more owner occupiers (or - bliss! - a concierge) there is more of a sanction for misbehaviour. And Nick: you have fixated on a truly fatuous point, ignoring the mentions of bullying, crime and really serious problems. It's not I, or anyone else is saying as you seem to think: "...boo-hoo, I want a mansion and Daddy won't buy me a pony," We want, deserve and need to live in safety, and a acceptable degree of human comfort. Or shall we all come round and shave our legs in your bath?

RenterGirl said...

Yep Danny, when it works, it's a good thing, and a great way to have some contact when you're new to a city. In London, there is little choice (and decreasing numbers of unconverted houses). But when it goes badly wrong, what can you do? Move. Which is difficult, unsettling and expensive. I have lived in some good places. To redress the balance I shall post about that at some point, perhaps.

G Orwell said...

"Although now I think about, it makes sense for families to live communally. They could pool resources, even sharing childcare and household duties, like on a kibbutz. Imagine the money they’d save by cooking together in a canteen. What a brilliant idea; let’s billet unacquainted families together in one house."
I think pro single mums should live like that. (I mean who think being a single mum means that they should pay less rent and not work).

reklaw said...

We have been renting for the last three years and have had to move three times in that period. Two of the landlord decided to sell the property that we were living in one after only three months into the tenancy - even through the property was advertised as "long term". Unfortunately the third move is now iminent. We have contacted our local council in the hope that they may be able to offer a solution only to be told that the wait for any property would be in excess of five years with no guarantee and at the most a one bedroomed flat may be offered. It would seem that we are destined to be nomads heading into retirement. Would be grateful for any comments/solution!!

RenterGirl said...

I am so sorry this has happened to you. It is a nightmare: the insecurity, the feeling that tenants have no voice, no rights and indeed, count for nothing. As for a solution, I would say that the property market must appreciate that long term tenancies, in the French and Dutch system, are the best. For yourselves: have you thought of advertising for a flat? "Reliable, mature, stable tenants seek long term home..." Good luck, and let me know what happens. This is just so wrong.