This article was produced by Stephanie Pugh from Capital Law.
A house in multiple occupation (“HMO”) is a house or flat occupied by at least three tenants forming more than one household (one family, or one single person), where the kitchen, bathroom or toilet are shared by the tenants.
The law governing the operation of HMOs is contained in the Housing Act 2004 (“HA 2004”). This imposes upon HMO landlords additional legal responsibilities, such as meeting further health and safety requirements and, the focus of this article, not to overcrowd their properties.
Overcrowding: the harsh reality
Overcrowding can be detected by failing to meet either of the two-bedroom standards:
- The room standard: this is breached where two tenants of a different sex must sleep in the same room, (not including children under 10 or co-habiting/married couples.)
- The space standard: this is breached where the number of people sharing a bedroom is more than the permitted number, having regard to the number and floor area of bedrooms available.
The impact of overcrowding is considerable and should not be underestimated or ignored. The health effects of living in an overcrowded home has been highlighted over the past year of the pandemic. Household and personal hygiene and maintaining personal space have been the focal point of the government campaign to end the pandemic. However, the impacts of overcrowding go far beyond rapid spread of illness.
A 2019 report conducted by the NHS revealed overcrowding in the home has a direct link to increased domestic violence and mental health issues such as stress, alcohol abuse and depression. Such risk of stress and depression was found to be increased in young people, and the lack of privacy in an overcrowded home a significant hindrance to childhood development. Young people living in a disruptive and overcrowded home were also more likely to become homeless in the future, of which the health and wellbeing impacts need no explanation.
Current Regulations: protecting our space
Part 2 of the HA 2004 imposes upon HMO landlords mandatory licensing to rent out the property. Licensing is required in almost all situations, namely where; the property is at least three storeys high; contains five or more people; has 2 or more households living in it and tenants share toilet, bathroom, or kitchen facilities. Landlords who fail to obtain a licence will face consequence, via prosecution or a fine and tenants of an unlicensed HMO may also make a claim to a tribunal to reclaim their rent. The HA 2004 further provides that local councils have authority to insist licensing requirements upon smaller HMOs in areas where overcrowding is particularly high risk or prevalent.
Such a wide criteria gives little chance for HMO landlords to escape licensing. The licensing process not only allows local authorities to monitor the property before issuing the licence to ensure health and safety standards are met but allows the local council to revoke a licence if it considers the HMO to be poorly managed and overcrowded. Revocation of an HMO licence exists until the issues are dealt with or appropriate management is sought. If a solution cannot be found within 12 months, the local authority can make a final management order which will place the longer-term management of the property in the hands of the authority.
These provisions are in addition t0 the general regulations of the Rent Smart Wales scheme, introduced by the Housing (Wales) Act 2014, imposing compulsory registration, training and a ‘fit and proper’ persons assessment upon all private rented sector landlords.
Proposal for Reform: Enforcing the Rules
The government believes the HA 2004 and its later amendments have helped to “tackle overcrowding and poor property management,” however, the issue has not gone away. Improvements can, and should, be made.
Tightening the licensing regulations surrounding HMOs, however, is unlikely the way forward. The current licensing process requires significant manpower from local authorities, tightening the regulations will only place greater strain on local authorities, slowing down current procedure and increasing costs.
Improvements can instead be made by tougher and more frequent enforcement of the existing regulations, making practical use of the repercussions already in place where landlords are in breach of licensing requirements or overcrowding is found.
Greater enforcement of the rules would not only result in awareness of the seriousness of the issue but will encourage those who live in overcrowded and unsatisfactory rented homes to speak out, having faith the issues will be actioned and belief that no one should settle for a home that threatens one’s health or happiness.