14th June 2007
The best way to tackle our city's housing crisis
Southampton is a changing city. Over the last few years we have seen more and more family homes demolished and replaced by flats. And even more family homes have been rented out, not to families who want to rent, but to multiple individuals, usually student households.
The loss of family homes and the corresponding rise of Houses in Multiple Occupancy (HMOs) have serious implications for the character of our city. I believe we should take action to stop a long-term invisible wall building up between areas of family housing and areas where HMOs dominate.
Under current law, a landlord today can purchase a family house, possibly with a buy-to-let mortgage, and place five or six tenants in the house immediately. They can do this without any consultation with neighbours or any planning permission, despite the increased pressure on car-parking spaces or other amenities that such a change is likely to bring.
But the problem goes deeper. It is often the case that HMO landlords go on to purchase other houses in an area using the equity from their previous purchases. As more family homes are bought up, remaining families tend to look to move out of an area that, rightly or wrongly, they see as fundamentally changing in character. So HMO purchases in an area tend to create a self-sustaining market where more and more family homes are gobbled up. This process has, rather regrettably, been dubbed the ‘studentification’ of an area, but students are not the ones to blame. They have to live somewhere whilst they study, and both Universities in the city have built a number of student residences in recent years. It is a combination of the free market and planning laws which fail to recognise the cumulative social impact of family homes being converted into HMOs.
Indeed young people are one of the groups most hurt by the current system. I hope that many students will want to get jobs and live in Southampton once their studies are finished. But they may find it difficult to get on to the housing ladder precisely because so many family homes will have been taken out of the housing market and converted into HMOs. The government has provided more help for first time buyers through keyworker loans, shared ownership schemes and new planning laws requiring developers to build more affordable housing. But this help is to some extent being cancelled out by the loss of family homes to HMOs, and the corresponding rise in cost of the remaining housing stock.
At the other end of the housing market, there is a dire shortage of social housing for families. In Southampton in 2005 over 600 families had to be housed in temporary accommodation because there were not sufficient family homes available to rent. I have lobbied for more money to build new social housing, but we will only be ‘running to stand still’ if we build new family homes while existing homes are being either demolished or converted.
So what can we do? Last week I introduced a ten-minute rule bill into Parliament which would require landlords to apply for planning permission from a local authority if they wanted to convert a family home into an HMO. Such a law would not stop HMO conversions all-together, but it would mean the process could be regulated. In Southampton, the council could assess the impact such a conversion would have on an area, and the cumulative effect on the city’s housing market. I would also want to see the new planning powers work in conjunction with a new council licensing scheme for HMO landlords. This scheme has already been introduced by the 2004 housing Act scheme would help ensure landlords are better accountable to their tenants (including students) and to the local community if, for example, they let the property fall into disrepair or if there was a significant increase in noise or anti-social behaviour.
My bill stands little chance of becoming law in its own right due to strict limits on Parliamentary time. However the government could choose to fold in my proposals into existing planning regulations, which would have almost the same effect. I will continue to lobby for this to happen, and welcome the support of MPs and community groups who have supported the bill so far. It is, I believe, a crucial step towards making sure that everyone in Southampton, whatever their situation, has a home they can be proud of.
What do you think? Email email@example.com