Tenants found in danger flats, garage and basement with no windows
PUBLISHED: 06:30 16 March 2018 | UPDATED: 08:51 16 March 2018
Tenants living in a basement with no light, housed in a garage with no fire escape and renting a flat with water dripping out of electric sockets.
These are some of the housing conditions Norwich City Council environmental health officers have taken action against landlords for.
It comes as this newspaper continues its look at the poor state of some rented homes in the region.
In one case inspectors found a house on Magdalen Street which had been divided into flats with no fire alarms or fire doors, while the electrics were dangerous.
But the landlord lived in China, meaning the council could not get her to take action.
Instead the council carried out emergency repairs, costing £30,000. A few months later there was a fire.
Housing officer Paul Swanborough said the work saved the lives of tenants which included two families with young children.
But three years later, they are still trying to get the money back from the landlord.
There have also been four prosecutions against landlords renting homes around Prince of Wales Road in dangerous conditions.
In the most recent prosecution a landlord was fined £10,000 for 13 breaches.
In the basement of one property inspectors also found people living in rooms with no windows and no fire escape.
New powers given to councils from April last year mean they can fine landlords up to £30,000.
That has been used once in Norwich against a landlord who illegally converted a garage into a home.
There were no fire escapes or windows and the landlord was fined £6,000. Five others cases are also being looked at.
But Norwich is the only council to use that power.
According to Freedom of Information requests sent by this newspaper to the seven Norfolk councils, as well as Waveney and Fenland, only Norwich has fined or prosecuted a landlord in the last year.
And five councils - Breckland, Broadland, North Norfolk, South Norfolk and Waveney - have not fined or prosecuted a landlord for four years.
The councils said they preferred to work with landlords to fix problems.
Waveney Council used a different tool, called improvement notices, which orders landlords to carry out repair work.
It gave more improvement notices to landlords last year than all other councils in the region put together with 42; the year before it gave just one.
A Waveney council spokesman said it had “revised its approach to private sector housing enforcement to ensure effective use of officer time and resources”.
Other councils have tried to get landlords to sign up to a licensing scheme.
But Norwich suspended its voluntary licensing scheme for private landlords as no landlords have joined it since early 2017 – the target had been for 1,000 members.
Andy Fretwell, from the Eastern Landlords Association, said rogue landlords were unlikely to join the scheme and landlords had no incentive to sign up.
Great Yarmouth Borough Council is now looking at compulsory licensing for all private sector landlords in an area and making them pay an annual fee, rather than running a voluntary scheme.
Called selective licensing, it could be introduced to Nelson Ward and Central and Northgate Ward. It has been used in Newham and Peterborough but not in Norfolk before.
Andy Grant, chairman of the council’s housing and neighbourhoods committee, said: “Unfortunately there remain some unethical landlords who exploit their tenants, often the most vulnerable people in society.”
He said the two wards being looked at for the licensing scheme had “long suffered from significant and persistent levels of sub-standard housing, crime and anti-social behaviour related to the private rented housing sector”.
He added selective licensing had the potential to turn around living conditions in whole areas.
But Paul Cunningham, from the ELA, said there was already enough legislation for councils to take action against rogue landlords.
“All these authorities know who the bad landlords are,” he said. “Slum landlords will not rent in an area with licensing. It is a big stick to hit all. They should leave law-abiding landlords to carry out their business.”
Norfolk lawyer Tessa Shepperson, from The Landlord Law blog, said: “A lot of landlords are very hostile towards selective licensing but I’m more in favour. It is a really good tool for council enforcement officers.”
•Fines a last resort
Several councils in Norfolk have not fined or prosecuted a single landlord in the last four years.
At Breckland Council inspections by its officers on rented homes have collapsed from 138 in 2014/15 to 18 this year. A council spokesman said it “prioritised resources” to focus on homes needing the “greatest attention”.
They said landlords normally repaired problems after being contacted.
Councils can also give improvement notices ordering landlords to make repairs but Broadland Council has not used that power in the last four years.
In North Norfolk, 25 of the most serious hazards have been found in rented homes this year and one improvement notice given.
South Norfolk, meanwhile, has not issued a single improvement notice or fine.
A spokesman said they sought to work with the landlord when they get complaints.
King’s Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council prosecuted one landlord last year but from its 211 visits this year has not needed to serve any improvement notices or fines.
Adrian Lawrence, cabinet member for housing, said taking someone to court was a last resort.