13:04 PM, 24th October 2011, About 10 years ago 32
My last article on Property 118 brought forth a host of questions from landlords wondering whether their property was in or out of the HMO grip.
I got questions saying “Help! is my house an HMO?” and comments that they weren’t getting any sense or consistency out of their Environmental Health Officers. This seemed to beg an article clarifying things once and for all in a user’s guide format that would help real people in real situations.
As well as being a working Tenancy Relations Officer I have been, since 1998, a freelance trainer of housing law for the Chartered Institute of Housing, Sitra, Shelter etc and I long ago learnt that my job in many ways was really more of a translator than an educator.
Lawyers are phenomenally clever people who are well versed in the vagaries and small detail of their areas of expertise. However, with the notable exception of Tessa Shepperson of Landlord Law, most of them aren’t great at explaining things in ways that non-lawyers who have to actually work with the rules can actually understand.
So for the past 13 years I have been reading their stuff and re-writing it in ways that other people can grasp.
It was with this head on that I set to on Saturday to thoroughly investigate the regulations on HMOs. For me it was to be a task like writing a training manual, which I have done many times but for once I was defeated.
I read the provisions of the Housing Act 2004, which describes all the legislation on HMO definitions and penalties. I read through countless interpretations on a range of specialist solicitors websites and some of the many useful council websites that share information and yet I found so many areas of disagreement.
Just when I thought I had found a cast iron solid fact I would read a different viewpoint that contradicted what I had just read.
However the internet is never wholly reliable so I also got on the phone and spoke to an EHO mate in another London borough and picked his brain. I found several of my previously thought of indisputable facts thrown out the window again.
I re-worked the article in the light of what I had gleaned from the horses mouth and felt hot to trot. I just had 2 questions that needed clarifying and for that I thought I would talk to my own EHOs on Monday morning. When I arrived I asked my 2 simple questions of the chief EHO and found my work thrown out of the window yet again.
Now I don’t trust what I spent countless hours this weekend writing. The anomalies are just too different and misleading in many cases to risk committing to print.
For instance, 1 indisputable fact is that an HMO is created when 3 or more people occupying a dwelling as 2 or more households. One website I read gave an example of a couple who take in a lodger which then becomes an HMO because you then have 3 people comprising 2 households.
This information was backed up by my original source but when I spoke to our own EHOs this morning they said this wasn’t the case, citing the fact that the couple own the property means you don’t count them. There would have to be 3 lodgers on top of the family for it to be classed an HMO. You would only count the family if they were renting themselves and subletting to their lodger.
I discovered that an annex to a property can count as 1 of the floors if it is connected to the main building by stairs (the actual number of stairs not being defined) but when I ran this past a real EHO he said the stairs were irrelevant and that the way an annexe could be part of the house would be if it wasn’t self contained and the occupants had to access the house for kitchen and bathroom.
These are crucial legal differences.
The regulations are there in black and white and it should therefore be easy enough to define categories so why are there so many interpretations floating around?
In addition to Mandatory licensing there is also ‘Additional Licensing’ and ‘Selective licensing’. Different councils operate these in response to different local problems which may give rise to certain inconsistencies but the basic definitions shouldn’t vary.
Neither in person, in website or in legislation can I find a truly reliable source. I have never known this to happen. I teach advanced homelessness law and advanced housing law and I have never encountered such varied interpretations as to what a law actually means.
What I have learnt is that if I ever get asked to teach a course on HMO regulations I will say “No!”
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