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The vultures behind London’s housing crisis Investors look at the vulnerable and see profit

A community centre in Lewisham (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)


November 29, 2021   7 mins

The Corbett Estate is a neighbourhood of some 3,000 houses located between Hither Green and Catford in south-east London. The houses — mostly small Victorian-style terraces with generous gardens — were built by the Scottish MP, property developer and stern Presbyterian teetotaller Archibald Corbett in the late 1890s.

Many of the streets have Scottish names; many of the houses are graced with distinctive male or female keystones above the front door, rumoured to be based on Archie and his wife. The estate is at least a 15-minute walk from the nearest train station and is mostly an established family neighbourhood. I have lived here for three years and have fallen hard for its charms.

While Archibald Corbett’s legacy is widely known and celebrated with affection locally, it’s unlikely that his politics would go down well with many of his estate’s residents today: he was an unapologetic capitalist (Lewisham has been Labour for as long as anyone can remember) and he disapproved thoroughly of drinking (summer nights around here are full of the sound of late-night partying; K-pop, Jamaican dance-hall, Eastern European folk, take your pick). And as someone who believed in decent housing for working-class people — by which he meant one family per house, a garden, proximity to a station and park — it’s likely he would have been appalled by what’s been going on lately in his streets.

The estate in 1910. Credit: The Archibald Corbett Society.

Because at the moment, as a result of Tory housing policy, the modest houses of the Corbett estate are being bought up by property developers, their interiors ripped out, and in their place, units designed for individual occupation inserted into them. The units can be as small as 6.52 metres squared — smaller than a prison cell. By adding a hastily constructed loft, a narrow terraced house of approximately 60 square metres can be transformed into a “HMO” — a house of multiple occupancy comprising up to six separate “units”. These HMOs represent different things to different people: for the owners, they are sources of profit; for the neighbours, they can often be sources of nuisance or even danger. And for the vulnerable people who live in them, they can be a living nightmare.

As residents became aware of an increase of HMOs in the area, an acquaintance of mine organised a meeting last month with the Lewisham East MP, Janet Daby, to address the issue: he expected it would be attended by him and a few other people who were directly affected. In the event, the church hall was standing room only, with at least 150 people in attendance. The officials were clearly expecting this as we were met not only by Janet Daby, but two local councillors, three council staff including Lewisham’s Director of Planning, and three Metropolitan Police Officers.

Residents spoke of a sense of hopelessness as developers bought up houses next to them and undertook building work without any regard for its impact on them, ignoring party wall agreements. One woman from another ward but within the borough reported being told by a council officer to not go into her back garden because the irresponsible building work rendered it too dangerous. For her there was nothing that could be done, because the work was being conducted around the back of the house and was, as such, private and none of the council’s business. A councillor described the companies that make hay amid the lax regulatory environment as “cartels”.

The council staff and the politicians were not defensive, as I expected them to be. It was far more depressing: they seemed utterly defeated. The Director of Planning asked people not to sell their houses to these developers; one might reasonably ask, if you have a badly run HMO next door to you, who other than a developer is going to buy it? Another councillor suggested direct action and looked to the three Met police officers in attendance, one of whom had already described local HMOs as “not fit for human habitation”. They shrugged, perhaps in assent. The “cartel” comment councillor — with a flair for drama or perhaps an appropriate sense of what was at stake — spoke of law and order breaking down. Another woman questioned the absence of the state, why she was paying her taxes, and whether anyone cared about what was going on in the community?

What is going on here is something called “exempt accommodation”: housing that is exempt from the usual limit a local authority can pay in housing benefit for the provision of accommodation to vulnerable people. The additional money is intended to cover the cost of caring for the residents of such accommodation; people who are vulnerable for a whole host of reasons. Ashley Horsey of Commonweal, a charity that has researched exempt accommodation extensively, explained to me that there are two types: one sort is for people with long-term challenges such as mobility or an intellectual disability. This kind tends to be well run.

The other type of exempt accommodation (“non-commissioned”) is intended as a stop-gap for people who temporarily need assistance during a transitional stage in their lives. This includes people emerging from prison, people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, women escaping domestic violence, care-leavers and people who have been sleeping rough. It’s not uncommon for people from all of these categories — and others — to live alongside one another, sharing a hallway, a kitchen and an entrance. According to Crisis, 150,000 people across the UK are being housed in exempt accommodation, a 62% increase since 2016.

​​This type of accommodation (non-commissioned exempt) has created a situation that turns vulnerable people into units of profit to be mined by developers — the “cartels” the local councillor spoke of. Providers can charge up to £960 per month for the provision of accommodation for people in this category. By examining adverts for rental accommodation locally, one can clearly see this: a “studio” going for £960 per month in a borough where a double room in a more traditional house-share with a responsible landlord yields only around £500-£700 per month. At the meeting in Lewisham, one such landlord — and brave soul, given the atmosphere — spoke up in some bewilderment: why aren’t the Government regulating us, he asked.

The additional money paid to these providers is supposed to be used to provide assistance to residents, to ensure they have the help they need to move on with their lives. What has actually happened is that many providers absolutely fail to provide this “help” — it is neither defined, measured nor monitored — and simply cream off the money that is supposed to assist people, as profit. In a detailed report into the issue Commonweal describe an “accountability deficit” that has arisen here: there is no obligation on providers to ensure that their residents are looked after — despite the premium that is paid for the accommodation. The results can be grim — “sex for rent” situations, drug users living alongside those trying to stay clean and endless anti-social behaviour issues for neighbours.

Imagine for a moment that you are a woman escaping a violent situation in your home. You get away, and you get housed. You turn up at your new address and find a six-square-metre room is now your home. The kitchen you use is shared by five others, some of whom have histories of violence, some of whom are using drugs. The kitchen has no window; you have nowhere to dry your clothes. You are supposed to stay here temporarily, but you can’t afford private rents, and there is no social housing available.

What do you do? What can you do? It’s too noisy to sleep at night. Your landlord is making up to £12,000 per year off of you; he doesn’t want you to leave and there is nowhere for you to go. Some women in situations like this have children living with them — and because of the lack of oversight, it is unclear how many children are currently living in such circumstances.

These homes on the Corbett Estate are being converted into HMOs.

The “accountability deficit” — lax oversight, little to no building regulation and helpless local councils — has created a gold rush in neighbourhoods like Lewisham: places where housing is still cheap, relatively, and where local homeowners are of modest incomes and can’t easily afford solicitors to defend their rights. A local homeowner here in Catford dug into the ownership of the HMO next door to him and found the property was flipped four times in quick succession between companies owned by the same person. The tactics used by many of these companies are straightforward: they purchase houses, in cash, easily outbidding ordinary buyers. They then proceed with building work as quickly as possible and ignore legal requirements that require consent from neighbours.

If neighbours object, they have trouble finding out to whom they can object — these companies maintain a practice of keeping former buyers’ names on the land register or they flip houses (four to five times in one day) to obscure ownership. These companies take a calculated risk, knowing that most regular homeowners will not have the time or the resources to wade through the legality of the situation. The game is stacked utterly in favour of the developers; the only instrument the council has is weak and ineffectual.

This instrument — an Article Four Direction — can be used to prevent further HMO development in a neighbourhood, but only after complaints have been made. It cannot be applied retrospectively, meaning there is no disincentive for developers to continue to act with impunity. Article Four was applied in wards to the south of the Corbett estate and this is why development has suddenly descended upon these streets; the problem was not solved, it simply moved. The first many people knew of it was the sudden, poignant sight of six small fridges turning up for delivery at the recently-sold, small three-bedroom house next door.

This, of course, points to another issue: habitation by what amounts to six separate households creates a dangerous strain on services and facilities. I hear of a HMO in another neighbourhood that had its gas and electricity switched off due to fire safety concerns.

Nobody is being incentivised to fix this situation. Not local government, not the taxpayer, not vulnerable citizens, and not central government, which is effectively paying private corporations a premium to house people in dangerous conditions. But when the guiding ideology of our era lacks a moral dimension, or a sense of responsibility towards a community then this is where we end up. It’s hard not to think of Grenfell and the callousness of companies such as Kingspan, where staff have admitted to prioritising profits over standards. And I’m struck by the clinical nature of the language we now use around housing: units, delivery, services, clients. Who thinks about their homes in that way? Who are we forcing to think about their homes in that way?

A lack of housing security, a lack of a home — not knowing where or if you’re going to sleep at night or if the place you have is safe, is a reality for thousands of people across this country. The current solution: pay developers to make it go away; pay them whatever they want. The utter disregard for the dignity of the individuals involved or the neighbourhoods they live in, is grim and very telling. As a resident told me: the developers don’t live in Catford. They live in Knightsbridge or Dubai, or everywhere and nowhere.

These are our elites: they don’t put the names of their cherished homeland on the streets they create, they hide behind shell companies and when they look at vulnerable people and ordinary neighbourhoods, they see pound signs and profit.


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Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

The trouble with the logic of this nimbyish article is that you can’t really talk about a housing crisis and then complain about landlords.

An awkward truth always avoided by landlord-haters is that they do in fact increase the supply of housing. Rental occupation is denser than owner-occupied to the tune of about 4 to 3, so every time a 4-person let is sold, it sells to a household of 3. Net, one person is left looking for another rental, in a supply that has just diminished by one house.

A five-bed, 3-reception house that would probably house a family of five in owner-occupation might accommodate three times as many as an HMO.

This is what people apparently wanted. For years small landlords have been under tax attack by successive chancellors, who read articles like this, and thought everybody hates landlords, so it’s OK to fleece them. What’s now happening is that as small landlords get driven out, they’re being replaced by people like those in the article. This is a direct consequence of the demonisation of the small landlord.

It’s going to get far, far worse. As renting gets corporatised, you won’t be able to rent with a poor credit history, and if you’re late with the rent, you’ll soon have one. You will be fleeced of your deposit like car rental firms fleece every successive driver of a car for the same damage.

Unfortunately, until someone gets a grip and starts managing the population down rather than allowing it to grow another million every few years, this is the only way to fit everyone in.

Clara B
Clara B
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

And yet we are constantly being told that the housing crisis has nothing to do with the expanding population (well, that’s what my pro-mass migration friends tell me anyway – maybe they’re not so good at maths).

James Joyce
James Joyce
2 years ago
Reply to  Clara B

Touche! The numbers increase but the housing supply remains the same or diminishes for various reasons. No problem! The maths works, unless of course, one is a racist opposed to mass-immigration, almost all of it from the Third World.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  James Joyce

We can build more houses! The comment about population per se being the main problem is nonsense. About 2% of England is built on.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Leon Wivlow
Leon Wivlow
2 years ago
Reply to  Clara B

65,000 Hong Kong nationals applied for visas to live in the UK by the first half of 2021, Around 20,000 Afghan nationals have arrived over the last few months and 25,000 migrants have come over in small dinghys this year. That is 111,000 to find homes for before we even consider the over 1m UK nationals on council house waiting lists. 243,000 houses were built in the year 2019/2020 the highest number since 1987. The government believes we need to build at least 300,000 homes yearly. Good luck with that.
In the meantime my portfolio of BTLs and my own home have gone up over 50% in the last 3 years.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Leon Wivlow

The private rental sector is the most efficient housing-space allocation mechanism there is. Council flats are passed down through generations regardless of need, are frequently under-occupied, and are quite often sublet. Private houses are often grossly under-occupied, with 90-year-old biddies living alone in 5-bedroom houses that have rooms they can no longer reach. This simply never happens in the PRS because you’re charged for the space you occupy.
It should not be beyond the wit of man to work out a way to replicate this success in the other sectors. One way would be to charge council tax on excess square footage. If you figure that 1 person needs 300 square feet (or whatever), then a single person living in a 1500 square foot house would get 300 for free, but would pay council tax on the 1200 difference that they’re under-occupying. Old biddies in 3,500 square foot houses would pay for 3,200 square feet.
Or something. The fact is that everything the state has done has either targeted landlords essentially through envy, or has used taxpayer money to help housebuilders sell their horrid shoeboxes, or has penalised trading your house with enormous transaction fees as though it’s a vice to want to move. I can think of nothing that’s been done that’s actually been helpful (and no, waiving stamp duty for a few months isn’t helpful).

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I’m pretty sure something like that was tried wasn’t it, the bedroom tax??

Joan Wucher King
Joan Wucher King
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

“Old biddies” – aside from the ageist and sexism of this phrase, often have children and grandchildren who come to stay or indeed live with them, as one old biddie of my acquaintance who houses two grandchildren finding their feet in their first jobs. These individuals may be painters and need the space for their art. They may still be working, and need a WFH space. The world HAS moved on a bit, Jon.

Last edited 2 years ago by Joan Wucher King
Giles Toman
Giles Toman
1 year ago

This nasty talk about how old people deserve to be “taxed out” of their family homes is despicable.

Josh Cook
Josh Cook
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

“ This is a direct consequence of the demonisation of the small landlord.”

It’s almost as if they add nothing of value to society

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Josh Cook

What, apart from housing more people than would otherwise be housed?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

The only reason they need to be housed is because landlords have taken away a property they could potentially buy. It’s like me cutting the power to your house then selling you an overpriced generator

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Nonsense, and exactly wrong. First, presumably you agree we need a rental sector? Not everybody wants to own all the time, and they need to rent. Second, it’s people owning and under-occupying that creates the housing squeeze. There isn’t a shortage of housing because 15 people are in an HMO that would house a family of 5. It’s because so many people are over-housed.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

You’ll always a rental sector for people moving on short term contracts, students etc, but what we don’t need is investors preventing family’s from owning a home and condemning them to a lifetime of renting because they’ve bought up all the supply.
If you do want young families to spend their lives paying the multiple mortgages of people much more wealthy than themselves, then we need much stricter tenant protections and rent controls.

William MacDougall
William MacDougall
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Why not? There are lots of countries – Germany for instance – where half or more of the population rent. What’s needed is housing, whether rented or owned. And as Mr. Redman has explained, rented housing provides more accommodation for the given stock of buildings. Abolish renting and you’ll need even more building.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

“The trouble with the logic of this nimbyish article is that you can’t really talk about a housing crisis and then complain about landlords.”

This is complaining about ‘Slumlords’ destroying communities of family housing. You obviously know NOTHING of what a squalid tenement does to the street it is on – and to the neighbors. I have lived in bad neighborhoods and it suc ks. Dispersing the rough people into family communities is wrong. Creating coffin housing (Hong Kong micro apartments) is unsuitable for Western Countries.

Creating substandard housing out of good housing wile wrecking nice communities is wicked.

Giles Toman
Giles Toman
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

What should be done with these unwanted and unloved “rough people” then? Is there some sort of final solution, do you think? Seriously, though, they have to live somewhere!

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

This is a defensive and defeatist position which ignores all the specific issues of the article. Some landlords are good, but others are most certainly not. The problem with small private landlords is often that there is very little housing security, that is another issue.

These predators should be regulated and this would include decent space standards. If legal standards are being flouted, then a criminal offence could be introduced by which the directors could be imprisoned and their assets sequestrated. Such things are possible, but there is absolutely no political will to address the issue, especially from the Conservatives.

Your comments about population are way off the mark; it has almost no relevance at all. There is plenty of physical space in Britain to house everyone decently. Germany houses its larger population to much higher standards than does the UK.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago

This is what happens when housing stops being seen as shelter but as a commodity. Over 30 years of thinking every social problem has a market driven solution simply leads to inequality and exploitation. Countries need to go back to building council houses, so people locked out of owning a home aren’t at the mercy of parasitic landlords

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Housing’s not a commodity, it’s not sufficiently standardised to be one.
The UK’s housing problems arose because of four or five factors working together. These included the secular decline in interest rates, along with the poor performance of the UK stock market under Labour, which between 1997 and 2009 went basically sideways. This meant that traditional means of accumulating capital didn’t work. To the extent they did, the third factor, the government habit of raiding your pension, eroded whatever gains your portfolio might have made.
The decision to increase the UK population from 60 to 68 million people in 15 years from 2004 was the fourth factor. To put that in perspective, it took 47 years for the UK population to get from 52 million to 60 million, but less than a third as long to add the next 8 million. Those who pointed this out were dismissed as racists.
Taken together, these have caused assets to inflate – not just houses, but also stupid things like beach huts and classic cars – but especially houses because as rentals, they’re the only asset classes where you reliably get either capital growth or income and maybe even both.
The factor which made the biggest difference was obviously the unprecedented level of net immigration, without which there would never have been the demand for houses to begin with. Government measures such as ever-increasing stamp duty – apparently, making houses more expensive makes houses cheaper, or something – is the icing on top because it’s now so expensive to move that you just don’t. Houses used to trade every 7 years, now it’s every 22.
In a way, we should get down on our knees and thank BTL landlords. It’s often sneered that landlords don’t supply anything because the houses would be there anyway, but this isn’t true. Families under-occupy houses and constrain the supply while landlords over-occupy them for business reasons. If we didn’t have a private rental sector maximising occupancy of the existing stock, we’d have reached crunch point a lot sooner.
The only solution is mass house building but the logical place to do it – in urban liberal constituencies where they love all those Romanian cleaners – is pretty much impossible. That leaves rural Conservative constituencies, where the voters don’t really see why their surroundings should be blighted with massive immigrant gulags to solve a problem they didn’t cause and were quick to foresee.

Last edited 2 years ago by Jon Redman
Leon Wivlow
Leon Wivlow
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

So why do the Tories persist with this endless mass migration?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

It is a commodity, plain and simple. The simple fact of the matter is that in the last 25 years the number of people per dwelling in the UK has remained largely unchanged, current 2.39 whereas in 1995 it was 2.41, so housing stock has risen largely in line with population growth. However what has happened in that time is investors now own many more properties than they did previously, which means families are increasingly being denied a family home as they’re left to fight over an artificially constrained stock leading to higher prices.
In 25 years the price of a house has quadrupled, whereas wages have only risen around 50%. Landlords always claim they’re providing a service, however the service is only a need of their creation. It’s akin to me cutting off the water supply to your house, then telling you that you should be grateful that I’m selling you bottled water.
Housing is a basic human need, and the sooner it is recognised as such the better. Every penny given to parasitic landlords is one that could be spent on local businesses that actually provide jobs and economic growth.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

You are confused between a commodity – which is something like coffee or oil – and an asset class. If you do not understand what you are trying to discuss, you will inevitably fail to form a coherent view.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Ok it’s an asset class, however it’s also a basic human need. Outbidding working people who need a family home then charging them the earth to use the thing you’ve prevented them from having is disgusting and highly immoral in my eyes.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

So is food. When did owning a property, as opposed to shelter, become an entitlement? Where is your evidence that private landlords have prevented anyone buying?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

But there’s not a shortage of food is there, that’s the difference. When there was during the war, rules were put in place (rationing) to ensure wealthy people couldn’t buy buy up the supply and cause shortages and large scale price rises. Perhaps we should do the same with property

William MacDougall
William MacDougall
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

The government is limiting the supply of land for building, but not the amount of food produced. That’s why there’s a shortage of housing but not food.

JP Martin
JP Martin
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

In 25 years the price of a house has quadrupled, whereas wages have only risen around 50%.
But these two issues are deeply connected. The same force that is driving down wages is also driving up property prices. The obvious answer is uncontrolled population growth in the form of mostly unskilled labour.

Marcus Scott
Marcus Scott
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

It doesn’t matter who is building the homes, the problem is the cost of the land. If councils have to compete with private buyers to acquire land their budgets will not stretch far. To bring down the cost of housing in London either for councils or private buyers there needs to be a great more land made available or a great deal more height added.
Councils are about the last entities on the planet I would turn to for anything real estate related if competence be a requirement. Acting as wisely as government always does, they have been borrowing money from the Treasury under a scheme that is supposed to finance infrastructure and local housing development and using the money to buy all sorts of “income producing” crud such as well past their “use by date” office buildings and shopping malls. Shopping malls. Jesus wept. As one real estate broker said to a colleague, “councils are the gift that just keeps on giving.” Giving to him is what he means.
Pre-COVID-19 one counsellor I spoke to waxed lyrical about his real estate portfolio as I wondered aloud how it is that his bureaucrats see hidden value in ramshackle buildings that extremely well qualified, private, real estate investment companies would not touch with a bargepole. I asked him a question about his portfolio return so basic that if my 12 year old nephew failed to answer I would give the lad six of the best with an eight foot long rattan cane soaked overnight in horse urine. The councillor’s response? “Let me get back to you on that.”
“Cluck cluck”. That is the sound of the chickens coming home to roost as many of these council investments are now totally pwned.
Look at the fiasco at Nine Elms. Hundreds of luxury apartments are unwanted and for the I don’t know what number of times another developer looks like it will tip over.
The powers that be have no intention whatsoever to add meaningfully to the stock of ordinary housing in London.
Note: by “housing” I mean “fit for human habitation without the need for the inhabitant to be dosed daily with weed, alcohol and Xanax in order to not go completely insane” not “pods modelled on the one that held John Gotti in his Supermax prison” until he did go insane.
If sufficient stock was made available that house prices in London fell 25% that would smack the balance sheets of the lending banks and, probably, cause asset write downs sufficient to kick off a banking crisis.
Nevermind, I’m alright Jack. The property I am sitting in now has increased in value about 8x from the time I purchased it. What a fine game this is for those of us who who are on the housing ladder.
I must go, I have three Brazilian food delivery drivers from three different restaurants on their way with my lunch and the lazy foreigners are late, as usual. Chinese entree, French main course, British dessert. What a joy it is living a city so cosmopolitan that such things are possible.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Marcus Scott

Are you sure the lending bank would take a balance sheet hit if a property’s price fell? As I understand it, their balance sheet is unaffected, because they’re still owed the same amount of money. They take a hit if there’s a default and the security’s worth less than the loan, but not otherwise. They didn’t take any balance sheet hits in 1989 to 1996 AFAIK unless the mortgagee stopped paying.

Marcus Scott
Marcus Scott
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

That was poorly worded. There would not be a direct impact on the balance sheet but the the value of the bank’s collateral will fall and that will cause issues with the regulator and, all other things being equal, impact the share price. It would also whack the prices of any mortgage backed securities as their credit worthiness is diminished. Falling house prices were the catalyst for the 2008 crisis. If householders get into negative equity with no immediate prospect of a recovery a number of them would hand the keys over to the bank.

Karl Francis
Karl Francis
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Well said.

William MacDougall
William MacDougall
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

If councils let private developers build houses on the land where the councils would build then at least as much housing would be built. And at least with private landlords you have a choice of landlord….

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

I once had a great amount of dealings with what you call an HMO, but where I lived the legal name of these was SRO,Single room occupancy, and is basically what is also called a flop house or rooming house.

I bought it as the city was forcing it to close as it never had met full legal compliance, only could be sold for cash as it was legally and structurally all messed up, and with the neighborhood gentrifying it was reported till they acted. It was a complete wreck, structurally rot throughout (which was my specialty, but very expensive to hire done) and every other way, 17 bed rooms (usually a bigish room divided into two), 1 kitchen, 3 bathrooms, in a very big house cut up. It also was a money earner big time – but a 4 apartment was all which was allowed by code, 4 ‘apartments’ – 3 unrelated people per ‘apartment. So what the city did is say only 4 interior doors may have locks on them, and 12 people in the building . Unless it applied for, and got, and then made to code, a legal SRO.

This had resulted in two ‘attempted murders’ over stolen drugs before I bought it – because your door would not lock, and it was totally a druggy clientele, and would steal, and then get knifed by their victim. It was a rough place. I also bought a crack house another time, you get a price break if they are scary as it lowers the competition – they always come occupied….

Anyway – I looked into keeping it a SRO – and this was the minimum the code required: Fire sprinkler system in every room(very expensive). All connecting walls and ceilings be double 5/8 drywall (2 hour fire wall), new doors, additional bathrooms, I think a sink in the rooms, commercial flooring, window coverings, an egress window in every room, and more – but it was long ago, and about $40,000 per room was the cost if a contractor did it. I turned it into 4 proper apartments and sold it. It was a rough place – I never went in it after dark unless I needed to, till it was finally emptied.

https://www.apartmentlawinsider.com/blogs/adam-leitman-bailey/understanding-single-room-occupancy-laws

Anyway – a long story, but search the fire codes. Here is a list of NYC Codes – the city I was in were tougher – but SROs are a odd thing, and compliance to the rules is hard. https://newyork.public.law/laws/n.y._multiple_dwelling_law_section_248

I am sure what they are doing is not legal, if it is as informal as you describe. Call the fire inspector and have him check it – the ‘Egress’, the alarms, fire suppression – then in the Attic – that would have to be fire blocked…. But then I guess some of these developers may not be pleasant if you Pi**ed them off….

Marcus Scott
Marcus Scott
2 years ago

Population of Greater London today is around 9.5mn.
Compared with around 5.5mn in 1890 when the properties mentioned in the article were built.
We have far more single person occupancy today due to more divorces, single parent families and young people moving out of the family home before they are married.
Why is anyone surprised that we are producing prison cell sized “homes” that sell or rent at very high prices? The building I am in now in inner London was built fit for purpose in about 1870 when the purpose was a single, wealthy family living in it. It became six flats, probably in the 1950s, while the building next door which is the same height and width was converted into about 25 bedsits.
The area is very popular with visiting Instagrammers who pose and pout at the entrances to the mews lanes for the entertainment of their followers.
The properties either side of the street I am on should be bulldozed and modern buildings three times the current hight built as replacements. That needs to happen all over London excluding a few select areas where the buildings are of genuine historic value.
Either we preserve every old property in this city in order that visitors are enraptured by the streets looking as they did when Peter Pan was written or we grow up, get real and build a city that is financially and psychologically liveable for people on an average salary.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

Control immigration, duh.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Whilst I agree immigration should be massively reduced, I don’t believe it’s directly related to the housing crisis currently brewing. The number of people per dwelling is largely unchanged from 25 years ago which implies building has largely kept pace with the new arrivals. However in that time the average house price has risen from around 3x the average annual salary to 8x and home ownership rates are their lowest in generations, especially amongst the young.
Bigger problems are land banking by large building firms constricting supply, and investors snapping up family homes as investment properties

Last edited 2 years ago by Billy Bob
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

The number of people per dwelling is largely unchanged from 25 years ago

You’ve actually misunderstood the data you’re relying on. A household, definitionally, is this. The number of households has gone from 16.6 to 19.5 million in 25 years.
You can have a separate household on every floor of a four-storey house. Four households, one dwelling.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I’m guessing you must be a landlord, extorting money from hard working families with how much you’re currently defending the status quo.
Tell me, who benefits from the current setup? Youngsters are prevented from owning a home and having the security that brings. Families pay extortionate rents, leaving less money for businesses that create jobs and growth. The taxpayer has to pay billions to private landlords to keep people houses. Everybody loses, except the already wealthy

Last edited 2 years ago by Billy Bob
Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
2 years ago

I’m picturing This Happy Breed over-run by the victims of progressive policies and corrupt council shonks.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

Yes, they did and continue to do something very similar in the small New England town we recently moved away from; out-of-state developers working hand-in-glove with the local town council and chamber of commerce to re-zone (reclassify) neighborhoods from single-family to high-occupancy. They are building what they euphemistically call “workforce housing” (the residents of these places are primarily recipients of the welfare others must work to pay for). My suspicions were first raised when one of these places went up with 132 “units” but the parking lot provided less than half that number of spaces. None of this would be happening without the eager approval of local government.

Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago

One thing I don’t understand:

“… or they flip houses (four to five times in one day)”

How can houses be flipped ie sold on from one company to another without paying stamp duty multiple times over? If that is somehow being evaded, surely HMRC would like to know about it.

On the more general point, I lived in a single front room converted to a bedroom with a shared kitchen in Plumstead almost thirty years ago. Renting single rooms with shared facilities is as old as houses.

Last edited 2 years ago by Dan Gleeballs
JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Gleeballs

Because they are within the same group of companies generally

Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

Still, if it looks like tax evasion and quacks like tax evasion. I wouldn’t bother calling a local council about a party wall infringement. HMRC have more powers.

Dustin Needle
Dustin Needle
2 years ago

“They will come, so we build them”

JP Martin
JP Martin
2 years ago
Reply to  Dustin Needle

Deleted previous comment because I misunderstood you. Oops.

Last edited 2 years ago by JP Martin
James Joyce
James Joyce
2 years ago

HMOs have a place, though I am appalled at the secrecy and the inability to trace ownership. How does this happen?
As one who strongly believes that “simplicity is the mark of the master,” this is horrifying. This should be fixed, and then those responsible can be held accountable.
But accountable for what? For providing more housing, what the public needs? When HMOs (SROs, in the US, Single Room Occupancy) all but disappeared, many former occupants became homeless and lived on the streets. Housing first?
Some, not all of this, is due to the lack of housing in places like NYC. There are only so many flats, many are protected in an insane scheme to keep the housing supply artificially low (“rent control,” “rent stabilization”), and the only new flats that are built are for the ultra-wealthy, who perhaps spend a few nights per year in their money-laundering investments.
Well done, government regulation. All well-intentioned, of course.

Alison Tyler
Alison Tyler
2 years ago

It is horrific and no one will take responsibility for improving it.

David McKee
David McKee
2 years ago

This is a good campaigning piece of journalism, which is rather wasted on those Unherd readers who prefer to talk about immigration.
It is not the problem that scandalises me. It’s the limp reaction from the councillors and council officials that is scandalous. As for Ms. Daby… she has been an MP for three years now, she really should be able to do better than that. If what Ms. Mulvey says is true, then these HMOs are not just the slums of the future, they are today’s slums.
I have a practical suggestion. Ms. Mulvey needs to do Ms. Daby’s job for her, and invite the chairman of the HoC Housing Committee, Clive Betts, and the senior Conservative on the Committee, Bob Blackman, to come and see for themselves. If it’s clear Ms. Mulvey is speaking for a substantial number of people on the Corbett Estate, then these MPs will probably come.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

I thought housing and planning applications were down to the local council not central government? If the Labour council/MP etc cared about this surely they would use their own powers to curtail it? They don’t have to give planning permission do they? Also, as others have pointed out, if there is a housing crisis then surely this is the inevitable result? I bet the writer of this piece is all for mass immigration and taking in refugees – but where do you put them?

Frederick B
Frederick B
2 years ago

“Lewisham has been Labour for as long as anyone can remember.” Short memories then, in Lewisham. The two Lewisham constituencies were Tory plums once- upon- a -time, and John Maples ( a minister in one of Mrs. Thatcher’s governments) still occupied one of them into the 1980s.