So It’s Come to This: A Post About HMOs

This is a piece about Houses of Multiple Occupation or HMOs. You don’t have to read it. In fact I recommend that you do not read it. You will find it very boring. It’s a housing policy thing. It is prompted by this piece in the MEN. It is one of the few topics covered here on which I can put my hand on heart and say I know what I’m talking about.

Essentially, the new government has decided that landlords renting shared houses will not have to apply for planning permission before renting a place as an HMO. But Manchester City Council wants to opt out of this so that HMO developers in Manchester will still have to apply for planning permission. I don’t have a problem with the opt out, we should be doing more to scrutinise developers and landlords. I just want to look at some assumptions made in that piece and others.

1) The idea that having areas with large concentrations of students is necessarily a bad thing

There’s always been a tension between town and gown. We criticise students for their naivety and pretension. We envy their youth and leisure. In terms of their impact on the area, I don’t think we have much cause to complain. Students contribute something like £2.5m a year to Greater Manchester. Many of them like the city so much that they stay on. The atmosphere is better for their presence. It is a redistribution of wealth from the shires to the working-class North.

Fallowfield councillor David Royle says that ‘The multi occupancies cause major concerns and problems for long-term residents such as anti-social behaviour.’ Now most of my serious jobs have involved housing policy and housing complaints in some way. Of the ASB cases I’ve known, many of the perpetrators were people with a strong local connection to the area.

Another councillor wants to make sure that ‘communities retain the identity of their neighbourhoods’ – but what is that identity? I know areas where you can launch upon yourself a campaign of ceaseless harassment and intimidation for telling someone’s kid to stop throwing his ball at your window, where the sound of gunfire is a shock but not unknown, where you can still be hounded out of your property for having too much melanin in your skin. These are areas where the introduction of a street of pill-happy film students would count as gentrification. These areas are like this because we think it is a progressive idea to pay families to live in the same area for generation upon generation and world without end.

2) That HMOs are always occupied by students

The Daily Telegraph estimates that the UK average salary is £23,244. Personally, I don’t know many people in the city boundaries who earn that or above. Most people I seem to meet are way below and struggling. The fallacy of the law of averages kicks in here: as the old fisk goes, ‘When Bill Gates walks into a bar, the average net worth of the patrons rises by a few billion dollars, but that doesn’t mean that the typical patron of the bar has got a billion dollars.’

The fact is that many working professionals live in HMOs, and not just young professionals. If you’re in a couple you may just about be able to get a flat, but for the single person there really is no other alternative. You don’t go back to your parents’ house (even though many people in their twenties and thirties are doing just that) because the principles of independence and self-sufficiency have been hammered into you by your culture and peers and you want to live up to them. So you get off the train, find a room, pay £250 and you’re there.

It is a precarious and peripatetic existence as the working men and women of our generation try to keep one step ahead of the overdraft and student loans. If you have a contract job you hold on to it with both hands. If not you bounce from bar to call centre, chasing opportunities and creative dreams, never knowing where the next rent cheque’s coming from. You raise your head to people in the street and go in and out of each other’s houses for spare food and tools and conversation. Sometimes you go out and get drunk in South Manchester bars and sometimes you and your housemates have parties at the weekend or drop in on other parties and sit out in the back garden at a table of bottles and ashtrays until the morning can no longer be denied with any degree of honesty.

And what’s the alternative? Take out a mortgage at several times your salary, spend twenty years paying it off and then the market crashes and you can’t sell the fucking house anyway? No, the illusion of home ownership, of the house as investment and guardian, lost its solidity long ago. The English dream of the house and family and garden crashed with the crash. Council or HA housing is out because the National Government is reducing it to a ragged safety net for the desperate and dispossessed rather than a valid alternative housing choice. Don’t count on a public sector landlord to fix your water heater or protect you from the ‘vulnerable adult’ next door.

The idea that large concentrations of HMOs create a reduced sense of community and friendliness is a reactionary delusion. And at a time where we don’t have enough houses, and are likely to have less, trying to hang on to some ideal of family housing and local community is absurd and gives nothing to the reality of how much people earn and how people live.

Update: Interesting take on this from Deborah Orr:

With first-time buyers now approaching middle age, and high density homes having proved least satisfactory at housing families, it seems that high-density flats ought to be developed with the young in mind. The young, after all, are most likely to move to the city in search of study, work and experience, and most likely to be willing to share with others.

It is quite normal for people to wish to move further out of town when they start families, lured by green space and less strained services. At present, thanks to the points system, these are the people most likely to be offered council homes in inner city areas less suitable to family life.

Rent-controlled shared flats must be built, stimulating the economy, and made available to the young. Such accommodation will pay for itself, not in the short-term, like the ‘luxury flats’ built privately for sale, but in the long-term, perhaps supported by mutualised bonds that guarantee interest after a reasonable elapse of time. Surely this is not beyond the bounds of our financial and social ingenuity?

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