Landlords fight council’s HMO space guidelines

Landlords in Leeds are pushing back against maximum space guidelines being implemented by the local council, which are causing stress for those operating in the city.

The Leeds City Council’s Crowding and Space Guidance document has been published online, which contains a number of specific recommendations about room dimensions.

For example double or twin bedrooms need a floor area of at least 11.5m², while the minimum floor to ceiling height needs to be 2.3m for at least 75% of the gross internal area.

There is also a supplementary document that’s in consultation, ‘Houses in Multiple Occupation, Purpose-Built Student Accommodation and Co-Living Amenity Standards Supplementary Planning Document’.

This contains other specific instructions, like ‘Shared kitchens should be no more than 1 floor away from bedrooms’. It applies to HMOs that are new or that have just been extended, rather than previously lawful HMOs in the region.

Landlords say complying with this ‘guidance’ when applying for a five-year HMO licence has been tough, while some individual officers are said to have upheld rules while they are being consulted on.

Squeezing landlords
Andrew Parascandolo

Andrew Parascandolo, chair of the Leeds Property Association, said: “The local authority is squeezing landlords once again.

“With these space standards they are attempting to fix a problem that currently doesn’t exist, as they already have HMO legislation to control what landlords do.

“It’s more local authority and social housing that has an overcrowding problem.

“The LPA have put forward some sensible amendments to the space standards consultation and the local authority have decided they are going to go through consultation again.”

Parascandolo sent a letter to the council in May, detailing many of the issues and seeking reassurance that the nature of historic housing stock already in the city is being taken into account.

He urged the council to analyse the level of space in homes as a whole, rather than getting hung up on the specific dimensions of rooms.

For example an older house may have three smaller bathrooms which collectively have the square metreage of two large bathrooms.

Parascandolo added: “Individual officers are seeking to enforce this legislation despite it still being in consultation.

“They’re saying ‘we’ve got new space standards requirements and you’re not going to be given a licence unless you comply’, which they can’t do.”

He raised concerns that Leeds could lose a lot of housing stock to these rules unless the council relaxes its approach.

Older housing stock
Steve Rowley

One such landlord who owns older housing stock is Steve Rowley.

He is a landlord operating around 20 HMOs in the Hyde Park area of Leeds, as well as being a director at the Leeds Property Association.

Rowley is particularly concerned by the 2.3 metres ceiling height ‘guidance’, as he said the older homes in Hyde Park all have basements which complied with the previous stipulation of 2.1 metres.

This means that landlords could be faced with the challenge of digging down in their basements or being unable to let them out, devaluing the homes.

Seeing as the pandemic has forced more people to stay inside in the past year, living in cramped accommodation has come under the microscope – the council’s new rules about room dimensions may be related to concerns about tenants’ mental health when living in small quarters.

But Rowley said: “You talk about mental health issues – the introduction of this document is causing landlords mental health issues.

“For the last 15-20 years the council has worked really well with landlords. Leeds council has a good reputation in working positively with landlords. But overnight they seem to have changed.

“The small landlords using a property as a pension must be losing sleep, thinking they could lose 20% of the value of their property overnight [if they can’t let out their basement].”

Rowley is frustrated by discussions on space, as he argued that students should have the freedom to rent somewhere small and cheap.

He added: “In the student market, tenants have a right to live in whatever house they want to live in – they may look at 10-15 houses before making a decision.

“It’s their choice. A smaller bedroom might have cheaper rent and some like to save money.”

Response from the council

David Thorpe, deputy service manager, private sector housing, at Leeds City Council, responded to many of the points raised.

He noted that old space standards were withdrawn in 2017.

When developing the new guidance, various sources were used, including architects, the national housing sector and planners – so the council used expert feedback rather than developing the standards from nowhere.

Thorpe said: “We’ve been operating to guidance that’s been in the sector a long time – what we’ve done is nothing new.

“What we have done is put existing guidance onto a webpage, it’s a common-sense approach.”

On the issue of whether this ‘guidance’ constitutes strict rules – Thorpe noted that standards are being put to the test when there’s a property tribunal.

If the council fails to grant an HMO licence and the landlord appeals to a tribunal, in which case it’s determined whether the guidance can be properly upheld – according to Thorpe the council has generally been told it’s in the right in such cases.

However the councillor emphasised that these rules are ‘guidance’, and the council should analyse HMO properties on a case-by-case basis when landlords apply for a licence.

He implied that if there’s a case where one bathroom is smaller than the recommended size but another one is larger, it generally makes sense to grant the HMO a licence, seemingly mirroring Parascandolo’s recommendation.

Thorpe added: “We’ve got to look at the whole house – not one issue.
“However people still need something to aim for.”

A call for perspective

He called for perspective from landlords worried about these rules – emphasising that some seriously illicit practices have been weeded out thanks to the council’s actions.

Thorpe said: “The majority of HMO licences we issue are in a responsible market that responds to market demand. It’s hard for landlords to see they’re not the only people in this market.

“At the other end of the spectrum we have drugs and trafficking; we have landlords carving up properties into 10 flats.

“We have taken action – we’ve served something like 250 prohibition orders.

“It’s in the socially deprived areas where landlords can take advantage.

“There’s been a large amount of gross overdevelopment, so we’re working to make sure things are stopped.

“Landlords need perspective in terms of what we deal with.”

Active councils = active landlord associations

Looking at councils nationally, it seems there’s a lack of consistency regarding how rules are implemented.

Martin Silman, chairman of Portsmouth and District Private Landlords Association, said he’s experienced difficulties with dealing with the council in Portsmouth for years.

He argued that landlord associations tend to be far stronger in areas where councils are more hands on – he named Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds and Weston-Super-Mare as some examples.

He went on to say that landlords in Southampton and Brighton have less of a need to unite as part of an association because dealing with the respective councils is easier.

Silman said: “I can think of a number of members that just sold up in Portsmouth because the pain is too much – and the return is getting worse.

“It’s been like this for 20 years.

“You do find that where a council is quite heavy handed you get an active landlords association.”

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