Substandard Housing: Who Lives in the Dodgy Conversions?

Another week, another story on ridiculous cases involving badly substandard housing in London. The Guardian reports that:

Barnet council has taken the landlord of a house in Sunningfields Road, Hendon, to court after discovering he was renting out a room that could not be accessed standing up. The head height along the course of the staircase was between 0.7m (2ft 3in) and 1.2m (3ft 11in) and the door to the room was also reduced in size.

Clearly, then, a room that nobody should reasonably be expected to occupy; indeed, would be hazardous to occupy in the event of a fire. The article also links to a listing for a property on the same road, explaining that:

A studio advertised for £175 a week or £760 a month on the property website Zoopla includes a single bed suspended from the ceiling by metal chains and perched on two wardrobes.

A picture shows the entrance to the former, and it illustrates well what’s going on.

The house clearly wasn’t built like that. My best guess is that an the room occupies all or part of a space that was once a room accessed from the upper floor, via the staircase that lies above that sloped ceiling. A lower staircase was added so that the room could be independently accessed from the lower floor, splitting it from the unit above.

Like all of the ridiculous examples the media reports, it’s just the tip of the iceberg of a large amount of substandard housing in London that reflects what exploitative landlords do when faced with a captive market whose size exceeds the supply of decent housing.

Both rooms reported in the Guardian article appear to exemplify a particular trend of dodgy conversions, whereby houses and flats designed to house families, that could equally comfortably house a family or a group of sharers, are converted into substandard self-contained units, commanding the premium of rent and fees that tends to apply to fully or partially self-contained dwellings let out to individual tenants.

Self-contained studios and one-bed flats don’t have to be substandard. London has a number of old Victorian houses where the very large rooms are converted into studios large enough that a proper kitchen can be provided with some feeling of separation from the kitchen area. If you have the money and really want to live alone, they’re not the worst option. But certainly, the rents are high, reflecting the large floorspace as well as that premium for self-contained units, and only as many can exist as suitable houses or good new build blocks of flats.

Many commenters on the article point out that one could happily share a house for better conditions and cheaper rents. This is very true – indeed, one would be living in the same sort of house, without this sort of dodgy conversion having taken place. Clearly, though, there is a market of people who will live in a shitty individual unit in the same sort of house rather than sharing.

It’s hard to know who exactly is doing that, but one can put forward some reasonable conjecture. A commenter on the article gets part of the probable answer:

The proximity to Middlesex uni means that many houses along these roads are being converted into ever smaller flats. Unfortunately most of the people that rent them are Asian students who don’t know their rights and the landlords know this.

Aside from being willing to live with others, to rent a room in a shared house requires one of two things:

  • To have a strong social network – wherein there will be someone that can offer a room in an existing house or team up in finding a new house.
  • To be someone that strangers will consider a reasonable housemate.

To establish a tenancy on a new shared house, one must also normally be able to demonstrate formal employment, citizenship or stable legal residency, and be judged by a landlord to be of good character.

People that tick neither box will do so for a number of partially overlapping reasons, which can include being:

  • A recent migrant
  • Someone that does not speak English well
  • Someone with mental or physical disabilities others perceive as requiring support
  • Someone that struggles to form social connections with others
  • Someone that is vulnerable to prejudice

I strongly suspect that it is groups such as those that most often find themselves vulnerable to bad landlords and living in substandard accommodation, often in dodgy conversions of the kind the Grauniad illustrates.

How do we fix this? I’m not entirely sure. Ideally, we’d see the building of new social housing; enough to include those that don’t meet the present criteria that insist upon a link to the area and prolonged homelessness. We’d also see much better regulation of landlords. But independent of government and policy changes that may take a long time, what’s also important is these kinds of vulnerable people becoming less vulnerable – the formation of support networks that aid them in dealing with rented accommodation, establishing shared houses, understanding their rights and lobbying for improvements.

This has all been very vague, I know. There are as many questions as answers, but certainly understanding how people become particularly vulnerable to bad landlords is crucial to solving the problem.



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