In a unique event in Brent, around 100 people gathered in Willesden yesterday to negotiate the demands of Brent Private Renters for action by Brent Council against landlords who failed to remedy damp and mould in their properties. The meeting was a mixture of a detailed questioning akin to a Scrutiny Meeting, and a US style Town Hall meeting with passionate testimonies by renters about their treatment at the hands of their landlords and Brent Council officers.
One contributor said that this was an attempt to hold the council to account and to their credit Muhammed Butt, Leader of the Council and Cllr Promise Knight, Lead member for Housing, took on the challenge. It is a strategy that other campaigns may do well to sdopt.
The councillors and representatives from Brent Renters sat around a large table on the stage and the lively audience witnessed the proceedings from the floor. The recording below gives you a taste - it is dark because slides were projected to show the evidence that had been gathered.
Images of damp and mould projected on the wall
It was clear that Brent Renters had managed to organise a very broad cross-section of the community and I was struck by the passion and eloquence of the several Somali women who spoke, sometimes in Somali, with controlled righteous anger about their experiences.
Brent Renters had set out the basic facts and their demands:
Most of the Private Rented housing stock in Brent is old and very badly maintained. 65.7% is preWWII (relating to more than 100,000 residents), much of that 19th century. Landlords have no incentive to do repairs when the power to evict is so great, the demand is so high, and the punishment is so lacking.
The council estimates that 10,108 family homes have a serious health hazard in them, In the areas with the most dangerous housing (those that a selective licensing scheme has just been agreed within - Willesden Green, Dollis Hill, and Harlesden and Kensal Green) the council aims to deal with at most 10% of the most serious hazards this year.
In the vast majority of the borough (everywhere outside Wembley Park) 1 in every 5 private rented homes contains a serious danger to the health and safety of tenants, more than double the London average (9%).
In the worst wards, there are an estimated 2374 properties with at least one Category 1 hazard. The council’s plans for this year involve dealing with 250 hazards of any severity- many properties have multiple hazards, and many hazards are category 2, so in fact the council is likely to make far less than 10% of these properties free from serious risk this year.
It’s outrageous that many of us are paying £2000 a month in rent to get asthma and mould poisoning - our housing shouldn’t make us sick.
We are all paying the price for dangerous housing. Because landlords aren’t reinvesting rental income into maintaining their properties, taxpayers are footing the NHS bill for the health problems they are causing. We can’t go through another winter like the last - our children deserve better.
Poor housing cost the NHS £340 million last year. The average cost of dealing with damp in a property is £3590 (BRE report). The total annual cost to the NHS is over £38 million, which would be paid back within 7 years were damp to be remediated. The total annual cost to society of damp is £96 million, which would be paid back within 2.8 years.
Brent Council must:
○ Agree a timeline with the London Renters Union for dealing with the 10,000 unsafe private rented homes in Brent, and recruit the staff to do it.
○ Ensure that Environmental Health cases can never be closed before sending a report on what has been done to the tenant and confirming it with them.
○ Make interpretation available for the PRS enforcement team, especially in, Arabic, Somali, Portuguese, Romanian, Urdu and Hindi.
○ Inspect ALL properties where a landlord has applied for a licence within 1 year, instead of 50% over 5 years.
○ Issue Improvement Notices that protect us from eviction while dealing with disrepair, and fine the landlords that refuse to fix up.
The renters wanted faster action on the Category 1 homes that include a danger to life and pointed out that many homes have multiple hazards at Category 2. Renters spoke out about their own illnesses and those of their children as a result of damp and mould and the sometimes unhelpful assessments that has been made. One example was a claim by officers that the condition of one property was due to 'condensation' when they had been sent video of a leak.
Responding Cllr Butt referred to government cuts in council funding and £18m savingsthe council had to make. Cllr Knight said that the council were going to increase the number of enforcement officers by double the existing number (12 instead of 4) which would enable more inspections to be made. Cllr Butt said that rather than instantly fine landlords they had to give them the chance to remedy defects.
Renters said that upping the number of fines would raise funds that the council could reinvest in enforcement, creating an income stream enabling employment of more enforcement officers. At present monies raised were not reinvested in the service. They also suggested an extension of landlord licensing across the borough and a higher licensing charge in line with other boroughs (£640 vs £750). Muhammed Butt said the 2024-25 budget was in the first stages of drafting and without promising anything he would look at the possibiltiies.
It was clear from the contributions that intimidation from landlords and threat of eviction if they complained was a real problem. If evicted, homeless families then had to deal with housing officers who had a huge workload. The council was urged, 'Put more people out there so officers are not so over-stretched that they treat people badly.'
At present the licensing system covers only three wards: Harlesden and Kensal Green, Willesden Green and Dollis Hill. Renters wanted to see the number increased but Prmise Knight said that this would have to be agreed by the Secretary of State. She urged that residents provide evidence to the council to help them make their case.
800 people have signed the Brent Renters petition and this shows the strength of feeling. One renter summed up, 'People have complained and feel like Brent Council doesn't listen to them. Perhaps, here today, maybe they are listening.'