Day of Action on Empty Homes
The number of empty homes and homes without full-time residents is rising in England. Government and market data show that there are
- 270000 empty homes
- 250,000 second homes, with no permanent resident
- 120,00 short lets about 80,000 of which are in London
At the same time, 100,000 families are living in temporary accommodation, which is often overcrowded and in very poor condition. The pandemic has amplified the entirely negative health impacts of these sub-standard living conditions; this is still a health emergency.
The new high-rise blocks springing up in London and other major cities are overwhelmingly privately-owned and most contain empty or under-utilised apartments. Too many are registered as second homes or as short lets used as income streams for corporate investors, sucking urgently-needed housing out of the system. Housing development has for too long been driven by frantic, surplus wealth investment activity. At Renters’ Rights London, we agree, wholeheartedly, with Action on Empty Homes and Homes for All; it’s time to challenge this investment model.
Building so much of the wrong kind of housing, housing which does not meet Londoners’ needs, has created a crisis of affordability. At the same time, council homes, which provide decent, affordable and secure housing for those of us with modest incomes, are slated for sell-off or demolition, to make space for developments that are building the wrong kind of housing, unaffordable to essential workers.
You probably know all this already. To give focus to our shared concerns, Action on Empty Homes and Homes for All have called a day of action, on Saturday 17 April. For more details and how you can lend your support, visit Action on Empty Homes website and Homes for All
Risk and Responsibility
When she received a letter from the management company, telling her to remove all flammable items from her balcony, Edita was not concerned. But when she realized that fire wardens were patrolling hourly, she began to worry.
Afraid that the building she lives in is clad in flammable material, Edita contacted Renters’ Rights London to ask what rights she has, under the circumstances. There is a selective licensing scheme in place in her neighbourhood so all privately rented homes must be licensed, regardless of size or number of occupants. But unfortunately, the licensing scheme only takes factors within the flat into account.
When Renters’ Rights London asked, residential environmental health officers would confirm only what we already knew; ‘Waking Watch’ operates on this site. As the government website explains
“Waking Watch is a system whereby suitably trained persons continually patrol all floors and the exterior perimeter of the building. The aim of a waking watch is to ensure there is sufficient warning in the event of fire to support the evacuation strategy. Waking Watch is a principle which had been used before for the temporary management of fire risk in buildings prior to the Grenfell Tower fire. However, we are aware that the use of interim measures and Waking Watch has become more prevalent to mitigate risk in high rise blocks following the tragedy.”
Edita no longer feels safe and plans to move on at the end of her contract. To avoid any similar situation in future, she asked whether she is entitled to a copy of the EWS1 certificate, in the same way as a tenant is entitled to a Gas Safety Certificate. But the answer is no. EWS1 is not a fire safety certificate, anyway. It’s an assessment of the combustibility of the outside of a building taller than 18 metres, required by mortgage lenders.
As is too often the case, a private renter seems to have fewer rights than the owner of her home, who lives somewhere else entirely. Neither the landlord, a leaseholder, nor their agent felt any obligation to tell Edita that the building is housed in flammable cladding. But according to the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018, the landlord must ensure that the property is safe, healthy and free from things that could cause anyone in your household serious harm. Where the landlord is a leaseholder (i.e. does not own the whole building), doesn’t that responsibility extend to the exterior walls? We’ve been unable to find any satisfactory answer, if any definitive answer exists.
This should not be a matter of personal responsibility but for now, we must treat it as if it were. When viewing, it’s always worth asking the landlord or agent about cladding on the exterior of the building. Also, bear in mind that balconies (especially wooden balconies) can present a fire risk, where residents are careless. You should never barbecue on a balcony, nor store flammable items there and you should encourage your neighbours to be equally diligent.
The upper floors of tall buildings offer spectacular views of the cityscape but perhaps the best way to feel safe from fire at home is to avoid renting any flat above 18 metres (the seventh floor). And actually, the building where Edita lives is low-rise, with Waking Watch in effect. The circumstances are not ideal but at least the risk has been identified and a strategy is in place to minimize possible harm. It could be a lot worse.
Who controls the present…
Any landlord or agent routinely rejecting all prospective tenants who receive state benefits is likely to be acting unlawfully. It’s still really hard for claimants to find a place to rent, though. Cost is a big issue but referencing checks can also be problematic.
“In many cases, huge databases and computer algorithms, often run by private companies, are being used to predict who will pay their rent and to risk score almost anyone who receives benefits in Britain” Big Brother Watch told us.
“At Big Brother Watch, we are investigating the growth of these forms of digital surveillance by central and local government.” But they really need your help to find out more.
If you request YOUR data from YOUR council, Big Brother Watch can see how algorithms are being used in your area. In return, Big Brother Watch will help you to understand exactly what data is being gathered on you and why.
The struggle for algorithmic justice is ever-more urgent. This is really important work. Do please join in and contribute, if you possibly can?
Anything you share with Big Brother Watch will be in complete confidence. You can find out more at www.welfaredatawatch.co.uk or drop us a line and we’ll put you in touch with the Welfare Watch team