One of my priorities this year as the council's lead on housing and neighbourhoods has been to look at how we can improve the private rented sector in Reading. While obviously most private rentals work well and are managed by responsible landlords there are a minority of landlords who don't take their responsibilities seriously. I have personally seen people paying rent for properties I literally wouldn't keep an animal in . Similarly most empty homes are only empty on a temporary basis but a few become blights on their neighbourhoods. In an area of high demand like Reading that's a real waste.
I've been clear that we will look at every power the council can use to improve the use of housing for our residents in Reading. At the cabinet meeting next week I hope to get approval for two new powers that will enable the council to force poorly managed properties or empty homes to be taken over be a housing management company appointed by the council who will run the properties and use the rentals to fund improvements.
My hope that this is a power that we won't be using in most situations, I'd far rather it was there as a deterrent. However I am told we can expect that a management order will be issued for handful of properties each year.
This is exactly the sort of action that a Labour council can take: while our funding is being slashed we can still find creative and new ways to improve the quality of life in Reading.
Council press release:
"Rogue landlords who leave tenants to live in unacceptable or dangerous conditions could have the management of their properties taken over by the Council as part of a move to drive up standards.
Under the new plans, the poorly-managed properties could have a management order placed against them by Reading Borough Council. They would then be taken over by a housing management company which would be charged with running the properties.
The move is aimed at driving up standards for tenants who have had to put up with sub-standard living conditions as a result of landlords not managing or maintaining properties properly.
Decent and well-regulated housing in multiple occupancy is crucial in a town like Reading where there are estimated to be around 3,500 properties providing bed-sit or shared accommodation for approximately 18,000 residents.
More than one in four (26%) of the whole of the borough's housing stock is made up of private rented sector housing, which is substantially higher than the national average of 12%. In fact, it is estimated Reading is home to three-quarters of Houses of Multiple Occupation or HMO's in the whole of Berkshire.
The introduction of management orders for Reading could also be used by the Council to deal with properties which are left empty for a long period of time and can very quickly become eyesores for local neighbourhoods and, in some instances, the focus of anti-social behaviour.
Although Reading does not have a high number of empty homes compared with some places and the council regularly works with owners of empty homes to bring them back into use, this extra power can be used when other methods have failed.
The move to introduce what are known as Interim Management Orders (IMOs) for sub-standard properties or Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMOs), for properties that have been empty for 6 months or more, is the latest initiative by Reading Borough Council to help manage and drive up standards in the private rented sector.
Rachel Eden, Reading's Lead Councillor for Housing and Neighbourhoods, said: "While most landlords are responsible, a minority do not abide by their responsibility to maintain their property to ensure that their tenants do not have to live in sub-standard, or even in some circumstances, dangerous conditions.
'In a town like Reading, where the private rented sector makes up such a large proportion of homes, the council needs to use all available planning, environmental and housing powers open to us as we believe everyone should have a decent home. This proposal is part of that and I believe it will be effective in some cases where other strategies have not worked.
'Similarly, where people own a property they have a responsibility to the local community that property is kept in a good state of repair, and if it is empty it is a waste of a house that could be a home.'
A combination of student accommodation and other individuals sharing properties make certain parts of Reading a hotspot for HMOs. The HMO team have issued over 750 licences since 2006, but they can bring with them issues such as pressures on parking spaces, bin storage, and increased noise levels, as well as sub-standard property conditions where landlords neglect their duty.
Whilst the majority of landlords keep properties in a good state of repair, there unfortunately remains a minority of landlords that may not be deemed to be 'fit and proper,' or lack the skills or knowledge to manage their properties professionally. A proportion of HMOs within the borough do not meet the legal standards set out in the Housing Act 2004 and the Management of Houses in Multiple Occupation (England) Regulations 2006.
Whilst the Council's Houses in Multiple Occupation team have some sanctions open to them, such as prosecution, refusal to issue a licence, and financial penalties for example, they are not always an effective deterrent.
Interim Management Orders (IMOs) authorise the Council to manage the property in place of the landlord, but not take on its ownership.
The Council would have to apply to the Residential Property Tribunal (RPT) to place an Empty Dwelling Management Order (EDMOs) where properties have been empty for more than 6 months. The Council must demonstrate that reasonable efforts to notify the owner have been made and that it has established what steps the owner was taking to fill the property, and that if the order is made that there is a reasonable prospect of the property being occupied.
An Interim Management Order is for up to 12 months. After this time a Final Management Order can be issued for a further 5 years. Rent will be used to pay for repairs and maintenance of the property and the Housing Solutions Management Fee and any surplus will be given back to the landlord.
A report will go to a meeting of Reading Borough Council's Cabinet on 13th February 2012 which will ask Cabinet to endorse that Housing Solutions Group be awarded the contract for 2 years, with the option to extend by a further year commencing 1st April 2012 for the tenancy and property management of Houses in Multiple Occupation and Empty Dwellings that have been subject to Management Orders issued by the Council under the Housing Act 2004.