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Housing Rights provides evidence on HMO bill

Last Thursday Housing Rights provided evidence to the Social Development Committee on the Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMO) Bill currently making its way through the Assembly. You can watch the Committee meeting which includes evidence on the HMO bill from Housing Rights, NICEM and a number of residents groups on the Committee's YouTube channel. 

Although the bill has not yet passed its second stage, committee members have begun to hear evidence from a number of groups on the proposals contained within the bill.

This will be the first piece of legislation specifically designed to deal with houses in multiple occupation.  It contains a new definition, which will apply to houses in multiple occupation, introduces a licensing scheme for HMOs, a fit and proper person tests for landlords of these properties and a fixed penalty system for dealing with offences under the bill.  

We are pleased that the Assembly is considering legislation in this area but asked the committee for clarity in a number of areas.

Definition of house in multiple occupation

The Bill proposes to significantly widen the properties, which are exempt from the definition of HMOs.  The new exemptions will include properties controlled by public authorities and by housing associations.  The rationale behind excluding properties under certain ownership is based on the assurance that adequate protection already exists for these occupants.  

We have asked the committee to seek clarification from the Department on how existing regulatory protection and inspection regimes will ensure that minimum suitability standards for properties are maintained and that the health and safety of occupants is safeguarded.  We have also sought clarity on the intention in relation to homeless hostels as the buildings which provide this service are often owned and managed by housing associations.

Decision making and enforcement

The bill envisions that responsibility for HMO licensing will transfer to councils from the Housing Executive. The proposed application process will require the licence to be issued by the council within which the HMO is situated.  At implementation stage 11 different councils will be considering applications and issuing licences.  We believe that it is essential that decision making in relation to these matters is consistent and the Committee should therefore seek to ensure essential statutory guidance is provided to the councils on the exercise of their functions under this legislation

Housing Rights is supportive of the concept of fixed penalty notices as a means of dealing with non-compliance.  We would recommend that the Committee seek clarity from the Department on whether or not persistent offenders who pay fixed penalty notices and avoid conviction will be at risk of losing their licences.

Suitability of accommodation

During our evidence session we raised concerns that the minimum standards for property referred to in the bill appear to relate to the current fitness standard.  It is likely that this standard will be revised in light of the imminent review of the private rented sector and we have asked the Committee to seek assurances that the bill will be written in such a way as to ensure that any revised minimum fitness standard will also apply to HMOs.

We also questioned the rationale for increasing the overcrowding age threshold from 12 years of age to 13.  We suggested that consideration be given to harmonising the age for overcrowding with that which currently applies in other jurisdictions and with that used in social security legislation for determining bedroom allowance for housing benefit.

Codes of practice

The bill allows the department to issue a code of practice for landlords and agents and a code of guidance for councils to assist the implementation of the bill.  However, we believe that the bill should be amended to require these codes so that any guidance documents have a statutory basis.

Consider unintended consequences

Finally, we raised concerns about the unintended consequences to tenants of some of the provisions of the bill.  In the explanatory memorandum it is suggested that a landlord could comply with certain notices by terminating a tenancy.  We have asked the committee to consider what assistance will be available to tenants who are left homeless as a result of this bill and to consider how any requirements on a landlord to reduce occupancy can be balanced against the tenant’s right to due process of law and protection from illegal eviction.

Further evidence

The committee continues to receive evidence from stakeholders on this bill.  You can track the progress of the bill on the NI Assembly website.

Review of the private rented sector

We will be holding a Housing Practitioner’s Forum on 30 November to discuss in detail the imminent review of the Private Rented Sector.  Members of Housing Rights can attend this event free of charge, but places are limited.  To register your interest, contact Sharon Geary

Tagged In

Private Tenancies, Policy, NI Assembly

This article was written on 9 November 2015. It should not be relied on as a statement of the current law or policy position. For help with housing issues please contact our helpline on 028 9024 5640 or use our online chat service at www.housingadviceNI.org.