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An inspector calls

An Englishman’s illegally small room should be his castle

Artillery Row

A fun feature of the British housing debate (especially if one lives in London, where the crisis is perhaps at its most acute) is discovering the sheer range of issues that are affected by this country’s eye-watering cost of housing. 

A quadruple-whammy for Westminster renters

In a previous piece, I took one personal irritant as an example – the undersized fridge in the four-person home I share – and looked at just some of the ways it impacts on mine and my housemates’ health, wealth, and wellbeing. But just as remarkable is learning just how many ways the State conspires to exacerbate this problem. Last week, I had another such lesson when our house was visited by an inspector from Westminster Council.

After having a poke around in each of our rooms, he was pleased to report that the situation was mostly fine. 

Our kitchen will need a fire extinguisher (although we’re encouraged to flee the house rather than use it), and it will be made a condition of the lease that the bedrooms on the first floor are left unlocked so our housemate on the second floor can hurl herself from their windows in the event of a fire.

(This second point is to spare the landlord the need to spend thousands of pounds on a “mister” for the kitchen and is an arrangement I, happily situated on the ground floor, am perfectly content with.)

But the conversation turned eye-opening, not to mention a little hair-raising, when it came to the size of our rooms. Two, including mine, were not as large as claimed. 

In my case, this wasn’t really a problem. My flatmates probably have more grounds for complaint than I do, given that my room came into being when the landlord threw up a thin wall across half the living room, enclosing the windows, the bookshelves – a small mercy for the millennial bibliophile – and the television.

But in the case of one of my housemates, it was apparently a borderline case (a matter of about half a metre or so) whether her room was legally too small to rent out.

This is due to special rules governing so-called “Homes of Multiple Occupation” (HMOs). These mean that properties which would be deemed acceptable for families can be unacceptable for unrelated people living under the same roof.

One can imagine the noble sentiments from which such regulations spring. But the impact is pernicious.

It just stacks the deck against people on lower incomes

The room in question in our house is not one of those broom-cupboard studios that occasionally go viral, but a perfectly serviceable bedroom. Renting it gives our flatmate access to the rest of the house, which is spacious enough.It is also, by dint of its size, cheaper. This benefits not only the person renting it, who would otherwise need to seek out more expensive or a less desirable accommodation elsewhere, but also the rest of us. In the event the landlord were barred from renting it, the burden of the lost rent would fall on the rest of the occupants.

The net result: one fewer room available, and three more expensive than they would otherwise be. A quadruple-whammy for Westminster renters.

It would be easy enough to paint either the landlord or the inspector as villains of the piece, depending on whether one has progressive or libertarian inclinations. But neither is the case. All of us like where we live and have no complaint with the owner.

As for the inspector, they agreed completely with the above complaint about the cost of living; apparently the argument gets made internally on a fairly regular basis. But they can only do so much in the face not only of national law, but local regulations which are even more stringent. 

Happily, in our case they thought things would probably be fine. But these rules will be squeezing the rental market across Westminster, and many other places where demand is strong.

The crucial thing to remember is that high-mindedly generous minimum space requirements do nothing to actually bring compliant accommodation into existence in an environment where we are chronically failing to build adequate housing stock.

Instead, it just stacks the deck against people on lower incomes and the many people forced to share a house with friends or strangers due to the exorbitant cost of living alone.

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