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Sheffield landowners under scrutiny as student homes deemed uninhabitable

A study has found that 87% of student accommodation is “unfit for human habitation” and 40% of houses have damp and mould.

Benjamin elliott Cn Fo0 E Scs9o unsplash
Photo by Benjamin Elliott on Unsplash.

A poll, taken in October by student jobseeker app ‘Stint’, revealed that 87% of student accommodation is “unfit for human habitation”, that 40% of houses suffer with damp and mould, and upwards of half have broken doors and windows.

The definition of unfit for human habitation is taken from the 2018 Homes Act, a government-published document that aims to help landlords maintain a good standard of living for tenants. Housing charity Shelter explains that "A rented home is 'unfit for habitation' when conditions or safety issues are so bad that it's not reasonable for you to live there."

However, in the three years following its publication, it seems as though renting, both in the private sector and through universities, is becoming increasingly inhospitable. 20% of students spend the entirety of their maintenance loan merely covering the costs of a building that could be poisoning their mental and physical health.

In 2009, the World Health Organisation urged governments to tackle poor quality housing, stating that there is “sufficient evidence” to link indoor mould to many throat and lung diseases. Furthermore, in 2018 the Universities of Glasgow and Stirling released a study, led by Dr Kim McKee and Dr Adriana Mihaela Soaita, that found “an urgent need for policy intervention due to the negative impact on mental health for young renters”.

Mulehouse Road, Crookes
Gareth Simpson

Former University of Sheffield student tenant and prospective Crookes Labour candidate, Minesh Parekh, spoke to Now Then about an experience with a “negligent landlord who seemed inconvenienced by the idea of making a rental property liveable”.

The issue that Parekh faced was a gaping crack in the ceiling, one that spanned the length of the room and would routinely leak, requiring a bucket placed underneath it at all times. This remained unfixed for the duration of the tenancy.

However, that was not the only problem he and his flatmates faced as, upon leaving the property, the landlord - who marketed the property as ‘bills included’ - repeatedly deflected the cost of the utilities on his housemate, harming his credit score until a successful appeal.

The person in question, Christy McMorrow, said that, despite repeated attempts to contact the landlord, he was frequently ignored, a theme that ran throughout the months-long tenancy until he threatened legal action against the landlord.

McMorrow said that the experience made him more negative about private renting, and the fact that the landlord was willing to put his credit future at risk over a water bill was very upsetting.

This speaks to the issue of exploitation that is rife within the student renting industry, Parekh continued:

Unfortunately there are far too many landlords like this, emboldened by a lack of government action and reprisal.

A 2018 Freedom of Information request showed that over 1/7th of local district authorities across the UK had not prosecuted a single landlord in the three years prior. Sheffield itself had only prosecuted 18 in that time.

It’s why we need councils to introduce landlord licensing, to ensure all homes are safe and liveable, and ban landlords who don’t meet these conditions.

Landlord licensing is a scheme that can be adopted by local councils that ensures buy-to-let landlords are looking out for tenants, by tacking on bans from renting and other consequences if tenants aren’t respected. The scheme is widely adopted in London and has been credited with helping renters' situations in the capital.

ACORN, a nationwide union of working-class tenants, also shared this sentiment when contacted by Now Then, with a representative stating: “Student renters are not respected by landlords, they are seen as an easy source of income and face poor-quality housing, high rent and problems with deposits”.

ACORN went on to detail a case where it has helped an international student whose landlord used their lack of familiarity with the country and rental system to rip them off. This is one case amongst many of exploitation of vulnerable people in the private sector.

The group concluded by doubling down on the need for landlord licensing in Sheffield, having historically campaigned successfully to ensure a commitment from the local council to consider this. Because of its efforts and the stories of countless tenants, citywide inspection teams were formed, who aim to deliver a report on the need for city-wide licensing by the end of this year.

A view from the Arts Tower, looks out over Upperthorpe / Walkley
Ben Lancaster

While Parekh's landlord has been the target of multiple ACORN campaigns for deposit theft and neglect of his properties, he continues to let homes in the Sheffield area, specifically targeting students. Parekh concludes that “it’s easy for landlords to play off tropes and blame students for disrepair caused by the landlord,” before urging for unity amongst renters of all ages and occupations and the need to work together to hold those in power to account.

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