Page last updated at 23:04 GMT, Wednesday, 29 July 2009 00:04 UK

Rogue landlords putting tenants at risk

John Waite
Presenter, Radio 4's Face The Facts

A bedsit
Many hotels in Rhyl have been turned into bedsits

In its heyday, Rhyl, on the north Wales coast, was a thriving resort. But, in the past thirty years or so, its fortunes - along with those of many other seaside towns - have been in decline.

In the intervening years, much of what used to be hotel accommodation or boarding houses has been turned into flats and bedsits, where, according to local MP Chris Ruane, "slum landlords make money out of misery".

Mr Ruane has been tireless in trying to attract new investment to Rhyl, and he's had some success. But away from the bustling, flower-filled seafront, the town still contains too many of what he calls "rented rat holes" - potential death traps that absentee landlords can't be bothered to maintain.

And many say it's the government that is to blame, as unscrupulous landlords are exploiting loopholes in the very legislation that was meant to drive them out of business.

Legal loopholes

A few years ago, Rhyl had the highest number of fire deaths per capita anywhere in the country, almost all of them in what are technically called "house in multiple occupation," or HMOs.

It was in response to such grim statistics that, in 2004, the Housing Act was brought in, requiring landlords of high risk properties to obtain a licence. But critics say the definition of high risk HMOs was too narrow - for example, the property has to have at least three floors and house more than five people in two or more households.

So, buy up a property that's two-storey and turn it into supposedly self-contained units, and none of this applies.

And in practice, according to Graham Boase, head of planning and public protection at Denbighshire County Council, it's been all too easy for landlords to simply switch to the kind of property that doesn't require licensing - to "keep one step ahead of the law," as he puts it.

The figures speak for themselves. Rhyl has at least 600 HMOs, but only 33 require a licence.

'Riding roughshod'

Two hundred and fifty miles away from north Wales, it's a similar story in north London. Taking a walk along his street with Ian Sygrave, who runs a resident's action group in Haringey, there are several two-story houses that have been recently converted - usually without planning permission - into multiple flats and bedsits.

A residential street in Haringey
Houses in Haringey have been converted into flats and bedsits

"Landlords are riding roughshod over the rules with impunity", says Mr Sygrave. "They can make thousands of pounds - a lot of it paid in housing benefit - knowing their properties need never be licensed."

And one woman we spoke to in the area showed us a tiny two-bedroom cottage next door to her own home that had been turned into four self-contained flats, "one of them a crack den with the police here all the time," she added.

Responding to a concerted call for all landlords to be licensed, the government says that would be too costly and would punish the good landlords as well as deter newcomers.

And reputable landlords are vital to help ease Britain's housing shortage - there are more than two million households on council waiting lists alone.

However, according to MPs, residents, fire officers and councils, the loopholes in the current legislation are putting tenants at risk and allowing too many rogues to prosper.

John Waite presents Face The Facts on rogue landlords on BBC Radio 4 at 1230 BST on Thursday 30 July.

The programme is repeated at 2100 BST on Sunday 2 August on BBC Radio 4 and is also available on the BBC iPlayer.

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