Secret shared houses undermine crackdown in Northampton

HMO Action Group Far Cotton.
HMO Action Group Far Cotton.

Hundreds of ‘secret’ Houses in Multiple Occupancy (HIMOs) have sprung up across Northampton outside the reach of council rules, campaigners have discovered.

The homes - many of which are converted for student use - have been appearing in areas such as Far Cotton near the growing new University Campus, cramming more people into streets than they were ever designed for.

The Chron reported earlier this year that grave concerns by crowded residents over parking and mountains of rubbish bags had seen several wards made the subject of Article 4 directions, which are meant to ensure proposed conversions from family homes to HIMOs were decided by a panel of councillors.

But evidence gathered by neighbours has revealed that unregistered HIMOs are rife because landlords acted as soon as plans for the Waterside Campus opposite Becket’s Park were announced four years ago. The Article 4 notices were only introduced in Far Cotton in April.

HMO Action Group for Far Cotton counted 120 unregistered HIMOs in 15 streets, 70 of which were subsequently confirmed by borough council housing officers.

If the pattern is repeated across the town in the seven areas where Article 4 directions are in place, there are likely to be thousands of unregulated homes crammed with tens of thousands of extra tenants, often in already tightly-packed terraced streets.

Local councillors are keen to stress that huge numbers of students and other tenants living in HIMOs are valued members of the community.

Conservative councillor Nilesh Parekh who works at a Nisa store in his Sunnyside ward said Park Campus students add a lot to the Kingsthorpe area.

He said: “There’s a lot international students, which is good for the area. News services are put in place, such as the extra buses and they spend money at local businesses.”

Borough councillor Julie Birch (Lab, Trinity) also stressed that there are good tenants and bad tenants of all types in HIMOs.

But she readily acknowledged that HIMOs have become a massive problem in Semilong, not least because some landlords are happy to take the money but do not care how their tenants behave.

She said: “The amounts of money they take is truly huge but they have to be responsible but many have no connection to Northampton. I know one HIMO landlord comes to make representations from Brighton.”

For now, homeowners who are neighbours to HIMOs are suffering - and they sympathise with those who may soon see similar problems (see our map of latest HIMO applications on the page opposite).

A spokesman for HMO Action Group Far Cotton said: “Vehicles are parked illegally on junctions, double-yellow lines and near to mini-roundabouts. This also occurs on Euston Road and Haines Road.

“The issue is exacerbated by an over concentration of HIMOs, as they can own multiple vehicles per property.”

Councillor Cathrine Russell (Lab, Kingsley), of Stanhope Road, was more blunt.

“For me, it’s hell on earth. “There are loud parties, police called out, bin bags piled up higher than the windows.

“I don’t know why some of them have cars because they don’t move for months on end. We have to park streets away and walk home, often late at night.”

“Students also don’t pay council tax for the services they use. It creates a lot of pressure on any area they live in.”

But the biggest issue for Councillor Russell is that HIMOs deprive young families - who are more likely to become involved in the community - of possible homes, gradually changing the character of neighbourhoods.

She said: “Finding family houses for young people is one of the biggest social issues at the moment.

“HIMOs alter the nature, perspective and dynamic of areas.”

All sides are united in the view that better attitudes and closer supervision among landlords would make a huge difference.

The University of Northampton disciplines students living in private houses if they cause problems and points out they are also subject to the terms of the tenancy agreement signed with the landlord. It encourages anybody experiencing problems to report them to its Student and Academic Services department, which it insists will investigate.

But there remains scepticism among neighbours about whether some remote landlords are bothered about the impact of their lucrative tenants as long as they pay the rent on time.

But Councillor Julie Birch said the best way to deal with any problem really is to talk to landlords directly - or ask your local councillor to apply pressure.

She said: “There are so many unlicensed ones that council officers don’t have time to knock on hundreds of doors.

“Report it and we can make landlords listen.”

Coucillor Jonathan Nunn, Northampton Borough Council leader, said: “We thoroughly investigated 165 properties in Far Cotton, after concerns were raised by local residents about the number of HIMOs being developed in the area.

“The investigation confirmed that 72 of those properties are HIMOs and although this might seem like a large number, it is important to remember that this is not a high proportion as compared with the number of houses in the area.

“To tackle the potential overdevelopment in the town we have recruited the support of local MPs Michael Ellis and Andrew Lewer, who have written to the Minster of State for Housing and Planning. In addition, we issued an Article 4 Direction on Far Cotton so that a balanced community can be maintained.

“While we work with partners on the planning side, we are also considering alternative avenues to tackle this issue.

“Northampton has been recognised nationally as a leader in the field of private sector housing enforcement and we are taking action against landlords who are not maintaining their properties in a safe and habitable condition.”