SPECIAL REPORT: The homes in Northampton so bad they are making their tenants ill
Entire families crammed into a single room, boilers on the blink for a whole winter, mould bad enough to trigger asthma.
Just some of the homes families in Northampton are paying rent to live in 2018.
This week, drastic new measures to dish out fines to the rogue landlords who allow their properties to fall into disrepair in Northampton have been roundly welcomed.
Cabinet members on the borough council approved plans to impose fines of up to Â£30,000 per offence for a variety of misdemeanours committed by landlords and managing agents.
But experts believe the authorities are only just grasping a largely hidden problem far more widespread than figures suggest.
They say a hidden swathe of poor housing in the borough could go undetected as people fail to report it through fear of eviction.
Last year in Northampton, inspectors found 153 homes in the town with a “category one” hazard.
These are houses that can cause a “serious threat to the health or safety of people living in or visiting”, according to national guidelines.
They could feature exposed wiring, overloaded electrical sockets, damp so serious it can cause breathing problems, mould or broken stairs.
They can also be homes that are simply so cold, they are dangerous to live in throughout the winter.
But the housing advisor at Northampton’s Community Law Services, Sean Murray, believes the 153 known dangerous homes could be the tip of an iceberg.
He said: “There are a lot of properties on the Wellingborough and Kettering Road above shops that I am not sure are recorded as well as they should be, for example.
“You have to remember some of our housing stock goes back 100 years and has no insulation in the walls.
“There are also some bad landlords out there.
“People forget that being a landlord is a job that comes with a set of responsibilities.”
Council leaders in Oxford took drastic steps to monitor poor housing, hiring planes with thermal imaging cameras to scan areas of the town dense with terraces. Those seen to be losing the most heat were then subject to a visit from council officers.
In the past year CLS took 260 complaints related to poor quality housing alone.
Damp and mould top the lots of issues, just ahead of broken boilers.
One family the Chron spoke to moved into a property in Abington Vale in 2016 and spent the best part of two years fighting the landlord to clear a chronic mould problem.
She believes it could have made her two children, both of whom have serious allergies, ill.
She said: “The kids got a lot of chest infections here and there - but it’s so hard to say for definite it was the mould.
“But we were always told the mould was our fault. We were ventilating everything, but some old houses are just prone to it without insulation.
“We were just sleeping in there and mould was appearing - what were we meant to do?”
Most of the houses found to have category one hazards were privately owned and just 17 of the 153 unsafe homes were social homes.
Last year, in fact, the Northampton Borough Council spent Â£2.5 million converting dangerous properties.
Councillor Danielle Stone, whose Castle ward covers most of the town centre and Spring Boroughs, has dealt with many housing issues with her ward members over the years.
She believes part of the trouble is that council houses bought through the Right to Buy scheme often fall into the hands of bad landlords.
“The house is very difficult to monitor once it is bought for cheap and owned privately,” she said.
“They are not subject to the same forms of quality control.
“In places like Spring Boroughs, more than half have been bought through Right to Buy.”
The borough council plans to build 1,000 new affordable rented homes over the next ten years to improve the town’s housing stock at the cheaper end.
And the managers of the town’s council house stock, Northampton Partnership Homes, are beginning to renovate estates one area at a time (see Thorplands, below).
If you are experiencing issues with poor housing, Sean Murray of CLS has urged people not to withhold their rent.
Instead, he said they should seek advice from CLS or the town’s Citizen’s Advice bureau first.
Housing charity Shelter also hosts legal advice for tenants in dangerous houses on its website.