HMOs get a bad press. But cities might need to learn to love them.
I have lived in Edinburgh for 20 years now. When I arrived to take up a new job I lived in a House of Multiple Occupancy (HMO). I was in my mid-twenties and the job I took up was not that well-paid. I was not a priority for social housing, buying a home was way out of reach and renting on my own was unaffordable. So I responded to an advert in the local press seeking someone to rent a room and joined 5 others living in a large flat to the west of the city centre. All six tenants had their own room but shared kitchen, living room and bathroom. Flatmates came and went but we mostly got on well. I still keep in touch with some of these erstwhile strangers two decades on. I was there for three and a half years and it was by far the best thing I could have done, as a new arrival from the West Highlands, knowing almost no-one in the city.
Cities have a lot of people like I was then. They are vital to the economy and as for the cultural life which cities boast, can you imagine cafes, restaurants, theatres and cinemas without people in their late teens or twenties to staff them? Yet because cities are expensive places in which to live these twenty-somethings choose or sometimes have to live in shared flats, that we now called HMOs.
That’s the social and economic backdrop. There’s an environmental case too. It stands to reason, surely, that four people sharing a flat will use less energy and fewer resources than four each occupying separate flats: less electricity, fewer white goods, less water. And less space too. Imagine if we had to close every HMO tomorrow and say that people could only live in self-contained accommodation. Leaving aside the cost, think of the sheer pressure that would put to build on urban land: those precious pockets of open and green space that breathe life into our cities.
Either that or we would be impelled to build upwards, creating new tower blocks to dominate the sky-line. Are either of those alternative scenarios more palatable than HMOS? I doubt it.
So we are left with a clear conclusion. HMOs are a symptom of the way the housing market works, in cities in particular. Seeking to restrict them or even outlaw them altogether ignores that reality.
So where does that leave the older person who is surrounded by shared flats where the other residents are constantly changing and no-one seems to care about the state of the close any more? Or the young family whose children cannot settle at night because of the nocturnal noise from the flat above? While pointing out that these problems are not exclusive to HMOs, I have heard some truly appalling examples of anti-social behaviour that no-one should have to tolerate.
But would restricting or banning HMOs offer relief? Or would the law of unintended consequences swing into action? I believe that the problem would actually get worse. HMOs owners who are currently licensed would seek to dive under the radar and avoid licensing altogether. Flats would be further sub-divided as owners sought to cash in on the continuing demand for shared living within a more restricted supply. This is not idle speculation. Go to Glasgow which operates strict planning rules over HMOs and ask how many unlicensed HMOs there are. Seeking to regulate HMOs out of existence simply gives birth to a shadow sector of providers who are not regulated at all!
So what is the answer? Doing nothing is not an option. Firstly, I think we should recognise that HMOs are an inevitable feature of cities with strong traditions of higher education and dynamic culturally-strong economies. Secondly, we should acknowledge that landlords, residents and communities have a common interest in a well-regulated, well-managed, professional sector. If the current licensing system is too weak to tackle problems then let’s develop it. If more vigorous enforcement action is needed, then let’s enforce. But, please, let us not pretend that banning HMOs would help.