Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Gimme Shelter

So what happens when you are a Tory run council faced with an ever increasing, record breaking number of people on the housing waiting list, and you decide you have nowhere to put them?

Do you sit down and consider whether or not you are providing enough social and affordable housing? Do you worry about providing safe and decent accommodation for families who are disadvantaged and vulnerable? Or do you take the easyCouncil way and look for the quickest, easiest, and cheapest way of offloading the responsibility of so many tiresome dependents?

Barnet Council approved the use of the house next door to us for a 'vulnerable' family on its housing waiting list, a family identified as such presumably due to the 'behavioural problems' of one of Tracey Smith's sons. Why is it, you may be wondering, that a family identified as vulnerable, and therefore to whom it might reasonably be expected the council has a duty of care, can be so easily be shoved into private accommodation which has not been assessed for any criteria of safety, suitability, cleanliness or decorative order other than a gas safety certificate and an energy certificate?

No visit by a housing officer. No inspection. No health and safety risk assessment - something which might be considered vital for any family, but especially with a vulnerable family including one child with ADHD. No fire safety assessment: no electrical assessment. Imagine the risks in an old or poorly maintained property, the likelihood of dangerous wiring, toxic furnishings, and so on. Barnet leaves the responsibility for assessment of all these factors to the tenants themselves, which is fine if they happen to be qualified electricians, environmental health officers and health and safety inspectors, or can afford to pay for surveys of the properties offered. And is this considered good practice in other boroughs - or by the housing minister? What do you think?

Neither is there any assessment of the suitability of the landlords of these properties, or any interest by Barnet whatsoever in the way in which these landlords may manage the tenancies once the property has been taken on. Once again, Barnet's position is that the responsibility for the tenancy is the landlords' and nothing whatsoever to do with the council.

In our case, even when presented with proof of the landlords' refusal to cooperate with the police over drug abuse allegations, their refusal to acknowledge their tenants' ASB, the fact that the property had to be cleared of rat infested rubbish by Barnet's own Environmental Health Team, the two incidents of harassment by the landlords of us on our own doorstep: none of this was serious enough for Barnet to take any formal action against the owners. Even though the tenants and the landlords have both apparently breached the conditions of an assured shorthold tenancy, this is no business of the council, we are told.

Within a fortnight of the Smiths moving in and turning our lives upside down, we decided, reluctantly, to attempt to explain to the owners of the house what sort of people were living in their property, and ask them to take steps to address the problems they were causing. I say reluctantly, because the owners of the house, are unreasonable and volatile characters who we knew would not take kindly to us raising our concerns. To put it mildly.

Mr Angry rang Sophia, one of the owners whom we had seen visiting the house a few days after the Smiths moved in. She claimed, oddly, that the property no longer had anything to do with the her, and was evidently not going to listen to what we had to say.

In the months before the tenants moved in, Sophia's brothers, George and Tony, began throwing rubbish from the house into the back garden. They began to massacre the wildly overgrown trees and shrubs in the garden, hacking off branches in random fashion, leaving the ravaged stumps like the fractured trees from a first world war battle scene. The branches were thrown on top of the broken furniture and other crap from the house. And then, at almost midnight on the night before the tenants moved in, we observed the brothers and sisters outside in the pitch black, working with torches, piling even more stuff on the garden. The next morning, we looked out and saw that the entire garden was now full of rubbish of every type: a mountain of junk. When that same morning the Smiths moved in we simply could not believe any family would be prepared to live in such a place. Of course we hadn't got to know the Smiths yet.

After the bonfires, and an pointless plea to Tony and his sister to get the tenants to stop, the council's Environmental Health team came to see the rubbish, by then attracting rats, and they notified the owners to clear the garden. Some of the family came to the property, looking around the house and garden. We were relieved as they had arrived before Tracey Smith had had time to remove the bong and other drug paraphernalia in the garden. When they left, we were amazed to hear Mrs Smith tell her family, 'yeah, s'alright, we just gotta paint the walls again ... ' They were staying? We sent a text to Sophia asking if she had not noticed the bong and other stuff. She did not reply.

I had to go out that night and returned home very late to find Mr Angry, and our two children, unexpectedly still all up and awake, sitting in the front room, buzzing with outrage. It appeared that while I was out, the two sisters, Sophia and Tina, had arrived on the doorstep, and rang the bell. When Mr Angry opened the door, they screamed abuse at him: how dare we report them to the council? How dare we allow a council officer to take photos of their garden? How dare we complain about their tenants? Did we want to pay the rent on the house and all their bills instead?

Our daughter had watched this attack fearfully from behind the curtain. 'They were like a pair of harpies, ' she said, authoritively, being the star pupil in her Classics set. 'More like the Gorgons,' said my son. 'But don't worry, Mum, I got rid of them ... Dad was being all reasonable, you know, 'Why don't you calm down, and talk about this rationally, and all that crap.' He had sat on the stairs listening to this volley of abuse and then decided enough was enough. He stormed down the stairs to the front door. 'Just how, ' he demanded, 'do you expect me to revise for my GCSEs living with this day after day, night after night? You have no idea what it's like. Why should we put up with this? How I am I supposed to concentrate on my work?' Sophia spat at him 'Go to a library!' He looked at her with the withering contempt that only a teenage boy can muster: 'You disgust me ...' and he turned to the other twisted sister, pointing at her: ' and you: you disgust me ...' 'And then', he said with a shrug, 'they scarpered ...'

In desperation, we discussed our situation with a local solicitor. He told us that although we had rights in law that we could pursue, it would cost a prohibitive amount of money. Despite this, we eventually felt we had no option but to send a formal letter -costing us several hundred pounds, together with the advice - to the landlords informing them of the trouble that their tenants were causing. They simply ignored the letter.

It was suggested to the council by a councillor that as the garden and outhouses of the property had to be cleared by an order from Environmental Health, it might be a good idea to check out, belatedly, the state of the house itself. Unbelievably, this was rejected on the grounds that if might 'make things worse'. Worse for whom?

One Saturday evening, we saw the landlords, who by now had been spoken to by police and council officers about the situation, visiting their property. To our horror, afterwards, Sophia and her brother Tony rang our door bell. My husband answered it. Sophia immediately launched into an unprovoked attack: 'What exactly', she sneered, ' is your problem?' She yelled a series of incoherent accusations again: I said if they didn't go away at once, we would phone the police, but they just stood there, Sophia ranting, completely irrational. We were making everything up, she claimed - so we listed the various incidents of police attendance, the recent trashing of a local school gardens by the Smith children immediately after a visit by police and a council officer, the drug taking -'you have no proof ' yes, we do - your tenants are so stupid they have put photos of themselves smoking reefers in your kitchen on Facebook, for one thing - How dare we invade the privacy of their tenants (really!). I tried appealing to the brother, who was slightly less antagonistic than his sister: I told him that we knew they didn't care about us, but we thought they might care about their own property, and if they took steps to evict the Smiths, we would provide the evidence. Not interested. In despair, I asked Sophia why on earth we would make all this up - did she think we liked living like this? Yes - yes, she said, if you don't like it, why don't you move?

I pulled Mr Angry away, told her again to get lost, and slammed the door. I went up to the bathroom and sat on the edge of the bath and cried like a child, from rage, and from the humiliation of being screamed at by a rabid fishwife on my own doorstep. Not only did we have to put up with the behaviour of the Smiths, night and day, we weren't even safe in our own home from abuse at the hands of Sophia and her shameless siblings. We reported the incident to the council, of course, and the police. The council did nothing, as Homechoice landlords are of course, not their responsibility. One of our local police officers, thankfully, paid Sophia a visit and somehow extracted an undertaking from her not to repeat her behaviour, which came as an enormous relief.

Even now, after everything that these landords have done or failed to do, despite repeated requests, Barnet will not agree that Sophia and her family must be refused further Homechoice tenants. We have been told this verbally, at a meeting at NLBP with senior legal officers, and in writing. So, even if rumours are true, and the Smiths are at last being moved elsewhere, there is nothing to stop another family being moved in to replace them. Can you imagine how this feels?

And what does this say about Barnet's housing policy, that they are prepared to condone the behaviour of landlords - and tenants - like these, to accept any property, sight unseen, as suitable for the most needy families in the borough, most no doubt with children, as long as they are no longer the responsibility of the authority.

Surely it is the mark of any civilised society that those most in need of help will be given the support they deserve? And I mean deserve: those like the Smiths who take advantage of the system and wilfully exploit it should go the end of the queue, as far as I am concerned, but the vast majority of homeless people are decent people just wanting somewhere to live that is safe, clean, and with responsible landlords. It is the duty of a local authority to provide or recommend accommodation that meets those basic requirements. What does it say about our council that it simply does not care about the state of the housing offered via the Homechoice scheme?

Newsflash: Mrs Smith has returned from her little break. And: a removal van has appeared in the road. I repeat: a removal van ...

No comments: