Billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is going to landlords who make huge profits while providing appalling living conditions for tenants.
Freezing cold caravans in Canvey Island and a squalid hostel crawling with cockroaches are just some of the places where unscrupulous landlords are housing vulnerable tenants.
A BBC Panorama investigation has uncovered the extent to which unethical landlords are taking advantage of nationwide housing shortages and the fact that local councils have little power to penalise them for shoddy accommodation.
Alys Harte exposed the ‘great housing benefit scandal’ for Monday’s edition of the investigative current affairs programme.
She visited Thorney Bay Park on Canvey Island, talking to resident Sarah Ellis who lives in a static caravan. Many people are living in the park full time, although the caravans are designed for short-term summer use: Sarah’s young daughter Staci spoke about waking up to ‘igloo’ conditions during winter in the mobile home.
Alys also rented a room in the ‘notorious’ Ridley Villas in Northeast London where she found corridors and bedrooms lined with rodent poison, a ‘rancid’ smell and mould-covered windows and ceilings. The owners – the globetrotting Smith family who raked in £850,000 in housing benefit last year - defended the accommodation. Their representatives told Panorama that Ridley Villas provided ‘much-needed temporary accommodation’, although Alys discovered that one resident had been living in the block for 15 years.
Rogue landlords are charging monthly rent of hundreds of pounds per resident; it’s estimated that around £3 billion per year is being handed over to landlords for substandard accommodation. As another case in point, Alys Harte spoke to Stephen Gethin, the former owner of Camden’s inaccurately named ‘Happyvale Hotel’, who at one point was receiving up to £10,000 a month in housing benefit for renting rooms at the crumbling hostel. Video footage showed cockroaches crawling over piles of rubbish and raw sewage pooling outside bedroom windows.
The hotel has now been taken over by the council, but difficulties and legal battles have meant that few improvements have been made: Panorama spoke to a softly-spoken tenant called Betty who pays £150 per week in housing benefit for a shoebox-like room at Happyvale. Her living space is so narrow that you can stretch out your arms and touch each wall. Reporter Alys Harte called it ‘a hotel without hope’ and said that the accommodation was filthy and depressing with a smell like ‘something died in the corner’.
But what’s to be done about these rogue landlords who exploit taxpayers and tenants to fund their own lavish lifestyles? Stopping housing benefit payments to these landlords could leave some of the most vulnerable tenants homeless entirely.
Instead, Panorama concluded, proper penalties need to be brought in so that landlords are deterred from running these slum-like properties: ‘unless councils get new powers to stop them, landlords will continue to exploit desperate tenants. And we will continue to pick up the bill’.