Litter, anger and student parties: are HMOs wrecking Liverpool's family streets?
The city has seen an explosion in Houses in Multiple Occupancy. Residents are furious over what they see as an attack on the social fabric of their communities
By Robin Brown
Kat Walsh says she only really understood the extent of the housing problem in Liverpool when she had to leave her current house. The landlord was selling and she was unable to find any other suitable accommodation in Wavertree. “Looking for another house has opened my eyes to the lack of family-friendly housing,” she says. “Our budget is up to £700 but there are no properties to be found in Wavertree.”
She’s now looking to move to Walton or Kirkdale, and while there’s “nothing wrong with those areas,” — they’re not home. “Wavertree used to be full of families,” she adds. Her son is autistic, which means he needs space, and losing the familiarity of the streets he has always known is painful for him. “He has been having panic attacks and is quite distressed,” she says.
Kat was one of 91 south Liverpool residents who responded to The Post’s mini-survey on so-called Houses in Multiple Occupation or HMOs, which tend to be terraced properties converted to house students, young professionals or offer sheltered accommodation. Officially, an HMO is a building where multiple people live, with shared facilities such as kitchens and bathrooms, and some definitions include the notion that at least some of the residents are on short-term tenancies.
Liverpool’s relatively cheap housing and expanding student population have led to a boom in HMOs, converted and rented out by specialist student landlords, lettings agencies and investors from outside the city. Across the country, HMOs have surged in the past decade, partly driven by a 2011 change to housing benefit rules which dictates that under-35s can only claim enough to cover a single room.
Last year, amid rising public anger, Liverpool City Council moved to limit the rise of HMO conversions, admitting in a press release: "Fears have been expressed that the volume of HMOs has reached ‘a tipping point’, which is threatening the housing offer in the city for families and causing parking, anti-social behaviour and waste collection issues in certain neighbourhoods."
The problem is particularly acute in Wavertree, where up to 50% of houses in some streets are HMOs, according to a local councillor — predominantly student digs. The councillor told us that there are 4000 people living in half a square kilometre in the densest cluster: the streets known as The Dales off Smithdown Road.
Of the 91 responses to a survey we shared in south Liverpool Facebook groups, 73 responses came from Wavertree. 89 respondents said there were “a lot of HMOs” in their area and 70 said HMOs have a negative effect on the neighbourhood they live in. Clearly a survey about HMOs is going to attract responses from people who know what they are and have strong feelings about them, but the answers offered an interesting window into what seem to be mounting local concerns.
Some respondents pointed out that HMOs can provide affordable shared housing for people on lower incomes, and others mentioned the role of HMOs in the recent regeneration of Smithdown Road. Many, however, complained about problems with litter, noise, parking, rats and a range of low-level anti-social behaviour they say are caused by family homes being divided up and rented out to more transient residents who have less of a stake in the area.
Floorplans listed on estate agents’ websites show how terraces in the area have been converted to HMOs, with ground floor rooms and lofts converted into bedrooms, each featuring en suites. Some student homes in terraced Liverpool homes can house up to 11 students. Meanwhile, the council’s planning site shows applications for permission to turn houses into HMOs across the city, from Everton to Wavertree and Mossley Hill.
To pick one example, the council’s licence register shows 55 HMOs on Garmoyle Road — a street in Wavertree with 154 houses. But residents say there are more HMOs than the council knows about, with landlords stuffing houses full of tenants and applying for a licence retrospectively — or not at all.
One of the boom areas for HMOs is Picton, where residents such as Louise (not her real name) and Beryl Harrison have been trying to engage councillors over what they see as an existential threat to their community. “The community used to be a very happy one,” says Beryl. “We’re a sick community now.” When asked to sum up how she feels, Louise offers: “Emotionally drained and totally depressed.”
Beryl moved into her current house on Grosvenor Road in 1973, was married in St Bridget & St Thomas’ Church on Bagot Street, just around the corner, and had the reception in the nearby Orange Hall (the Memorial Church of the Protestant Martyrs on Lawrence Road, which only recently survived an attempted demolition and conversion to student flats).
She says that while the area has changed, even ten years ago Picton had a good mix of residents, with perhaps half the current number of students. She remembers the time she went for a pint of milk and by the time she got home it was sour, it had taken so long to get back from the shop as she stopped to talk to so many neighbours. “It was probably just one of the most lovely afternoons chatting to my neighbours,” she says. “It’s just a funny story really but it gives you an idea of what it was like to live around here.”
Both feel that the conversion of many more local houses into HMOs has led to a loss of diversity and community spirit, as families have moved away, been priced out of the area or moved on by landlords who can make more money converting family homes. With them have gone the community assets: church halls, pubs and community centres, say the pair (although it’s worth noting that plenty of communities have lost these kind of resources in recent decades without the helping hand of HMOs).
Louise has made a list of the buildings in Picton that have been converted to HMOs over the last decade, alongside images of community events they used to host. She talks me through them over tea and homemade vegan fruit loaf as Beryl’s White German Shepherd Mikka looks on hopefully. “Children's parties, the old ones’ dance, mum-and-baby groups — it was just such a hub of the community,” she sighs, pointing at one of the buildings. “It was a beautiful mixture of everybody from all across the neighbourhood. There was a common ground where people could just be together and help one another. When you haven't got the spaces to do that anymore, you see the disparities.”
It’s clear what Picton has lost. But in its place, it has gained a range of problems with traffic, litter, noise and anti-social behaviour — the trademarks of increased population density in an area that hasn’t planned for it, a shifting population and landlords who are not invested in the community.
Louise describes seeing her husband — a mild-mannered man — driven to rage by a nearby student party one night. Eventually, Louise, accompanied by her brother Michael, who has Down’s Syndrome, knocked on the door to ask the tenants to run the music down. “As I'm talking to these two girls on the step Michael just broke down with his head in his hands,” she says. “I felt awful that he should be pushed to that but in a way, I'm glad he did. The girl felt really bad and they ended up hugging.”
Both women swap stories about people who live – or lived – in the area and are clearly engaged in the community. But they feel they’re fighting a losing battle against rivals with deep pockets. Louise names three big lettings agents with a significant presence in the area, one of which is Luxury Student Homes.
Its director, Neil Colquhoun, says his firm manages approximately 1000 bedrooms across the city, with something like 80% of them around Smithdown Road. Born in Wavertree, he says the area has been popular with students for decades and believes the growth in complaints is down to heightened visibility rather than more incidents. “The improvement in standards generally has meant that landlords have invested a lot in their properties in the last five or 10 years,” he told The Post. “It isn't crappy old HMO stuff any more. But of course, that means you've got more builders and that means it’s a lot more visual.”
Colquhoun says a small number of “particularly rich landlords” have bought a large number of houses in the area recently. And while he does not live in Wavertree anymore, he concedes that, as a dad to two kids, he can understand that HMOs can bring serious problems. “I wouldn't want to live next door to a house where there are parties all the time,” he admits. “I totally get it, if you have a problem group next to you, it can be a nightmare. I've definitely got sympathy.”
He adds that a small number of students and landlords can give the rest a bad name, with perhaps 10% of his properties attracting complaints. “10% of the market is creating an impression that all students are a nightmare. And there are a lot of cowboys out there. That means that everybody gets tarred with the same brush.”
People might mourn the loss of streets full of families, empty nesters and young professionals, but the market has moved on, Colquhoun says. “I think you've got a lot of people who hanker for the olden days when all these houses were local families, but if the student population moves away it's not going to be those types of people that take the place. I just don't see that.”
Plus, many students don’t want to live in the hotel-like accommodation blocks that are being built for them. “Joe Anderson wanted everybody in the city centre, but traditional British middle-class students still want to live in a shared house,” he says. “I think that's a really hard thing to change; it's almost ingrained in our culture. Who wants to live in a tower block in the middle of town, for three years, by yourself?”
Dr Mark Riley, a reader in Human Geography at the University of Liverpool, says the whole picture is complex, with various stakeholders invested in the student economy. “Local authorities are courting this: they want students; they want knowledge quarters; they want that income,” he told The Post. “My take is that they are not as heavily invested in trying to slow or mitigate against it because the universities probably are one of the biggest employers in the city.”
When asked how the universities view that trade-off and how they attempt to manage student impact on communities, Dr Riley characterises their approach as ‘laissez-faire’. “We have a neoliberal system in which students go out to private landlords and that's probably passed over as a local authority worry. Students are being treated like consumers by universities and are therefore free to spend their cash with these private landlords. The view is ‘let the markets worry about that’. There’s not so much of an institutional responsibility.”
The University of Liverpool didn’t grant us an interview about this topic but said in a statement that they have told students to be better neighbours.
With the other universities in the city, and in partnership with the statutory enforcement body for private sector housing and tenants Liverpool City Council and Merseyside Police, we are incorporating suggestions and feedback from local residents in our work with students.
This year, we have written to all our students who are residents in community to remind them of the importance of being good neighbours. We have also recently undertaken and funded a number of community walkabouts with the council, police, and environmental health, and will continue to work with our partners and residents in responding to any complaints we receive.
Peter Smith, who used to live next to Toxteth Park Cemetery, says the continuous noise from student houses and building work on Thornycroft Road left him with no alternative but to move away from the area. Lack of sleep and frustration at the situation led to a decline in his mental health and that of his son, who is in Year 7.
Despite pleading with students to keep the noise down at night, he saw little change in behaviour and says the council and police were unable to offer any solutions. "It gets to the point where you just get to the end just winding yourself up," he says, bitterly. "I have mental health issues anyway with anxiety and this has just been around tenfold. It was affecting my son's mental health because of the lack of sleep and pressures of school.”
Peter moved out earlier this year and now lives in north Liverpool. His son has to get a bus to school now, but Peter says life is much better. "If you said to me ten years ago I'd be living in Anfield, I'd have laughed," he says. "It's so much quieter, it's less congested in terms of parking space, and the streets are clean.” But he regrets having to leave the area in which he grew up and spent most of his life. "All my friends are from around there..." he told me. "But I had no choice, I just couldn't live there any more."
It’s fair to say councillors across affected wards in Liverpool are not blind to the issues caused by HMOs, but they argue they have not had the powers to tackle the problem until recently. Greenbank Councillor James Roberts says in some areas, such as the Dales, HMOs may now account for one in two of all houses, which he describes as “completely disproportionate to the ability of the area to absorb people.”
A few years ago, he thought the area had reached an equilibrium, with some HMOs being converted back into family homes. However, the predicted race to the city centre didn’t happen and demand to live in areas such as The Dales or in Picton is as high as ever.
He’s keen to point out that the problem is not tenants, who may have no choice but to live in HMOs for a variety of reasons, but landlords squeezing larger and larger numbers into three-bed terraced houses. “We absolutely don't criticise people who choose to live in HMOs,” he says. “Some are in some really desperate circumstances and can only afford to live in HMOs. But landlords are often happy to walk away with the profits without paying for the problems which are caused by having a million properties in a small area.”
Last year, the council brought in Article 4 powers that prevent landlords from extending properties that are already HMOs — or converting family houses without planning permission. “The presumption will be against any new HMOs,” says Roberts.
As of June 2021, planning permission is required to convert a property into an HMO for three or more people in 11 of the city's wards (the council had previously launched a consultation that showed 81% of the 850 people who responded were in favour of limiting the conversion of family homes to HMOs). In areas where HMOs make up more than 10% of the properties, a planning application will be refused. “That's not to say that there would never be a new one, but there'd have to be an exceptional reason why there would be grounds for it,” Roberts says. The council has been clear that the new rules “will have no impact on existing HMOs”.
The new Article 4 direction will apply in the wards of Anfield, Central Greenbank, Kensington And Fairfield, Picton, Princess Park, Riverside, Tuebrook And Stoneycroft and Wavertree.
Last year, Councillor Barry Kushner, Liverpool City Council’s cabinet member for housing, said that the use of Article 4 controls “will not just protect the wellbeing of the people who live in these communities, it will also help protect the balance of our housing offer – which, in some areas, is close to a dangerous tipping point of being dominated by one bedroom bedsits.”
The council also wants powers to tackle what Roberts calls “rampant landlordism” but says the government rejected the idea “out of hand” and national legislation means hands are tied at a local level. “I am pretty confident we're going to see positive change,” he says, nevertheless.
It will be a few years before we can assess the impact of the new rules, but Louise and Beryl don’t sound hopeful, particularly because it only limits further conversions rather than turning back the tide. “I get really peed off when somebody mentions Article 4,” says Louise. “It means nothing. It feels as though this was something dished out to placate us.” She claims that developers have told them landlords have ways of getting around HMO legislation.
The pair say they have given up hope. One of Beryl’s closest friends has moved away; others have been turfed out of their rented accommodation to make way for denser, more lucrative HMOs. Louise has tears in her eyes as she reads an open letter she has written to the council, universities and developers she blames for ‘decimating’ the Picton community: a paean to the working-class communities so many Liverpudlians remember; of spirit in the face of adversity; solidarity in everyday problems.
“It's just important,” she manages, composing herself. “That's really how we all feel.”
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