News: Time out for landlords with unlicensed homes

Landlords failing to licence their properties in multiple occupation (HMOs) can be prosecuted by councils and face fines of up to £20,000 following new powers available from last week.

The new measures mean that if an HMO is occupied without a licence, a local housing authority has the power to seek an order for the repayment of up to 12 months' housing benefit paid out while the property was let without a licence.

Tenants can also seek an order for recovery of rent they have paid while a licensable property was let to them without being licensed.

Housing Minister Baroness Andrews said the new measures strengthened the important reforms introduced by the Housing Act 2004. "We have given landlords three months to apply for an HMO licence without fear of penalty for not having done so. These new powers will strengthen the licensing provisions and offer further protection for tenants. They also mean decent landlords will see an end to unfair competition from those avoiding their responsibilities," she said.

A house in multiple occupation is a property where 3 or more tenants who are not all members of the same household are sharing some or all of the living accommodation and/or amenities.

Since 6 April 2006 any HMO which is on 3 or more storeys with 5 or more tenants in 2 or more households is required to be licensed. Councils also have the discretion to designate areas within their district for additional licensing, requiring other HMOs to be licensed.

Bringing empty properties back into use

Government guidance has also been issued to local authorities on the procedures they must follow in seeking authorisation from residential property tribunals to make Empty Dwelling Management Orders.

Baroness Andrews said that in the case of Empty Dwelling Management Orders, residential property tribunals must consider the effect EDMOs would have on the rights of the property owner and take into account the interests of the community.

"These are powers of last resort where voluntary negotiations with owners have failed," she said. "Among the protections for owners is the fact the tribunal must be satisfied the dwelling has been unoccupied for at least six months, that there is no reasonable prospect of it becoming occupied in the near future, that, if an interim EDMO is made, there is a reasonable prospect it will become occupied, that the council has complied with their duties under the Housing Act."

The Chief Executive of the Empty Homes Agency, Jonathan Ellis, welcomed the use of EDMOs. He said, "We have campaigned for many years to bring more of the 300,000 long-term empty homes back into use to help owners get the best return from their asset, help meet housing need and tackle other problems associated with empty property such as crime. So we support the use of these new Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMOs), but only when owners have no reason for leaving their home empty long-term, there is local housing need and they had turned down offers of help from the council."

There are ten exceptions in all, covering, amongst other things, temporary absence, second homes, properties on the market and inherited properties, where special rules apply and which will be exempt for a period of at least six months after grant of representation (probate) is obtained.

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