A small, nervous-looking woman in a leopard-skin print dressing gown opens the door to two council housing officers. Behind her stands a young boy in a primary school uniform.
“We are just here to check the conditions of the property and the occupancy,” explains Sylwia Olejnik-Ankowiak, who has been tracking down rogue landlords in the deprived east London borough of Newham for more than 15 years. “We need to come in and talk to everyone.”
This is the frontline in the street-by-street battle against private landlords turning family homes into overcrowded hidden bedsits to take advantage of a growing number of desperate tenants priced out of the conventional rental market amid the cost of living crisis.
Landlords can often more than double their rental income by cramming strangers into family homes without obtaining a house in multiple occupation (HMO) licence, which limits how many people can share kitchens and bathrooms.
The woman at the door, Tofikaben Vohra, 34, is paying £750 a month for a room measuring little more than 2.5 metres by 2.5 metres. She shares it with her five-year-old son, Shezad.
The cracked, scribbled-on walls are lined with all their worldly possessions: clothes, suitcases, food containers and plastic toys. Behind the double bed, where she sleeps with her son, there is an old, humming fridge freezer. “It’s too messy … we can’t tidy up,” she says, gesturing around the room with embarrassment. “There’s no space here.”
They share this small terraced house with nine strangers, including another family with a child. The tenants in the four other rooms are paying similar amounts, which means the landlord could be receiving more than £3,500 a month – well over double the average rent for a typical home let to a single family in the area.
“Yes landlords are suffering from interest rates going up but [this] is pure greed,” says Olejnik-Ankowiak.
All 11 people in the house share one kitchen and one working toilet. “There are too many people … it is overcrowded,” she adds. “There should be one cooker and one toilet for every five people. There are fridges in the rooms, which is a fire risk.”
The overcrowding leads to daily indignities and humiliations. Often there is an unbearably long wait for the bathroom. “Two or three days ago my son did a wee in his trousers because there was someone inside the toilet,” says Vohra, who is training to be a teaching assistant.
The kitchen cupboards are full so Vohra has to store their food in their room, which seems to have caused a rodent infestation. “Rat poo,” says Vohra, pointing to black droppings inside a wardrobe. “They come in the nighttime. My son can hear them. Me also. It’s horrible.”
Perhaps worse of all, Vohra is too ashamed to have her son’s friends over to play. She turns down playdate or birthday invitations because she can’t reciprocate. “His friends can’t come here… how could they? My son feels very bad about it.”
The Guardian made repeated attempts to contact the landlord for comment.
New analysis by the Guardian suggests there are at least 32,000 hidden large HMOs like this across the country.
However, the vast majority of council enforcement teams lack the resources and neighbourhood-level intelligence needed to track down landlords concealing their overcrowded but profitable property investments.
Newham, which has the longest running whole-borough landlord licensing scheme in the country, is different. Every couple of weeks it goes looking for hidden HMOs rather than waiting for complaints from tenants terrified of retaliatory evictions or with nowhere else to go. It regularly hosts journalists keen to see the ugly underbelly of Britain’s housing market.
“A lot of tenants won’t come forward because they can just be turfed out – there is a huge power imbalance,” explains Paul Mishkin, Newham’s operations manager. “Our proactive approach allows us to reach the most marginalised tenants.”
Mishkin’s team, which carries out around 800 property inspections a month, has started noticing an uptick in unlicensed HMOs. “Affordability is the crux of the issue,” he says.
“People’s salaries are just not sufficient to cover housing costs, energy costs and food costs, and if you’ve got childcare it’s completely unsustainable, which is why we’re seeing families living in one room in HMOs.”
They now invariably find children and babies in HMOs during their fortnightly raids. “It’s upsetting. It makes you feel angry. But it also spurs you on to continue doing the work we’re doing,” says Mishkin.
The council’s private housing team is determined to help tenants like Vohra. Her landlord will in all likelihood be ordered to make improvements to the property. The tenants may even be able to claim back some of their rent as it was not licensed properly.
However, the failure of successive governments to build enough social housing means thousands of low-income families have few options: they are trapped in the increasingly unaffordable rental market.
Vohra says she cannot move anywhere better because she relies on housing benefit, which has been frozen in cash terms since April 2020, while rents have risen by a fifth on average. She can see no way out: “I’m stuck here.”