Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Road to Albert Pier

I see on Facebook that Mike Dun is still pursuing his single minded approach to those who oppose the new Health legislation:
"I petitioned the Privy Council against many aspects of the "names and addresses" (Work and Population control Laws) on Human Rights grounds. Did anybody else? And how about our States Members who are appearing on here supporting the greedy landlords rather then the Health Dept efforts to get rid of sub-standard accommodation etc -did any of them vote against this extraordinary and discriminatory legislation because of the erosion of "civil liberties"? I think the answer is already known to that question!!!"
It has been made clear to Mike from a number of commentators, myself included, that while we have no objection, and indeed welcome any measures designed to address slum rental accommodation, it is the extra aspects of this, relating to owner occupiers, that is the matter to which States members and others are objecting. It is in fact here that there is an erosion of civil liberties, and which he seems unable to grasp.
Senator Sarah Ferguson, for example, commented: "Mike - it may have escaped your notice but the objections have been against the 'elf and safety' application to owner occupier and to the wholesale rationing by the authorities of energy and water. Now it may be that the inspectors can enforce better insulation etc on landlords - that is not under objection here. If tenants have rats cantering through their bathrooms then by all means deal with it - but for tenants. If I am an owner occupier and am having trouble with rats then I will ask for help. but that is a whole different ballgame to an inspector turning up and demanding entry, even with 24 hours notice. Whilst the demand management may be covert at the moment, I can assure you that Defra and the EU are getting geared up."
What I'd really like to know is who these greedy landlords are.
George Orwell in "The Road to Wigan Pier" noted a number of very bad slum dwellings, of a kind that are not even found in Jersey, but his comments are still pertinent. He notes that "the majority of these houses are old, fifty or sixty years old at least, and great numbers of them are by any ordinary standard not fit for human habitation." That I think could certainly be true of houses in Jersey.
We do not have slum houses with outside toilets in vast quantities, but it was clear from the JEP pictures that damp, overcrowding, inadequate ventilation, vermin infestations etc are still very much in evidence. And nothing much has been done about it, as I remember very similar pictures from back in the early years of this century, when  Canon Nicholas France of St Thomas and the Reverend Paul Brooks of St Pauls went round together highlighting the kind of accommodation available, and families sometimes living in a single room.
What Orwell said then is probably just as true know of people who have to live in such substandard accommodation: "Some people hardly seem to realize that such things as decent houses exist and look on bugs and leaking roofs as acts of God; others rail bitterly against their landlords; but all cling desperately to their houses lest worse should befall."
Orwell also went on to describe the kind of landlord who was responsible for slum dwellings:
"In some cases I have noted 'Landlord good' or 'Landlord bad', because there is great variation in what the slum-dwellers say about their landlords. I found - one might expect it, perhaps - that the small landlords are usually the worst. It goes against the grain to say this, but one can see why it should be so. Ideally, the worst type of slum landlord is a fat wicked man, preferably a bishop, who is drawing an immense income from extortionate rents. Actually, it is a poor old woman who has invested her life's savings in three slum houses, inhabits one of them, and tries to live on the rent of the other two - never, in consequence, having any money for repairs."
I'd say he is probably right. A few years ago, I came across one of one dwelling by First Tower, where those renting had to face a constant battle against mildew, and where wood in door frames and windows was replaced only after rotting almost to pieces. There were four of five such  houses, variously partitioned into smaller units, and with one elderly landlord, almost certainly retired, who had a habit of inspecting the comings and goings of his tenants, keeping a watchful eye on his properties. What he doesn't keep a watchful eye upon is the conditions within, and he almost perfectly fits Orwell's portrait of someone who has invested in these buildings, not far from his own house, to live off the rent as a supplement to his pension, and who probably keeps repairs to a minimum. The rent is fairly cheap, and any increase in repairs would probably mean a hike in rents to pay for it.
We do desperately need an inspection of these kinds of properties, but what we don't need is this kind of law. We need a law which targets the "slum landlord", and we also have to face the possibility that he or she cannot comply with that law. That's a realist position, and there needs to be a fall-back scenario of what to do in those circumstances.
The kind of landlord depicted by Orwell would not be able to afford to do much in the way of repairs, so an unexpected consequence of addressing these conditions would be for the landlord to shut up shop, and give the tenants notice to quit, and sell up the property. So one impact could be to increase the housing shortage, by taking dwellings out of the rental market, increasing pressure on rental demand, and as a consequence, leading to higher rents on fewer properties. The alternative would be an increase in rent commensurate with the improvements made to the property, which would be harder on the tenants, but which would at least retain the property within the rental market. 
Unless we have some kind of demographic study of the worst kind of dwellings, and the financial ability of landlords to comply with repairs, legislation could make matters worse. I'm not saying we should not act, but it is the unintended repercussions that so often can derail an idealist scenario. Real life is more messy. In this, too, Orwell's words sound a prophetic warning:
"So long as the housing shortage continues the local authorities cannot do much to make existing houses more livable. They can 'condemn' a house, but they cannot order it to be pulled down till the tenant has another house to go to; and so the condemned houses remain standing and are all the worse for being condemned, because naturally the landlord will not spend more than he can help on a house which is going to be demolished sooner or later."

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