Tread softly, and tame the tenants

`Sink' estates pose a huge challenge for the authorities responsible. Paul Gosling explores the latest approaches
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The Independent Online
Rachel has had a hard time since her new neighbours moved in a year ago. They have, she says, been selling drugs, with customers arriving in cars, which are parked with music blaring out of them for hours at a time. After she complained, her garden was trashed, with wood and glass thrown around. The final straw came when the man next door threatened to kill her. She has moved out of the home she owns to her in-laws.

The neighbours deny the complaints, making the counter-allegation that Rachel's son has burgled their home, and that she and her family have committed criminal damage.

This scene from a Leicester estate is becoming depressingly familiar, as councils and housing associations take a harder line with anti-social tenants. But the biggest difficulty is that bad tenants who are evicted re-emerge somewhere else, usually behaving as badly as before.

Rachel (not her real name) says that her neighbours terrorised another estate before they were evicted by Leicester City Council. The council denies that it has evicted these families for anti-social behaviour, but admits it may have thrown the tenants out for non-payment of rent.

Bradford Property Trust, landlords of the problem tenants, says that one of the troublesome neighbours is in prison, and it persuaded another to leave last week. Rachel says this will just move the problem on again. "If they are going from here, who is going to house them now?" she asks.

The Chartered Institute of Housing agrees that playing musical chairs with anti-social neighbours is no solution. Its policy officer Louise Ayriss says: "When the issue was very topical last year, when the Housing Act, giving local authorities more powers to evict, was being passed, we did express concerns about this, and stressed that authorities can enforce tenancy conditions without evicting.

"A few authorities are taking a very hard line. Authorities can determine the classes of persons they don't have to house, which might be tenants with a history of anti-social behaviour and sex offenders, and introduce blanket bans preventing these families ever getting [council] homes.

"Anti-social tenants will go to the bottom end, where landlords are not willing to deal with this behaviour. It will become an issue of growing importance. Authorities are taking steps to avoid some people from becoming tenants in the first place. The situation is not really being monitored - we should be asking where they are going. Some authorities have developed good practice, such as using mediation. Dundee City Council helps tenants with anti-social behaviour to change - they are tackling the problem within their authority."

Dundee is working in a partnership with the Scottish Office and National Children's Homes to rehabilitate bad tenants. In doing so it is accepting it has a responsibility for solving the problem, and recognising that there are acute difficulties for children who are forced to move around frequently. It also offers a quicker solution than evicting tenants, which can take months, Dundee says.

Another option is to apply for an interdict, instructing bad tenants to cease specified behaviour. If they fail to respond as instructed they are guilty of criminal behaviour.

Leicestershire police, which has been trying to resolve the problems between Rachel and her neighbours, says that in practice the threat of eviction works. Superintendent Pat McHugh says: "Some families are troublesome, and cause frequent complaints. We would discuss with the council or housing association taking action under the tenancy agreement, to advise the tenant they are in breach of their tenancy agreement, moving towards an eviction if there is no improvement in behaviour. In all cases on this estate bad tenants have improved their behaviour, and we have never had to go the whole way."

Private landlords, though, seldom include the threat of eviction in tenancy agreements to deal with anti-social behaviour, making it more difficult to solve such problems.

The Chartered Institute of Housing argues that privately owned sink estates of delinquent families could cause severe problems. This will breed even worse problems if councils, as many threaten, also refuse to house sex offenders, forcing them onto the same estates. Perhaps it is time for the game of musical chairs to stop, and the underlying problems to be solvedn

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