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COVID-19: Houses in multiple occupation

Sonia Rai and Ben Maltz consider the issues around houses in multiple occupation during the coronavirus pandemic.

On 26 March the Coronavirus Act 2020 came into force. It relates to a wide range of matters associated with the COVID-19 outbreak. The government has issued guidance on COVID-19 as it affects various sectors.

In relation to Houses in Multiple Occupation (“HMO”), there is limited guidance specifically aimed at landlords or tenants in HMO’s.

“COVID-19 and renting: guidance for landlords, tenants and local authorities” was published by MHCLG on 28th March 2020 and is a helpful document [1].

The government seems to be treating all members of an HMO as a single household, and therefore all guidance that relates to a single household in relation to social distancing and self-isolation in the context of residential households will apply to an HMO.

So what should landlords of HMO’s do?

  1. Policy - Implement a policy that all tenants are made aware of. The policy should deal with and put in place a social-distancing protocol setting out safeguarding measures for all to follow. Such measures can include provision of hand sanitiser dispenser in communal areas, restrictions on number of persons entitled to use shared facilities at any one time; and a procedure for notification of infection by the tenant to the landlord and how that information should be cascaded down to other tenants who will be affected by reason of the 14 days self-isolation guidelines; what the cleaning regime is and how it is to be carried out both in relation to the cleaner and tenants.
  2. New tenants – Use of virtual viewings conducted remotely. There is presently no statutory prohibition restricting landlords from moving new tenants into an HMO. The government guidance does indicate that moving home should be delayed unless the move is unavoidable for contractual reasons and the parties are unable to reach an agreement to delay. However, persons with symptoms, self-isolating or shielding from the virus, should not move home.
  3. Repair obligations - The landlord remains bound by its legal obligations to repair and maintain safety. In updated guidance from MHLCG [2], work can be carried out by tradespeople carrying out repairs and maintenance provided that the tradesperson is well and has no symptoms. However, in other guidance [3], “surveyors should not expect to carry out non-urgent surveys in homes where people are in residence and no inspections should take place if any person in the property is showing symptoms, self-isolating or being shielded”. The government have given guidance that tenants should allow access in order for the landlord to inspect or remedy urgent health and safety issues. The government has also issued guidance to local authorities as how they enforce standards in rented properties [4] that states “… local authorities should only take the enforcement action that they determine is necessary. They should update and adapt their enforcement policies as required to meet the changing circumstances caused by COVID-19 and latest government advice regarding the outbreak, and ensure pragmatic, appropriate and risk-based action is taken.”
  4. Possession – the government has made statutory provision for tenants but not licensees [5] by extending the notice period to three months. However, the guidance [6] states “We are urging the landlords of those on licences to occupy to follow the same guidance and to work with renters who may be facing hardship as a result of the response to COVID-19”. Further, Practice direction 51Z states “All proceedings for possession brought under CPR Part 55 and all proceedings seeking to enforce an order for possession by a warrant or writ of possession are stayed for a period of 90 days from the date this Direction comes into force this practice direction came into force on the 27th March 2020.

Sonia Rai and Ben Maltz are barristers at Five Paper.

[1] Coronavirus (COVID-19) Guidance for Landlords and Tenants, 28th March 2020: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/876500/Consolidated_Landlord_and_Tenant_Guidance_COVID_and_the_PRS_v4.2.pdf

[2] Closing certain businesses and venues, updated 9th April 2020: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/further-businesses-and-premises-to-close/further-businesses-and-premises-to-close-guidance

[3] Government advice on home moving during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, 26th March 2020: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/government-advice-on-home-moving-during-the-coronavirus-covid-19-outbreak

[4] Coronavirus (COVID-19) and the enforcement of standards in rented properties: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/876501/Local_authority_rented_property_COVID_enforcement_guidance_v2.2.pdf

[5] Schedule 29 Coronavirus Act 2020

[6] Ante, Coronavirus (COVID-19) Guidance for Landlords and Tenants.

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