An application for a student style HMO house licence in the Botanic area of Belfast has been refused due to overprovision in the area.
Elected members at Belfast City Council’s Licensing Committee refused an application for a new licence by Enda Hughes to operate a House of Multiple Occupation at Eblana Street, between Cromwell Road and University Street, next to the Holyland.
The application was steeped in complexity after it emerged a previous successful application for a HMO licence was revoked when the council found out the former applicant was not the legal owner of the property. This meant Mr Hughes, who purchased the house recently, had bought a house believing it was a HMO when it was in fact not, according to the council.
HMOs, which landlords lease out to three or more tenants from different addresses, have become increasingly controversial, with some arguing they have negatively affected communities. They are common in places like the Holyland and Stranmillis in South Belfast where undergraduates often live in such houses.
HMO licence renewal cannot be refused on the basis of overprovision of such properties in an area but new licences can be refused on this basis.
While the council policy is that HMO’s should not account for more than 30 percent of any area, in reality many streets well exceed this, with some in the Holylands reaching over 90 percent.
The council report on the Eblana Street application states: “An individual purporting to be the owner of the accommodation submitted an HMO licence application on August, 22, 2019 and an HMO licence was granted to that individual on December 30, 2019.
“However, following an application to vary the managing agent of the property, officers established that the individual to whom the licence was granted was not, in fact, the legal owner of the property. Instead, he was one of two directors of a limited company who actually owned the property.
“Members will be aware that a limited company is a separate legal entity. Officers sought and obtained advice from counsel on the validity of the licence and legal services advised that section 8(1) of the 2016 Act clearly requires that the owner of the accommodation must apply for a licence, which was not the case here.”
According to the report, officers held that this invalidated the licence, meaning it no longer had effect, and the NIHMO unit emailed the individual on 26 July 2022 advising him of the council’s decision.
The report added: “On 23rd June 2022, the applicant, Mr. Hughes, submitted an application for a new HMO licence (He was a prospective purchaser of the property at the time). The sale of the property was completed on 28th July, 2022.
“Therefore, given that there was no valid licence in place when the applicant’s purchase of the property completed, the applicant could not avail of section 28 of the 2016 Act.
“Had the licence remained in effect and, whilst still being an application for a new licence, with overprovision being taken into account (as indeed it must be), the council would not have deemed granting this application to result in overprovision, given that it would effectively have been a transfer of an existing licence.”
Last month, there were a total of 1,087 licensed HMOs in the policy area of Botanic/ Holylands/Rugby - this equates to just over 45 percent of the total dwelling units of 2,409 within the area. This exceeds the 30 percent development limit set out by the council.
A solicitor for Mr Hughes said: “In relation to procedure we would say it was a compliant application, and he was a suitable applicant as the report confirms. The premises were deemed suitable after inspection, and there have been no objections.
“Mr Hughes applied for the premises to be transferred to him on 23rd June. I contacted the council about the completion date of 29th July, and I contacted the council to confirm that the purchase had been completed, and at all times the emails were acknowledged with thanks.
“We would say he had a legitimate expectation that the application would proceed as such applications normally do, and while it was a new application it would be treated as a deemed transfer.”
The solicitor said the previous owner had the property from 2007 to 2022, before Mr Hughes purchased the property. The solicitor said the previous owner “did do some change of ownership in the course of 2022 where the property was transferred to a limited company which he and his wife were the sole directors of and sole shareholders.”
He said: “Essentially we would say there is a wrong factual basis there for a declaration the HMO licence was invalid.” He said his client was seeking a “continuation of the status quo, not a change.”
Sinn Féin Councillor Caoimhín McCann: “With clarity from officers and with the legal advice, as a committee we definitely do have to take this as a new licence, and we have to give credence to overprovision in the area.” He proposed rejecting the application.
Alliance Councillor Mickey Murray said: “If we are serious about rebalancing communities, especially communities like the Holyland, Stranmillis and Lisburn Road, then we have to stop this culture whereby you can buy a property with a HMO licence as long as you apply for the licence before you buy the property.”
The committee agreed unanimously to refuse the application.