Cross-party groups give their verdicts on renting

This week we’ve had two reports from the political mainstream calling for a better deal for renters. They add to the pressure we’ve been putting on the government to improve tenant security – and though we contributed to both, they don’t quite go as far as we’d like.

The first was from the Resolution Foundation, a think tank chaired by Conservative peer David Willetts and run by Torsten Bell, previously adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband. 

It predicted that 1 in 3 millennials will never buy a home and, in order to give them a stable home, proposed “indeterminate” tenancies and limits on rent rises to inflation.

Other proposals included:

  • a new housing tribunal,
  • revising property taxes to encourage owner-occupiers to downsize, and
  • waiving the landlord surcharge for companies building new homes for rent in return for providing sufficient affordable housing.

The proposals on tenancy reform are broadly in line with what Scotland brought in in December, but, like Scotland, permit landlords to take back their property to move in, or sell up.

The problem is that this is a very common reason for eviction (63% of cases, the report notes) and something that the tenant both cannot do anything to prevent, and bears the cost of – for removals, cleaning, letting agent fees and a new deposit.

The Resolution Foundation got tonnes of media coverage for the report so their backing for reform that sounds radical is welcome, especially as a cross-party organisation. But it’s disappointing that they don’t recognise that landlords wanting to sell or move back in is a Bad Thing, and something the government ought to at least discourage (if it won’t be banned entirely).

We think there are three tests that any security proposal has to pass:

  1. bring down the prevalence of unwanted moves dramatically (by at least 63%),
  2. cut the cost to the tenants who are still forced to move, and
  3. give tenants confidence to complain about their landlord (and more widely that the home is theirs as long as they pay the rent).

That’s why we want indefinite tenancies to come with a payout to tenants if they are forced to move without being at fault. A requirement to pay relocation costs will force landlords to consider selling with sitting tenants instead, and properly mitigate the upheaval that tenants face if forced to move. And the extra legal hurdles would make it hard for criminal landlords to intimidate tenants into staying silent.

The second report was from the Commons Housing Select Committee, whose inquiry we gave evidence to in Parliament.

This looked specifically at the 800,000 unsafe homes in the private rented sector – and what the government is doing to make them legally fit to live in.

The report established that in theory renters have a lot of rights, and councils a lot of powers, particularly since the 2016 Housing Act which creates a right to claim back rent from a negligent landlord, a quicker system of fining them, and the ability to ban the worst landlords from operating.

It will take some time to assess how these measures are working but the MPs concluded that two major barriers are impeding the uptake: the fear tenants have of retaliatory rent rises or evictions if they raise complaints with the council, and the lack of funding for enforcement staff within councils.

If tenants don’t complain and councils don’t have the wherewithal to carry out initial inspections then the sweeping new powers to stamp out criminal operators will just gather dust.

The Committee’s recommendations include:

  • A longer period of protection from eviction for tenants who complain
  • Protection from rent rises for a period after complaining
  • Protection as soon as a tenant complains – rather than relying on understaffed councils to inspect the property then issue the landlord with a relevant enforcement notice
  • Extra funding for enforcement
  • Requiring councils to publish their enforcement strategies and statistics, to see who is getting it right and how to copy them

These are good, and the recognition of rent hikes as another source of worry for tenants living with disrepair is something that came directly from the experiences of our supporters. Evidence, if you needed it, that renters need a national organisation making their views heard in Westminster. (Sign up!)

But it’s a shame that the MPs only recommend protections when the landlord is already flouting the law. Landlords could be perfect in the eyes of the law and still pull the rug from under their tenants on a whim. The Committee should have set their sights a little higher in terms of improving the tenant experience.

The report covers a lot more, including:

  • measures to prevent dodgy conversions into bedsits, known as lockdown properties,
  • mandatory carbon monoxide alarms,
  • a review of safety standards themselves,
  • legal support for tenants taking action against their landlord, and
  • giving councils more power to introduce landlord licensing schemes.

The headline in some of today’s news reports is the proposal to allow councils to confiscate property. A fine idea, but something that is already possible, through Interim Management Orders. As councils can start banning landlords from this month, we hope these will be used more frequently.

Tenant security aside, a huge part of the problem is the lack of understanding among tenants of how to get stuff fixed – and that isn’t helped by councils that don’t provide the relevant information on their website.

Only last November, Lambeth Council appeared to have no online information to direct private tenants with a disrepair problem, which led to this frustratingly inconclusive Twitter exchange:

No further response.

To Lambeth’s credit, they have since published a series of pages with some decent info on. But if a council with 38,000 private tenants in 2011 takes this long to get its act together, spare a thought for areas where they make up less of the electorate.

We will be doing our bit in the months ahead to highlight good practices by local councils and call out those who are failing to serve local renters with opaque websites or poor response rates. Please share examples of both in the comments!

And to push the government further on tenant security than either the Resolution Foundation or the Housing Committee have demanded, please join our campaign here.

Coverage:

BBC

Independent

Guardian

Times

BBC again

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