In December 2017, Scotland introduced the open-ended Private Residential Tenancy (PRT) and powers for councils to introduce Rent Pressure Zones (RPZs) to protect tenants from rising rents.
As we await the Westminster government’s announcement on security of tenure for private renters in England, this is a good moment to look back at the Scottish tenancy reforms and consider what’s worked well, what’s not so good, and where next for the Scottish private renter movement.
Dangerous, broken stairs, or mouldy walls making your family ill? What do you do if the landlord won’t make sure your home is safe? Private renters can contact their council, who have a responsibility to enforce housing safety standards. The council should investigate complaints and if they find a serious hazard, take enforcement action against the landlord, which triggers protection against revenge eviction for the tenant.
But new analysis by Generation Rent shows that just one in every 20 renters who complains to the council about poor conditions gets protection from a revenge eviction. Even when a severe hazard is found, tenants only get protection from eviction in 1 in every 5 cases.
Fergus and Judith Wilson own over 700 properties. They are among Britain’s biggest private landlords, owning entire streets in some parts of Kent. Ever since their decision, in 2014, to evict all tenants on housing benefits - even those who had never been in arrears on their rent - their names have been synonymous with controversy.
Now, the Wilsons have decided to cash in on their estimated £250m property portfolio, to settle down and “take life easy”. They reckon that it’s easier and more profitable for landlords to sell properties without tenants in-situ. So the Wilson’s have started the process of evicting their tenants in preparation for the sale.
Almost all the couples’ properties are two or three bedroom new builds, and many are home to young families. By law, the Wilsons only have to give the tenants two months’ notice of eviction. Some might manage to find new homes in this time. But many landlords are notoriously unwilling to offer tenancies to families on low incomes, meaning the most vulnerable will struggle. The chances of so many people finding suitable new homes are slim. Still less, homes nearby their employers, schools and support networks. Many must fear homelessness, and could be forced to turn to an already stretched council for support.
There’s been some good news this month for people facing discrimination in the private rental market – because of how they pay their rent, or because of who they are.
Buy-to-let mortgage conditions
First, Natwest announced that it would lift “all restrictions on landlords renting to tenants who are in receipt of housing benefits”.
Happy tenants. Happy landlords. Longer tenancies and no unfair evictions. It’s all possible!
The 2018 English Private Landlords Survey (EPLS) – the first since 2010 – demonstrates that much-needed changes to the private rented sector, specifically to renter security, would have little or no effects on most landlords. The current system of rules reflects the interests and opinions of a small minority of landlords at the great expense of tenants who deserve better.
The EPLS surveyed 8000 landlords and letting agents and its findings were published last month. The questionnaire covered three main topics: landlord characteristics; their attitudes and behaviours; and, importantly, the future of the private rented sector.
What are some of the key findings and what do they mean for renter security?
So Sadiq Khan has announced that he will develop a model of rent control for London. It’s a bold move for the Mayor of London and just opening up this conversation shows the extent of the affordability crisis affecting 2.4 million private renters in the city.
London’s rents are absurdly high, eating up ever higher proportions of people’s incomes as the last decade has seen wages stagnating while rents rose. The internationally accepted figure of rent affordability is 30% of income, yet there are only two boroughs in London where average rents are (just) less than 50% of a low-income worker’s wage. Even for private renters in middle and some high wage jobs, the dreaded annual rent rise can force you out of your home and your community, or reduce your savings pushing you further away from homeownership. High rents entrench private renters in financial precarity and erode our communities.
Market solutions to make housing affordable in London aren’t working in London. We’ve all been talking about the building more homes for years, but it just isn’t happening at the scale or speed needed to bring down rents. The economic uncertainty as a result of Brexit isn’t helping the housebuilding industry. It’s time to start looking for other answers.
The House of Commons has read letting agent fees their last rites! This afternoon MPs voted to approve the final version of the Tenant Fees Bill signed off last week by the House of Lords.
From 1 June, private renters moving home will no longer have to pay fees to start a new tenancy in England. Agents will only be able to ask for rent, and refundable holding and security deposits (capped at 1 week’s rent and 5 weeks’ rent respectively). The only exemptions are fees to cover the cost of lost keys, late rent payments, changing the name on a tenancy or ending a tenancy early.
At the launch of the Affordable Housing Commission in October, the chair, Lord Best, a veteran of august commissions spanning the past 30 years, related an experience he’d had with one that was looking at The Future of the Family.
More than halfway into the process, its chair came to meet its sponsor (then plain old Richard Best) and admitted that they were a little behind schedule. They hadn’t managed to agree on a definition of “family”.
From the off, members of the commission – of which I am honoured to be one – are therefore highly conscious of the need to get the basics right. But not only do we need to know what “affordable” means (already the subject of much controversy in the housing world), but I think we also need to define “home”.
It's our End Of Year round-up! 2018 has been an exciting year for the campaign. Through our work - with activists, renter unions and other groups - we are closer to a safer, fairer and more secure private rental market.
Parliament’s scrutiny of the Tenant Fees Bill has exposed the common misconception that a letting agent works for both the landlord and the tenant. A letting agent is not, as David Cox, CEO of ARLA Propertymark had put it, “effectively the servant of two masters.” Letting agents typically act for only one side (usually, the landlord).
An agent’s role is to serve the interests of the person who appoints them. It is simply not possible to act loyally for two parties whose interests are at odds (e.g. when one side would rather receive higher rent and the other would rather pay less). To suggest otherwise is to contradict English statute and common law, the Property Ombudsman’s guidance, the forthcoming Tenant Fees Bill and even the Bible.