Vicky Pearlman
Vicky Pearlman

By Vicky Pearlman

Happier and healthier: improving conditions in the PRS

“The bathroom had severe damp, as did two out of the three bedrooms. The electrics were in a terrible, dangerous, state. The family had five children, the youngest was 11. Both the parents and the children struggled with depression and low self-esteem.”

“Damp and mould are probably the most reported problems, but they are often not the most serious. The most serious harm is caused by excess cold. It is insidious; the cause of death is never ‘got too cold’. People are faced with very high fuel costs alongside their very high rents. But people don’t contact us because they are too cold.”                                                                                                                                   

Everyone should have a home that is warm, safe and secure.

But too many homes in today’s private rented sector are in very poor condition, severely compromising families’ health and wellbeing, in the most extreme cases putting lives at risk. Property conditions in the private rented sector are worse than in any in any other tenure. And as the cost of home ownership rises, and the lack of social housing endures, the private rented sector is playing an increasingly important role in housing people. It is vital that these homes are safe and decent.

Local councils have responded in a wide variety of ways to the different challenges they face in improving conditions in their local PRS. And while conditions in much of the PRS are undoubtedly improving, thanks to existing legislation and inspection regimes, there is still much more to be done.

Our new briefing, Happier and healthier: improving conditions in the private rented sector, published today in partnership with British Gas, showcases the work of five local authorities* who have made imaginative use of their existing powers, both formal and informal, to empower renters and target poor landlords. We hope that they will encourage others to grab these new opportunities with both hands.

Hard fought new powers in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 extends the range of measures local councils can use to take tough enforcement action and crack down on rogue landlords who, either wilfully or through ignorance, allow their tenants to live in poor conditions, causing ill health and distress.  They enable councils to impose banning orders, civil penalty notices and rent repayment orders on landlords who fail to improve conditions in their properties, and to maintain a database of banned landlords and those convicted of a banning order offence.

At the same time, however, the supply of, and demand for, private rented homes and cuts to legal advice, have made it harder for renters to exercise their consumer power and local council’s resources to tackle landlords on their behalf have continued to decline. The new powers will not be enough to fundamentally improve conditions in the private rented sector if we do not also tackle these.

Renters need new consumer rights, so that they can take their own action against landlords who fail to keep their properties in a safe and decent condition, freeing up local councils to concentrate their limited resource on the worst offenders.

Renters need increased security of tenure in the private rented sector. This would significantly increase tenants’ ability to enforce consumer standards themselves, without fear of being evicted.  Ending the freeze on local housing allowance, and restoring rates to the 30th percentile of the local rental market, would put renters in a stronger position to complain, knowing that, if the worst did happen and they were evicted, they would have more chance of finding a new home that they could afford.

The legal imbalance between renters and poor landlords must be reduced. Access to free legal advice when a problem first emerges (through Legal Aid schemes) has been hugely restricted. It now kicks in only at the point of crisis – when a family faces imminent homelessness or disrepair has become a serious risk to their health or safety. The power imbalance between renters and poor landlords could be significantly reduced if the Government reinstated legal aid for issues of disrepair.

Work to prevent homelessness should go hand in hand with enforcement. Councils should examine how Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 funding could assist. This should include identifying those tenants at risk of becoming homeless and helping them to stay in their existing home, challenging illegal and revenge eviction and harassment and defending no fault evictions wherever possible. If all this fails, the council should help them find another home.

Renters must have a right to expect that their homes are fit for human habitation. We are optimistic about the prospects for a new Homes (Fit for Human Habitation) Bill and excited about improvements it could bring for renters. Most good landlords already provide safe and decent homes. But renters must have a direct route, independent of local authority resources and priorities, to enforce basic housing standards in their home, without fearing eviction and homelessness as a result.

Making the private rented sector a happier, healthier, place to live.

* the five case study councils featured are Bristol City Council, Derby City Council, Oxford City Council, LB Newham, Leeds City Council.

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