At Shelter we consistently point out that renting is the ‘new normal’ for a whole generation priced out of buying a home. Along with the pressures of rising rents and letting agent fees comes the dark underbelly of private renting: rogue landlords. This unscrupulous minority are flourishing as competition for rented homes leaves people on modest incomes with no choice but to rent from them.
The latest figures from our freedom of information request to councils show that complaints about landlords have increased by more than a quarter since 2008/09, with more than 85,000 complaints concerning private rented accommodation in the last year. Complaints about illegal eviction and health-threatening hazards have both gone up. There are more than 1,400 private landlords in the local authorities we spoke to that give them continued causes for concern.
These national figures mask interesting regional variations. In Yorkshire and the Humber, complaints about landlords rose by a staggering 87%, while there was a 47% rise in London. The North West and North East have both seen reductions in the number of complaints, by 12% and 13% respectively. Almost all other regions saw double digit growth.
Some of the growth in complaints about landlords can probably be explained by the fact that there are more people renting than there were three years ago. However while the number of households in the sector increased by 15%, complaints about landlords grew by 27%. The problem of rogue landlords is growing more quickly even than the rapidly expanding private rented sector.
Why might this be? One factor may be increased pressure on rental markets – especially in cities such as London, Birmingham and Leeds – which reduces incentives for landlords to improve their practices. More than half (62%) of the complaints to councils in the last year concerned hazards in the home that could lead to serious injury or even death (officially classified as ‘extreme’ and ‘severe’). These hazards concern things in a home that the landlord is responsible for, such as structural integrity, gas and electrical fittings. While good landlords understand these basic responsibilities, the results show that too many either do not or feel under no pressure to fulfill them.
Another factor leading to the increase in complaints to councils may be an increasing awareness of private renter rights leading to renters becoming more active consumers willing to make a complaint. We have seen a rise in grass-roots private renter lobby and campaign groups, often formed in reaction to poor conditions or rogue landlords.
What are councils doing in response to this growing problem?
Shelter research has shown that local authorities are most likely to take ‘soft’ action in response to these complaints, such as writing a letter or making a phone-call. While this allows them to tick a box saying action has been taken, it does very little to deter the minority of landlords who are serially exploiting tenants.
Some councils are taking a tougher line. We are tracking successful prosecutions and there is evidence of a surge in some areas – such as Manchester, Leeds, Salford and Newham. Some rogue landlords are finding themselves with huge fines – including a recent case which saw a record £1.4m fine.
The evidence suggests that when tough action is taken, the number of complaints in the local authority area falls the subsequent year. Landlords see stories of successful prosecutions in the local press and are spurred to clean up their act. The next phase of our Evict Rogue Landlord campaign is therefore using people power to put pressure on councils to take tough, high-profile enforcement action.
There is much more to be done, as our latest research shows, and with growing pressure on the overheated rental market it is vital that we all step up our efforts to confront rogue landlords.