The Immigration Bill- bad for renters and bad for landlords

The Immigration Bill is currently making its way through the House of Lords. The Bill instructs private landlords to check renters’ immigration status. At Shelter, we are all for a more regulated private rented sector but this measure will make an already difficult, expensive, and over-heated rental market even worse for people with few good options open to them.

We know that the private rented sector is already under immense pressure: more people are renting and more renters are struggling.

Demand is growing rapidly in response to the shortage of affordable rented homes and the rocketing cost of buying a home. Last week the headline report of the English Housing Survey 2012/13 reported that almost one in five of us now rent privately. The Survey also found that a quarter of private renters receive financial support because they cannot afford to pay their rent. This is up from 19 per cent in 2008/09. In this overheated market prospective renters can face intense competition to secure a home that they can afford.

At the same time, as the housing safety net becomes even more precarious, the perceived risk of letting to people on benefits has increased: only one in five landlords are willing to let to people on welfare benefits. This is down from one in four only a year ago.

If this measure becomes law it poses two financial risks to landlords, which could stop them from renting to even more prospective tenants:

  • If they let to someone who does not have the right to be in the country, the landlord could face a fine of up to £3000.
  • If the landlord agrees to let to someone, and it then transpires that the prospective renter doesn’t have an acceptable immigration status, the letting could fall through before it starts. This puts landlords at risk of a longer void period between tenancies, which could mean weeks or months without rent payments covering the mortgage.

Landlords are not immigration experts, and it is not reasonable to expect them to be. The hassle of verifying less familiar pieces of documentation (necessary to prove immigration status), and the risk of penalties to landlords, will prove a serious disincentive to let to some groups – making it even harder for people to secure a safe and decent private rented home.

We know that discrimination in accessing rental accommodation already happens. A recent investigation carried out by the BBC showed that some Letting agents in London are prepared to discriminate against would-be tenants on the grounds of race.

Forcing landlords to inspect renters’ immigration status is likely to make this worse. An adult, born in the UK with a a British passport but with a ‘foreign sounding’ first and last name could suddenly find themselves locked out. Despite having the identity documents proving their right to live in the country, they may be less likely to be picked by a landlord or letting agent if there is another renter pursuing that property with a more ‘British sounding’ name.

And in practice, many vulnerable renters will struggle to provide the necessary papers. Women fleeing domestic violence will often leave their home without any possessions and could struggle to retrieve their documents from an abusive partner. Many homeless people simply do not have documents such as a passport or birth certificate. They often get lost or stolen during periods of moving around or when sleeping rough or living in insecure accommodation.

Ultimately, the proposal to make landlords act as immigration officers is unworkable and should be scrapped. Renters who have every right to live and rent in the UK will be locked out of the mainstream private rented market. They may be forced to seek housing from landlords offering poor quality accommodation, or from those wilfully avoiding their responsibilities.

The loss of an Assured Shorthold Tenancy is already the leading cause of homelessness and the sector is already blighted by rogue landlords and a shadowy black market. If this measure makes it into the Immigration Act it will make a bad situation even worse.