Real change needs real protections

Conditions in the private rented sector are worse than any other forms of housing. A third of homes fail to meet the Government’s Decent Homes Standard – a much higher proportion than social rented and owner occupied homes.  Almost one in five privately rented homes are also assessed as containing a Category 1 hazard, meaning they pose a serious danger to the health and safety of renters.

The stats speak for themselves. The urgent need to do something for the increasing number of private renters has become much more apparent – not only to us here at Shelter, but also to Government.

Just before Christmas, the Government gave over 20 local authorities a total of four million pounds to tackle rogue landlords in their area. These landlords too often make renters’ lives a misery by refusing to carry out repairs, harassing them in their homes, and evicting them if they complain.

Last October, they also announced a package of measures to improve private renting, and promised us a review into conditions in the sector.  After much anticipation Shelter was very pleased to hear that the Government had published their discussion paper outlining the issues for consideration. 

This marks a really positive step forward, and a real recognition of the challenges renters living in poor conditions face and the low level of standards that landlords are required to meet.

The Government’s recent approach has very much focused on tackling the lack of awareness among renters and landlords about conditions. The draft tenant’s charter – designed to help renters better understand what they can expect and where to go for help if something goes wrong – is testament to this.

One of the things they will be considering as part of the review is whether additional guidance is needed to help landlords and renters better understand the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (which is used to assess whether homes are safe and fit). I was shocked to find out recently that only 15 per cent of landlords had even heard of it. At Shelter we know that as well as the rogue landlords who deliberately exploit renters there are far more ill-informed amateur and accidental landlords whose actions, whilst less malicious, can be equally dangerous. We also know that renters often have extremely low expectations of renting. This makes more and better guidance and education really important, but this review must achieve a lot more than this.

We must ensure that change goes beyond softer measures like education and encouragement. We need robust legislative measures that empower renters to report poor conditions. This is why we strongly support the Government’s suggestion of restricting the use of Section 21 possession notices when a renter has complained about poor conditions. A Section 21 notice allows landlords to evict renters who are no longer in a fixed term tenancy without having to prove any grounds, and with only two months notice.  This makes the position of renters who complain very precarious.

We also strongly welcome the Government’s proposal to extend Rent Repayment Orders to renters who have been living in appalling conditions and urge them to press ahead with these plans. It would mean that renters who live in – or have recently left – an unfit property would be able to claim back the rent that they paid. Much in the same way you would expect your money back if you were sold a faulty product. This would be a strong deterrent to landlords who often get away with continually letting out homes in unacceptable conditions for short periods to renters they know won’t complain whilst living in the house. 

This review signals a really important recognition of the poor conditions that renters live in and the barriers they face to improving them. Let’s make sure this opportunity is seized to provide some real legislative protections for renters. 

Stay tuned for more from us next week on how to better protect renters living in poor conditions…