Many renters in the private rented sector put up with unacceptable conditions in their homes because they are too afraid of being evicted to speak out. That’s according to the Housing, Communities and Local Government (HCLG) Select Committee. In its recently published report, the Committee called on the government to address a ‘clear power imbalance’ in parts of the sector.
A standout recommendation, amongst many welcome recommendations that could see significant improvements in the sector, is a call on the government to strengthen the Deregulation Act. It focuses on protecting tenants from a no-fault section 21 eviction for longer than the current six months, which kicks in only after the local council has served an improvement notice on the landlord. The committee also calls for protections to be extended to prevent retaliatory rent increases, and ensure that these protections kick in as soon as renters make a complain to their landlord, letting agent or local council.
Short-term contracts make renters vulnerable
Renters in the UK generally have very short, fixed-term contracts of either six or 12 months. During the fixed term, landlords can only evict tenants if they can prove certain grounds, such as rent arrears. But after the fixed term ends, landlords can issue an eviction notice without having to provide any grounds of wrongdoing on the renter’s part.
In a market where there are simply not enough homes to go round, renters are easily replaceable. Landlords know this and–so do renters themselves: the ending of a private (assured shorthold) tenancy is now the single biggest cause of homelessness.
Existing protections aren’t enough
The Deregulation Act (2015) introduced the first new protection for renters against being evicted for complaining about problems in their home since 1988. Renters can’t now be served a section 21 (no-fault) eviction notice within six months of an improvement or emergency remedial action notice being issued by the council. Such notices are handed down if the council has found serious disrepair (a Category 1 or 2 hazard) in their home.
We campaigned hard for this protection against revenge, or retaliatory, eviction. But, as the committee recognises, it is a difficult process to make work. There are also many exceptions, which risks leaving renters unprotected. Chief amongst these is that renters are not protected if they complain directly to their landlord. Protections only kick in once the local council gets involved and serves an Improvement Notice on the landlord. And as we know, over-stretched local councils are not always able to step in. This leaves uninformed or unsupported renters vulnerable to bad practice, eviction and homelessness.
Even with the limited protections of the legislation, renters living in the worst conditions and with the fewest options – those on housing benefit, for example – are reluctant to make a complaint about their landlord. They fear eviction or a rent increase, knowing they can ill-afford to find a new tenancy if the existing one ends.
We have welcomed recent government action to identify and ban landlords who do not keep their properties in a decent condition. This is one important piece of the puzzle. The committee has, rightly, recognised that there is also an urgent need to rebalance the tenant-landlord relationship by increasing protections against unfair evictions and rent rises.
The new secretary of state has the opportunity to act quickly on his new ministry’s promise to review of the effectiveness of the retaliatory eviction provisions, including the extent to which they are actually used in practice. So that no renter is forced to live in dangerous, squalid conditions because they are too scared of eviction, and homelessness, to complain.