Private renting is broken. Now's our chance to fix it.

Private renting is broken. Now's our chance to fix it.

The government has proposed giving private renters more protections by changing the minimum length of tenancies to three years, and they’re running a consultation until 26 August. Shelter has a campaign to help renters feed into the consultation. Greg Beales, Shelter’s Director of Communications, Policy & Campaigns, explains the importance of this opportunity.

We are all familiar with the idea there is a housing crisis, but seeing the human and social cost of it can still shock you. And I suspect that most housing campaigners have had moments when the craziness of our housing market has really struck them between the eyes.

My moment came when I met a young couple from East London who had been asked to leave their rented home with a six-week old baby. They weren’t affluent and neither were they living in destitution, but they were deeply distressed that on top of coping with their first child they were having to find somewhere new to stay, and meet all the extra costs of doing so.

I was struck by the madness of this situation and in particular how the key employment rights of maternity and paternity leave were protecting this couples’ jobs, but they had no such rights or protections for their home even just a few weeks after having their first child.

Of course this gap between a labour market where we have developed rights and protections over the last 50 years and a housing market where renters have lost protections, and in which insecurity has increased, is now a feature of the brutal experience many renters face in today’s market. And with one in four children now growing up in rented accommodation it is an insecurity which we are imposing on children as well as adults.

A basic right that’s not protected

At the very heart of this insecurity is the absence of a right for renters to stay in their homes when they want to. Most people would agree that a job and a home are two of the basic staples of life. Yet while an employer needs a reason to lay you off from your job a landlord needs no reason to ask you to leave your home. After a six-month legal minimum, a landlord can serve a Section 21 notice and evict a tenant without a reason.

Of course, many tenants will leave before being evicted knowing they will lose in court if it goes that far. It’s a state of affairs that means that renters who do everything right – pay their rent, look after their property, are good neighbours – can lose their home for no reason at all.

Shelter has long argued this situation is unfair for those affected and bad for society as a whole. Families with children in school need certainty and stability about where they live – teachers tell us that they can spot the children who live in families who rent because they have the disruption of moving so often.

As a country we all benefit from strong communities where people can put down roots. These rules actively work against that, encouraging and facilitating transience where renters bounce between properties. And England is an outlier compared to all its neighbours who all have stronger protections.

But change may finally be coming. As the number of renters grows year on year it seems that there is a growing consensus that a right to stay, at least when you are making the rent and doing everything right, is an idea whose time has come.

The campaigning organisation Generation Rent, with the support of many others, make a powerful case that Section 21 evictions should be abolished altogether. They must surely be right that there can be no justification for these, and we at Shelter are proud to lend our support to their efforts.

A proposal for a big step forward – with a but

And now the government have come forward with their own proposal to lengthen the minimum tenancy to three years. This would be a huge step forward – giving the tenant a right to stay for three years minimum and the flexibility to leave in that time if they want to. Three years is not enough, but this proposal if it became law would make a real difference and could be a vital step on the way to a permanent right to stay.

And yet there is a big BUT hanging over this policy. The government haven’t yet said if it will legislate, and an optional scheme which allowed landlords to do what they wanted – but which would incentivise the longer tenancies with tax cuts – is still an option. A system of incentives would be a bad outcome, creating a two-tier system of those with a right to stay and those without, and doing so at the price of a tax cut for landlords. It would fail the basic tests of fairness and effectiveness whereas making the plan law would convey a right to everyone who rents.

So this week Shelter is launching a campaign to make sure the government puts its plans into law. We know there will be opposition to this plan. Some landlords are mobilizing to fight it and these can be powerful lobby groups with the ear of government but we believe this is a fight we can win. If millions of renters make their voices heard then a sane and functioning rental market is within our reach, with a right to stay. This is not everything we need, but it would be a huge step forward on where we are today.

For those of us who look at the brokenness of our housing system, we may be facing a rare opportunity for change. This isn’t everything we need, but it is a vital step in the right direction towards a clearer and more enforceable right to stay. This is a change we can fight for and it’s a change we can win.

Now is the time to fight for it. Join our campaign and share your voice in the government’s consultation.