This article first appeared via Red Box on The Times’ website.
Imagine a mother coming home from dropping her child at nursery to find the locks changed. A family moving into a new home who discovers the smoke alarms are broken. Or a nervous couple fearing another knock at the front door from their abusive landlord.
Apart from being shocking, these are all examples of law-breaking behaviour that private renters across England are contending with – as 3.7 million private renters have been victims of illegal behaviour by a landlord or agent. And right now, renters have few means of seeking justice when things go wrong.
Private renting is unrecognisable from 20 years ago. In that time, the sector has more than doubled in size and is now home to over 11 million people, including three million children.
Despite more families and older people now renting privately – because successive governments have failed to invest in building the secure social homes people can actually afford – the last major piece of legislation to police our private renting system (the Housing Act) was introduced back in the 1980s.
This pandemic has taught us time and again, that home is everything. Many landlords do provide a good service to their tenants, but too many are flouting the law. Meaning millions of renters don’t feel safe and secure in their own home. It’s scandalous that 22 per cent of renters have moved into a property only to find that smoke alarms, central heating or water supplies – all essential, legal requirements – don’t work.
Our homes have provided safety and sanctuary from COVID-19 (coronavirus). But millions of renters are having their privacy invaded because of landlords or letting agents bursting into their homes without permission. And most alarmingly, nearly 1 in 10 (9 per cent) private renters are being assaulted, threatened or harassed by their landlord or letting agent.
Nobody should have to put up with broken safety alarms, strangers coming into their homes unannounced or the threat of harassment and violence. A lack of regulation and consumer power has allowed some landlords and agents to get away with law breaking behaviour for too long. But no one is above the law and renters are tired of being powerless to enforce their rights.
Surely there are existing laws that protect renters? There are, but the well-established power imbalance between landlords and tenants means they don’t offer renters any meaningful protection. All too often our services hear from renters forced to put up with unsafe conditions, harassment and violence, too scared to complain in case this leads to a revenge Section 21 ‘no fault’ eviction – putting them at risk of losing their home.
That’s why private renting needs a serious overhaul – but there is hope. The government has recognised a change is badly needed and its forthcoming Renters’ Reform Bill – with a promise to scrap Section 21 evictions – has the potential to be a landmark piece of legislation.
But the government must go further and use this golden opportunity to make private renting fit for purpose, redress the power imbalance between landlords and tenants, and create a fairer system where tenants can fight back against law-breaking behaviour.
So, this Bill must include a National Landlord Register which would keep a central record of every landlord and make it a legal requirement for landlords to declare essential safety information about their properties. This would help make the sector more professional and give renters the power to challenge poor standards and illegal acts.
Driving a car, going fishing, watching television – they all require a licence by law. So why doesn’t the same apply to landlords who rent their homes? This isn’t a big ask as right now, England is the only UK country without an official scheme that registers landlords.
With the coronavirus protections of furlough and longer notice periods ending in a few weeks, many more private renters could face homelessness in the months ahead. Building Back Better must also mean building a fairer, more humane private renting system.
These alarming new findings are further evidence about why we urgently need a new deal for renting – and the Renters’ Reform Bill has the potential to deliver the changes renters crave. But that must include a National Landlord Register to help simplify the sector and make it more professional – and give renters the power to enforce their rights when a landlord or agent breaks the law.