About time too – and you can submit evidence to it!
The Communities and Local Government Select Committee is to hold an inquiry into the private rented housing sector. And not before time. All too often it’s felt like the problems with this sector have been passed over into the ‘too difficult to deal with’ pile.
Having spent my second year at university in a dump that was eventually condemned by the local council as unfit for human habitation, I know what it feels like to live in a hell-hole (which was also around the time my mental health was imploding) and can testify to the impact of not having decent cooking facilities, decent sound insulation or anything decent to keep the room warm in the midst of a cold winter.
In some senses it was the both the breaking and the making of me – breaking in the realisation that institutions that should have been standing up for me were not, but also the making because when you’ve had sand kicked in your face like that, it makes you angry; an anger that stays with you for the rest of your life.
So if you’ve lived in – or are living in private rented housing, and have strong views on it, please submit your evidence to the Communities and Local Government Select Committee – their webpage also contains a guide on how to structure and submit your evidence. Remember that your evidence will be made public.
For me there are four issues:
1) Speed with which problems of homes unfit for human habitation can be dealt with.
- Do local authorities have sufficient powers to clamp down on rogue landlords that let out such properties?
- Do local authorities have the resources to enforce either existing or proposed new laws to deal with such homes?
- How can the enforcement processes be sped up so things do not drag on through the courts or other processes, at which time people’s health is suffering?
2) Improving homes to deal with demands of new climate-change-related legislation – and of a changing climate
- How many people ask landlords to see the Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) that landlords are required by law to provide to prospective tenants?
- How many tenants understand what information is contained in EPCs? How many prospective tenants do property searches by EPC ratings? What impact are EPCs having on the rental market? Are they driving up property standards?
- What is the current timetable of the Department for Communities and Local Government to require a given minimum rating on an EPC as being the legal minimum a property needs to achieve before being rented out?
- What are the improvements that are most essential to make homes comfortable and healthier to live in – in particular sound insulation, heating, security features etc.
3) Universities, colleges and language schools
- The nature of this market in particular is that landlords have a lower incentive to invest in their properties – especially in areas of high demand – because of regular turnover. What responsibilities should such establishments have regarding the housing of their students? Personally I think it should be a contractual responsibility for establishments to ensure that students have access and support to find decent accommodation of more than a minimum legal requirement, & not just leave it to the students to work it out for themselves – many of whom may have left home for the first time.
- The establishment of some sort of co-ordination between educational establishments and local councils regarding housing so as to help reduce some of the tensions that can otherwise build up between students and local long-term residents.
4) Private rented market for low income groups
- What examples of ‘best practice’ is there for landlords providing decent low cost housing to people on low incomes? Ditto for tenants in looking after their properties and in their contractual relationships with landlords.
- Should there be tougher laws on who can own and rent out properties – especially where there has been clear abuse by landlords?
- What minimum standards should there be on rents covered by state benefits and how well are such standards being enforced?
- How can people on low incomes have their voices heard so that action is taken quickly when they find themselves in difficulty on housing?
- What needs to happen with private sector housing to help get people out of long term B&B accommodation?
There is also the issue of nationalising the worst parts of private sector rental housing. Should local councils have funds and powers to compulsorily purchase – or seize – rental properties that are demonstrably unfit for human habitation where the landlord shows no desire to make the required improvements? Over the past 30 years we have moved from a situation where your local council could be a landlord of choice, to one where you could only get a council house or housing association property if you were in need. For too long, those in need have outstripped available properties, contributing to the crises that we have today and have had in recent decades. As far as party politics is concerned, some might say Thatcher’s great sell-off caused the shortage and that Labour did very little about it in its 13 years in power. That debate aside, what we currently have is a massive imbalance between prices in the private rented sector and the social rented sector – and this is splitting society. Understandably people in the more expensive private rented sector ask why they can’t live in state-backed housing that has a significantly lower rent.
You’ve then got the growing army of people like me who live with their parents because they have nowhere else to go. In one sense, my circumstances are slightly different with my mental health problems and the nature of my work: I don’t have a steady job or a steady income. Therefore at present, renting in the private sector (prices aside) isn’t really an option for me at the moment. Also, not being in a relationship means I don’t have the option to move into a partner’s house where responsibility for rent would be shared and where health-wise I’d be supported. Having lived in shared houses for several years prior to moving back in with my parents, the one thing I never really got was support for my mental health problems. Ironically the only time I ever did was when I was living in the place that was the worst for them. It was a hell-hole but we really were all in it together and made the best of it.
I can see why politicians do stunts like this one by Grant Shapps, but that one left me feeling really angry at the time. Ditto with Prince William. Why? I think it’s a combination of empathy, mindsets and institutions. It’s very difficult to empathise with people in that situation when you’ve not really had to face it yourself. This was the shock to the system for me over a decade ago – the idea of being in this situation that I did not know how to get out of. I spent six weeks in and out of a travellers hostel before finding the place that I did – by which point my weight had crashed down to 7 stone. (Not good for a twenty year old male). Mindset? This wasn’t a “Let’s bash the Tories” because remember that both in the very early 2000s Labour had been in power for a few years – and even more by 2009. Yet still the problems of housing and homelessness persist. That’s why this inquiry is being launched! Policy-wise there has been an epic failure to deal with rental housing in the private sector – and I expect the report to pick this up in its conclusions. Institutions? I can’t help getting away from royals in palaces or politicians in big state-subsidised houses too – remember that we were to find out the greatest of abuses in the expenses scandal.
Finally…who ultimately profits from the private rented sector?
If there is such a big disparity between social rents and private rents, who pockets the difference? The landlords? The banks that lend? The financial institutions that provide banks with the capital?
Because it definitely is not the tenants, that’s for sure.
[Updated to add]
@Rattlecans reminded me that housing policy is a devolved issue in Scotland – and they’ve been able to do things differently to England and Wales. So if anyone can summarise what happens in Scotland and can provide that summary to the Commons inquiry, that would be splendid!