One of the most graphic symptoms of the housing crisis is the sheer number of private renters living in properties that don’t meet basic living standards. Some 1.2m private rented households live in homes that do not meet the government’s Decent Homes Standard (28% of the total), a framework developed to ensure local authorities maintained good conditions in the social housing stock, but which is not enforceable in the private sector.
While the Decent Homes Standard was a concerted and long-term attempt to improve standards for social tenants, nothing comparable has happened in the private rented sector, even though it has doubled in size in the last two decades and is home to the worst conditions.
So, what kinds of problems do almost one in three private renters face in the conditions of their homes? At the bottom of the sector, renters live in homes that are overcrowded, with vermin and pests common, and hazards associated with poor gas and electricity supply.
But poor conditions are prevalent for a wide range of renters, not just those on low incomes. A Shelter survey in 2014 found 61% of renters had experienced damp, mould, a leaking roof or window, electrical hazards, animal infestation or a gas leak in the previous twelve months .
Problems are so prevalent because as well as the relatively small number of rogue landlords who are happy to ignore the law, there are so many ‘amateur’ landlords in the market, whose lack of knowledge and care still leads to dangerous conditions.
Each of the problems listed above can cause immediate or long-term health problems, with damp and mould known to affect a range of respiratory problems, for example. Yet private renters often tolerate poor conditions. Many, for example, have found somewhere they can afford and don’t want any added costs that may come with moving, or to provide their landlord with a justification for increasing the rent.
In high-demand areas, with landlords able to evict tenants without reason and with just two months’ notice, renters often fear endangering their tenancy by making a complaint to the landlord or the local authority.
Some unscrupulous landlords do evict ‘demanding’ tenants, but the overarching fear of eviction leaves many problems unreported, even where the landlord would have no problem in putting right the disrepair.
Recent changes to prevent ‘revenge evictions’ have given renters some limited protection where the local authority’s environmental health team has confirmed hazardous conditions, but often tenants are unaware of their rights, or the power of the local authority to take action.
The current system puts the onus heavily on the tenant, who has to first chase their landlord and then follow up with the council if the landlord is unresponsive or claims that the tenant caused the problem. Resources at council level are also severely limited and certainly inadequate for providing proper oversight of a sector that continues to grow year-on-year.
It also means that enforcement varies wildly; in a recent study by London Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon, she found that the ratio of environmental health inspections to number of PRS homes was as high as one in ten in Greenwich, but only one in 689 in Lewisham .
However, in a system that relies on often-vulnerable tenants proactively making complaints, and in a sector as diverse and heterogenous as the PRS, many households will be missed. It’s for this reason that we need to radically alter regulation to compel all landlords to prove their home is fit for human habitation before they put it on the market.
Something that gets closer to this is the use of selective licensing by local authorities, which compels every landlord or agent in an area to hold a licence for each property they own. Licences are conditional on a set of standards, and can be revoked if a landlord fails to meet them.
Newham’s scheme is the most advanced borough-wide regime in the country, and has meant that in the last year, that single council alone was responsible for 70% of all prosecutions in London taken under the 2004 Housing Act.
They have done this by targeting their resources, first on properties that didn’t even attempt to get a licence, and then by monitoring the rest of the stock in a way that is impossible if the authority doesn’t know where its privately rented homes are, as is the case for most councils.
However, although borough-wide licensing is the best tool currently available for tacking poor conditions in the private rented sector, it is not perfect. Whereas previously the decision to license borough-wide was the gift of the council, the final approval is now made by central government, which has already seen some schemes rejected.
Furthermore, acquiring a licence does not necessarily mean that a landlord has a property in good condition. Typically granted for a five-year period, there is obviously time for disrepair to set in, but for some schemes applying for a license does not automatically come with an inspection of the property.
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A landlord may appear to have fulfilled all their obligations, but then a nasty case of black mould emerges from under some fresh paint. For licensing to be properly comprehensive, all homes should be inspected to confirm their health-worthiness before they can be rented out.
At first glance this may feel overly bureaucratic but there are existing parallels in other industries and products that are potentially injurious to health. Motorists, for example, have to ensure their vehicle passes an annual MOT test, to ensure others are protected from dangerous vehicles.
This is widely accepted and compliance is very high, even though most cars on the road are safe. Most landlords should be able to accept this a legitimate business cost that would not affect their profitability, and would also stop rogue landlords from undermining the reputation of the sector.
It would take some time to build up the environmental health infrastructure to make the system function, but this would be funded by the annual fees charged to landlords. It would also empower tenants and give them confidence that when they sign a contract, the home is fit for purpose.
As larger numbers of people live for longer periods of time in the private rented sector, government needs to take strong action to protect those tenants and to professionalise the sector. An ‘MOT system’ for the private rented sector would be instrumental in this and would show that the government is serious about driving up standards in the long-term, as well as providing a shot in the arm to local authorities.
Ensuring that our homes do not endanger our health should be one of the basic tasks of government. The current system is not working so a new approach is needed: one that is simple, comprehensive, and effective.
With private renting becoming the long-term norm for large sections of the population, it is time that renters enjoyed the same comforts as owner occupiers and social tenants.
Seb Klier is London Campaign Manager at Generation Rent.
This article was written for the Webb Memorial Trust and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Poverty as part of the 75th anniversary of the Beveridge Report and is part of a series of articles.