Landlords in the media: an easy target? July 2019

 

One of the most common issues members raise with us is why the NLA doesn’t get more positive stories about landlords into the media. After all, there are more than 11 million people making their homes in the private rented sector. And yet we only hear about the minority of criminal landlords who provide unsafe homes and treat their tenants with disdain. 

At the end of June, The Guardian published a comment piece arguing for greater regulation, improved rights for tenants and structural reforms. The piece referred to the increase in the number of households renting and the need ‘to intervene’ and ‘introduce legislation in favour of tenants ensuring minimum standards, safety and regulating housing provision’. 

Nowhere did the article acknowledge  that such legislation already exists – not least, the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS), introduced by the Housing Act 2004, which local authorities are duty-bound to enforce. 

What’s more, The Guardian did not even respond to our request for an opportunity to reply. The bad landlord makes a better news story than tenancies which complete or continue with a good relationship on both sides. No one’s interested in a good news story. 

Regulations, regulations, everywhere; but no awareness 

We have long argued that the Government’s disjointed and piecemeal approach to regulating the private rented sector (PRS) means that it’s not surprising that there’s now a lot of confusion among both tenants and landlords. 

The article highlighted how tenants ‘aren’t aware of their rights and, even when they are, they don’t always feel able to enforce them’. Our own research earlier this year found that 67 percent of tenants were not aware of the Government’s primary method to communicate rights and responsibilities to tenants, the How to Rent guide –which landlords in England must now by law give at the beginning of tenancies.  While it is every landlord’s responsibility to provide their tenant with the correct information, they cannot force them to read it. 

The Guardian article, which drew on statistics from a report published that week by Citizens’ Advice, also stated that two-thirds of tenants said that their landlord had not ‘addressed disrepair in their home’ and that ‘15% said they believed that disrepair was a major threat to their health and safety’. HHSRS provides that protection, and local authorities have a duty to inspect a property if they consider it appropriate to do so – in addition to inspections as part of licensing schemes. 

We have seen the success of HHSRS and other initiatives aimed at improving the condition of properties – such as energy efficiency regulations.  The proportion of homes in the PRS with a category 1 hazard under HHSRS has halved between 2008 to 2017 according to the English Housing Survey. There’s no question that more needs to be done, but it’s disingenuous to argue that significant progress has not been made. 

The author claimed that 46 percent of tenants who make a formal complaint to a local authority about their landlord find themselves issued with a Section 21 notice. This is based on a Citizens’ Advice survey of 2,001 private tenants from March 2018. The survey found that 141 respondents had complained to their local authority – 7 percent of the total. Even taking the proportion who had complained to their landlord – 12 percent – we can see that the majority of respondents did not complain at all. 

The Government has failed to find successful ways to reach the 11 million tenants who are then unaware of the protections available to them. Increasing regulation will not solve this challenge. 

Enforcement weaknesses 

Even if tenants were to become more aware of their rights, they would need the enforcement authorities to back them up.  Local authorities can’t be effective without adequate staff resources and funding. Many councils are facing reduced budgets, and it will require real political backing to make housing as a priority. 

Taking action against criminal landlords can be a cost-effective way to address wider issues. While we disagree with the blanket approach to licensing taken by Newham Council, it is one of the very few councils which has underpinned licensing by restructuring their budget to provide funding for enforcement. This allows them to target criminal landlords who do not register and tackle antisocial behaviour (ASB) by tenants. This has led to savings compared to their previous budget allocated to address the impact of ASB and other related issues. 

We have never shied away from calling for stronger enforcement in the sector.  The actions of a few criminal landlords shape the general perception of landlords in the public mind, undercutting all those who comply with the myriad of regulations the Government has put in place. Conflating all landlords with that minority is counterproductive.  It leads to blunt policy tools, which have the kind of unintended consequences that can be avoided with a targeted approach. 

The dangers of over-regulation 

The Deregulation Act introduced protections for tenants from retaliatory evictions, so that, if a landlord does not respond to a complaint and instead issues a Section 21, and if the local authority verifies the disrepair and issues an improvement notice, the Section 21 issued is invalid, and the landlord cannot issue another for at least 6 months. According to the Citizens’ Advice data, just 3 percent of tenants have been possible victims of retaliatory evictions and are entitled to claim protection under the Act. While no tenant should face eviction for raising a genuine problem, introducing indefinite tenancies – as the Government is proposing to do with the abolition of Section 21 – will reduce the ability of all tenants to find a home in the PRS, while addressing the issues which affect relatively few. 

One thing everyone agrees on is that Britain faces a housing crisis. There is a lack of supply, fuelled by successive government’s failures to meet house building targets; the decline of social housing means more vulnerable people are increasingly looking for homes in the PRS; and the lack of wage growth and the freezing of the rates of local housing allowance mean people find it hard to meet the increasing cost.  

It’s easy to say that the answer is to address these issues and enforce existing regulations effectively. Our concern is that the public debate more often than not comes down to the media sowing division. The article concludes by saying that most landlords are ‘our wealthier neighbours and, sometimes, our friends’, with ‘almost half of landlords’ (45 percent, according to the Government’s English Private Landlords Survey’) owning just one property. More than half of all NLA members are basic rate taxpayers.  One in four households rent, but one in ten individuals of working age also let a property. Being a landlord is much more common than the media would have us believe. Recognising the positive contribution of providing homes to those who need them, and the positive experience of the majority of those living in the sector, would keep us all focused on solutions that work for everyone .

 

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12 July 2019 - 10:51am
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