LGA First | Helping residents in the private rented sector

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April 2016

Helping residents in the private rented sector

Betsy Dillner

Over the past decade, the housing market has undergone an earthquake. With house prices out of reach in much of the country and a shortage of social housing, increasing numbers of people have no option but to rent from a private landlord. As a result, the population in the private rented sector has doubled in the past decade, and now outnumber social tenants.

The response of local authorities to this trend has been mixed. Some have long recognised the challenges facing increasing numbers of their residents, from rents costing more than half a household’s income to chronic negligence of landlords towards the condition of their properties. A number of pioneering councils have introduced landlord licensing to streamline the enforcement process, and are thinking creatively about how to build more housing at social rents.

But conversations Generation Rent has had with councillors and tenants reveal that some in local government still have a lot of catching up to do. Often we get the impression that the only people they’re interested in are council tenants and leaseholders, despite the fact that more of their constituents rent from a private landlord – including many on council estates.

This is understandable given that local authorities have a lot more power and responsibility over their own stock, but it seems easy for them to forget that it’s also their job to enforce standards in private rented housing. One tenant told us that after months of trying and failing to get her landlord to fix a leak in her bedroom she, quite reasonably, called the council’s housing department. Instead of passing her on to environmental health, they just advised her on how to apply for social housing.

Another tenant related a conversation he’d had with a council candidate who was out canvassing. Asked what he would do for the 1 in 3 local people who rented privately, the candidate rambled enthusiastically about “staircasing”. He didn’t win. [NOTE to councillors: of you say this word to private renters, they’re more likely to think you’re talking about the landlord finally fixing that loose bit of carpet on the way to the first floor].

To be fair to councils and their members, they might not have taken notice of private renters because we’re not a loud presence in local politics. Private renters have no idea whether they’ll still be living in the same borough – let alone the same home – in a year’s time, so they are less likely to be engaged in their local community, and less likely to coalesce into local renter groups in the same way that social tenants have.

This has been changing over the past few years, with groups emerging in boroughs that have seen rapid change in the housing market; including inner London, Oxford and Brighton. Generation Rent is a national group giving these local groups a voice in the national debate, and nurturing campaigns where tenants need representation.

One activity we have on a local level is research into letting agents and the fees they charge through the website www.lettingfees.co.uk. Local authorities have responsibility to ensure that letting agents publish their fees, so we hope that this will be a resource for them as well as local flat-hunters. The research will also help bring together local activists, and help develop a relationship between the council and its private renter population.

And with local authorities set to gain powers and resources from the Housing & Planning Bill, we hope they start giving local renters in the private sector the attention they need.

Betsy Dillner is Director of Generation Rent

For more information about Generation Rent visit www.generationrent.org

 

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