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Can the Homes Act fix slum conditions in the private rented sector?

You move into the only place you could afford in your area. The wallpaper is hanging and bubbling off and there are large areas of mould mottling the walls, like the house has caught some kind of disease. The doors and windows are draughty and there are mouse droppings all over the kitchen. Welcome to the insecure world of private renting on a minimal income, that ever-greater numbers of people are having to endure across the UK.

Under new legislation which came into force last week tenants will be able to take their landlords to court to force repairs and get compensation for damages. Previously this power had only been in the hands of local councils.

The new Homes Act 2018 is being hailed as a ‘landmark’ in tenants rights, with Housing minister Helen Wheeler stating that “the bill will empower tenants and help to further improve standards in rented houses and flats.”

But a look under the surface prompts questions about whether the legislation will achieve its stated claims. With house building in the UK lagging way behind what is needed, social housing continuing its decades long planned decline and wages, stagnant for more than a decade, struggling to cover inflated rents.

In 1996/97 only 12% of the UK population lived in the privated rented accomodation. A decade later in 2016/17,   that figure had risen to 20%, 4.7 million households.  In 2018 the English Housing Survey found that in the Private Rented Sector (PRS) 25% of homes don’t meet government standards for a ‘decent’ home, whereas only 13% of social housing fails to meet that standard.  More than 1 in 5 private renters move into properties with existing mould growth. People renting in the UK are in dire need of support to improve their housing conditions, but under our austerity obsessed government this new housing regulation may turn out to be a paper tiger.

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So in the mouldy, overpriced field that is modern renting what has changed and what stays the same?

The current legislation stems from the 2004 Housing Act which set out a Decent Homes Standard. This provided the basic measurements to ensure a livable home and provided the procedure to enforce those standards.

This involved the tenant contacting their local authority’s Environmental Health Team who would schedule an inspection. If they found a serious ‘Category 1 Hazard’ in the property the landlord would be served an ‘improvement notice’ after which they would be obliged to perform repairs. A landlord only committed an offence if they failed to reply to an enforcement notice for repair.

The council would then prosecute the landlord to enforce a repair. The tenant was unable to take direct action for repair, they were reliant on the council to have the capacity to do this. Well that was the theory, the practice proved quite different.

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Generation Rent made Freedom of Information requests to 99 councils covering more than two-thirds of England’s private renter population. These local authorities had received 67,026 complaints about housing in a year, 2017-18, but just 3043 (or 4.5%) improvement notices were served on landlords.

Manchester was a poor performer with 1708 complaints  and only 65 (3.8%) resulting in an improvement notice being given out. From those 1708 complaints 247 Category 1 Hazards ( a serious and immediate risk to a person’s health and safety) were identified during subsequent inspections. Only 65 improvement notices were issued, which means 74% of the Category 1 Hazards did not result in an improvement notice in Manchester.

There are growing accusations that councils are failing to protect tenants from bullying and property neglect by landlords. The act of submitting a complaint can trigger landlords to make revenge evictions, aka Section 21 eviction notice or no-fault evictions. Despite reforms in 2015, intended to prevent revenge evictions, Citizens Advice found that 3 in 4 council Environmental health Officers saw tenants receive no-fault evictions after complaining, meanwhile more than 141,000 people have been handed eviction notices since the changes. They also discovered that private tenants raising a formal complaint about their housing had a 46% chance of being issued with a Section 21 eviction notice within six months of submitting it.

The council supporting tenants concerns by serving an improvement notice provides limited protection to the tenant against eviction. Without it tenants were left entirely at disposition of the landlord. Cuts to local government grants driven by an austerity agenda landed on budgets for housing inspection services leading to understaffed offices with unsustainable caseloads.

The Homes Act bypasses a weakened system by giving these powers to tenants but also makes no mention of how these local authority housing services, hollowed out into a state of ineffectual inertia, are essential to tenants using the powers themselves. An official inspection carries a decisive weight in court, without it tenants have an uphill battle.

The financial burden of funding a case is also likely to fall on the shoulders of those tenants struggling against poor housing. With the introduction of The Legal Aid and Sentencing Protection Order 2012 (LASPO) the scope of cases and situations which qualified for Legal Aid, a public service providing free legal advice and representation, were severely restricted. In Manchester this has seen the number of supported housing cases drop by 62%.

Now you can only qualify for Legal Aid when an issue constitutes “a serious risk of harm to health and safety”. Too often this can only be proved when a serious risk has become a measurable injury. A survey by Citizens Advice showed 71% of private renters had experienced health and saftey issues such as: Damp/mould, broken heating, no hot or cold water, insecure windows, infestation or faulty wiring.

Yet if a tenant has managed to avoid injury from these, or can’t get a letter from their GP to prove it then they are often refused Legal Aid. Meanwhile the official forms of preventing and preempting these injuries, namely housing inspections and tenancy regulations, have been defunded and disused.

Even if you qualify for Legal Aid this only continues until the repairs are done, it doesn’t allow a solicitor to negotiate or push a claim for compensation in the court. You can only do half a case. The landlord knows this and they are less likely to admit fault or settle.

Tenants in the UK exist in a state of precarity and there is an acute imbalance of power favouring the landlord over the tenant. While tenants are obliged to fulfill their rent even when in dispute, without enforcement by the council a landlord can serve an eviction notice without warning or explanation. With the decline of Legal Aid, the courtroom is less and less a place of balanced reckoning. Tenants, without legal advice or representation don’t fight on a level playing field and will be forced to navigate a maze of process and procedure.Those with the capital to pay for judicial procedure are more likely to receive justice.

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In the support vacuum created by the contraction of Legal Aid and a lack of legislation to protect private renters new groups and initiatives have begun to organise tenants against an increasingly hostile housing system.

ACORN, a Renters Union and anti-poverty activist group, is active in providing advice on legal rights, support for fighting cases and organising pickets to block wrongful evictions. Ben Ell is a Member Defence Co-ordinator for ACORN Manchester and a community activist:

“We regularly encounter tenants in bad housing situations across the city. Whilst legal changes like the Homes Act and the banning of agency fees in June are welcome they aren’t enough. Our community union will continue to focus on renting as it is the major issue our members are facing.

“Large numbers of things will need to change to move us through this crisis: creation of affordable council homes, employment of more council housing officers with greater powers, strong rent controls and landlord licensing are just a few of these.”

The saying goes “Treat the cause not the symptom”. Instead the Homes Act aims at the symptoms missing the wider failings in housing policy causing these conditions.

In the private rented sector 25% of homes don’t meet the government standard of a decent home, whereas only 13% of social housing failed to meet this standard. Yet on the subject of social housing the situation in the region is grim. Across Greater Manchester 80,000 households are on a waiting list for homes of while at least 25,000 need immediate rehousing. Over the five years upto December 2016, of 2721 new homes built under Manchester City Council’s Affordable Homes Programme only 578 were social rent council homes.

But losses of social housing due to Right to Buy (RTB) far outstrip the gains. Across Greater Manchester 5,700 council houses have been sold of from 2012 to 2018. None of the money gained from these sales has been used to build replacement social housing. Meanwhile in Manchester city centre, which is undergoing a residential development boom, neither social housing or affordable housing is being built. A study published in February 2018 showed that out of a possible 2,956 affordable housing units that could have been built in Manchester (if the guideline 20% of affordable housing had been provided by developers), no affordable units at all were built.

Across Manchester the population is growing 15 times faster than homes are being built and no housing scheme Manchester City Council has proposed will begin to address this deficit quickly.

Local authorities need better ring-fenced funding for housing enforcement, to allow them to respond to complaints from their rising private renter populations and take enforcement action which protects tenants and enforces standards. Handing this responsibility onto tenants is unlikely to solve backlogs in inspections and wide-ranging issues of disrepair in national housing stock.

These are the issues which need to be solved to really make any change. While the Homes Act finally arms tenants with the right to defend themselves, it fails to provide the resources for them to do so. Increasing private housing, declining social housing, austerity cuts and stagnant wages form the formidable obstacles to a safe and healthy home for many.

 

Nicholas Prescott

Feature image: Geograph

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