If your rented home has a broken boiler, mould growing up the wall, or a kitchen that’s falling apart, you won’t be surprised to learn that it’s not unusual. But it’s by no means acceptable: serious defects in the home can harm your health, so the law rightly requires landlords to keep their properties free of them.
Nevertheless, one in seven private rented homes has at least one severe hazard, and is classed as unsafe. That’s more than 600,000 households spending a large portion of their income on something that could make them ill.
Councils have responsibility for enforcing standards in the private rented sector. If environmental health officers find hazards on inspections of rented homes, they can take enforcement action, such as serving an improvement notice on the landlord, who is then compelled to carry out repairs. Failure to comply can result in prosecution, or, since 2017, a civil penalty of up to £30,000.
Yet most councils are not using their powers. Generation Rent made Freedom of Information requests to 102 of the councils with the largest private renter populations. Just 78 reported the Category 1 (severe) hazards they found in 2017-18 – a total of 12,592 of them. But in the same period, these councils served only 2,545 improvement notices – so only 21 per cent of landlords with unsafe homes were forced to do anything about it.
Just eight councils had a ratio of improvement notices to Category 1 hazards of more than 75 per cent, and five appear to have issued no improvement notices in the whole 12-month period.
Some councils tell us that taking informal action – such as sending warning letters and “hazard awareness notices” – is usually enough to convince landlords to make repairs before they need to reach for an improvement notice, which involves more staff time. But this pragmatic approach means that tenants are left exposed to a retaliatory eviction.
Because landlords can evict tenants without needing a reason – under Section 21 of the 1988 Housing Act – many use this to intimidate tenants into putting up with unsafe conditions. In 2015 Parliament passed the Deregulation Act which makes a Section 21 notice invalid if the council has served an improvement notice for severe hazards.
Our data show that only a handful of councils are reliably providing tenants with this protection. If councils aren’t routinely using their powers then tenants will continue to be cowed into silence.
This week a new law comes into force which goes some way to addressing this lack of support. The Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 gives people starting tenancies from Wednesday onwards the ability to take negligent landlords to court over hazardous conditions. As well as forcing landlords to carry out repairs without relying on councils – which are, after all, experiencing deep budget cuts – courts can also award compensation to the tenant.
But unlike council-issued enforcement notices, the Homes Act does not protect plaintiffs from the no-fault eviction notice their landlord might issue in response. While compensation would be incentive enough for some to take action, there is a risk that any award would be swallowed up in the costs of moving home.
You’re much more likely to have a squalid home if you are on a low income, so the threat of having to find a new home when you have negligible savings is a potent one. Rather than rely on the Deregulation Act, tenants need to have basic assurance that they won’t be evicted for no good reason. Abolishing Section 21 would mean landlords would need valid grounds for eviction, so they couldn’t simply hang the threat of a forced move over tenants living in damp, draughty conditions. This – along with restrictions on rent increases, that other weapon of intimidation in criminal landlords’ armoury – would finally give renters confidence to exercise their rights.
Last summer the government consulted on a proposal for three-year tenancies, which would be a step forward in preventing retaliatory evictions, albeit only within the fixed term. We are still awaiting ministers’ decision on the next steps, but pressure is building across the political spectrum. On Saturday, the conservative Centre for Social Justice joined the growing chorus to scrap Section 21. Without reforming tenancy law substantially, the government can expect bullying of tenants to continue and the number of unsafe homes to remain stubbornly high.
Dan Wilson Craw is director of Generation Rent.
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