Councils are failing to protect tenants from bullying landlords

Rental properties in Coventry. Image: Getty.

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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How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.