The policy director of the Residential Landlords Association writes.
Growing numbers of families and older people are now living in private rented housing – groups which want to be able to put down roots in the communities in which they live.
The challenge is to ensure the sector can offer longer tenancies to those that want them while retaining the flexibility that others need to access new work and educational opportunities, and also continuing to attract the investment needed to provide these homes.
The English Housing Survey shows that private sector tenants are, on average, living in their homes for almost four years, increasing to 17 years for those aged 75 and above. So the longer tenancies demanded are a reality for many.
Some 10 per cent of tenants in private rented housing have moved because their landlord provided a notice to regain possession of a property, while 3.5 per cent said it was because their property was in poor condition. This is distressing for those tenants – but this does not suggest that many landlords are looking for reasons to get rid of their tenants.
The opposite is true, as landlords prefer stable tenancies than having to be constantly looking for new tenants. Just 1.2 per cent of those in the sector who had moved home in the last three years said it was because they could not afford the rent.
In spite of these statistics, we recognise that tenants have to live from tenancy to tenancy and have a perception of insecurity which we need to tackle. The question is how best to achieve this in a way that works for both tenants and landlords.
As a start, we need to ensure the law works better. Some argue that tenants cannot complain about property conditions because of the threat of eviction using Section 21 powers, the so-called no fault eviction. Councils already have the powers to ensure that this does not happen. What they lack are the resources to properly use them to protect tenants from the minority of landlords who should be rooted out altogether.
Simply getting rid of Section 21 notices would still leave councils under resourced and will not improve property standards. We need to enforce the laws we have before we create new ones which we then fail to enforce.
Longer term tenancies also require much swifter access to justice when something goes wrong. Landlords should rightly have the ability to repossess a property if a tenant is failing to pay their rent or committing anti-social behaviour. The process for doing so is long and difficult and needs to be speeded up if landlords are to have the confidence to grant longer tenancies.
That is why the discussion about longer tenancies need to be linked to the establishment of a new housing court. Tenants and landlords should rightly expect a system that is able to swiftly and effectively respond in the minority of cases where things go wrong. The attention devoted to the removal of Scotland’s equivalent of the Section 21 notice ignores the fact that this came well after the introduction of a new housing court.
We need also to decide how to implement longer tenancies. The government proposes a number of models. One makes a three-year tenancy the default position by law. This would be complex as it requires trying to establish every possible scenario in which a tenant might not want such an agreement, such as students, and how that would work.
The alternative, which we support, is the use of financial incentives. In much the same way as the Treasury taxes sugar and some cars to change behaviour, why not do the same with the private rented sector? Indeed, 63 per cent of landlords have told the RLA that tax relief would encourage them to offer a longer tenancy.
The rental market is changing: it’s still made up largely of young people, but it is becoming more diverse. These groups have different needs and the rental sector needs to retain flexibility in order to meet them. A one size fits all model will not work.
David Smith is policy director for the Residential Landlords Association. It tweets @RLA_News.