With home ownership a distant dream for a growing number of people, and access to social housing increasingly rationed, more and more people are being forced to rent from a private landlord.
Life as a private tenant can be tough. In much of the country, rents are eye wateringly high and difficult to pay for even those on middle incomes. And our renting laws leave millions of families stuck in short-term tenancies, unable to put down roots in a home they know they will be able to live for the long-term.
But if that wasn’t bad enough, too often private renters get shoddy service. For too many that’s not having their basic rights met, but for some it’s criminal.
Research from Shelter reveals the extent of this problem, and shows that an estimated one million private renters have been victim of law-breaking landlords over the past year. When surveyed, the equivalent of over 600,000 renters say a landlord has entered their property without permission or notice, over 200,000 say they’ve been subjected to harassment, and shockingly 50,000 reported that their landlord has thrown their belongings out of their property and changed the locks.
Of course, only a minority of landlords engage in these illegal practices – but to date, far too many tenants have been forced to put up with them. Our advisers frequently hear from renters facing landlords looking to bend and break the law – and more often than not, renters feel vulnerable and powerless.
Take Linda from Chesterfield. After leaving a property she wanted her deposit back. She wasn’t having any joy, so used a template letter from Shelter’s website and contacted the landlord formally – which she did twice and was ignored both times.
Linda escalated the issue to the small claims court, followed a number of different legal routes and had to pay for legal advice in order to eventually get it back. You shouldn’t have to be a part-time housing lawyer to get your deposit back, and yet our survey shows that over 370,000 people over the last year have paid a deposit, which has not been protected by a government scheme.
Linda’s story also highlights that we’re not just talking about a London issue here, but a problem across England. Our survey showed that, whilst the highest proportion of complaints came from London, one in six renters from the East of England were victim to law breaking landlords, one in seven in the North East and one in eight in the South West.
New enforcement powers introduced earlier this year are an opportunity to really crack down on the rogue landlords who persist in the sector. For the first time, it is going to be possible to ban rogue landlords from letting out property. And, if they breach a ban, there will also be the new threat of a custodial sentence for the worst offenders.
Making legislation more robust in favour of renters is clearly a move in the right direction. Not only is it necessary in order to protect people, but it would be popular as generations slide back into a system of renting instead of home ownership.
There’s more that renters themselves can also do. What’s clear from our research is that renters too often don’t know their rights, and so power can weigh in favour of rogue and irresponsible landlords who know how to play the system and manipulate their tenants. Renters can change this by getting in touch with organisations like Shelter and understanding their rights and their legal situation more thoroughly.
Campbell Robb is chief executive of the housing charity Shelter.
This article was originally published on our sister site, the Staggers.