More than half of the population (53 per cent) do not think that renting privately works fairly for tenants, according to a recent report from the IPPR.
It is easy to see why. Limited protection from eviction, rising rents and poor conditions all impact on the public's perception of the sector. Hardly surprising then that 61 per cent of people do not think that the sector provides tenants with a long-term, stable home and 59 per cent say it does not provide affordable homes.
As part of our research, IPPR conducted focus groups across the country with tenants and landlords, aiming to understand more about people’s experiences of the tenure and what they would like to see done to reform it.
Through our in-depth conversations with tenants we found that many remain very concerned about the insecurity of private renting, worrying about having to move at short notice and putting them off complaining about repairs or poor conditions for fear of appearing as a nuisance. The high cost of rents, fees and deposits contributed further to this insecurity and caused hardship for a number of those we spoke to.
Experiences with poor conditions were commonplace, as were difficulties in getting landlords to complete repairs. Moreover, tenants often did not feel at home in the sector, with limits placed on them by landlords – preventing them from decorating for example – making them feel as though they didn’t have control over their home.
From the landlords’ perspective, many were concerned about welfare reform, which made them reluctant to let to those in receipt of housing benefit; reforms and reductions to tax relief on private landlords, which had reduced their income; and the legal system, which many felt was too slow in the rare cases where a tenant was not paying rent, exposing them to many months with no rental income.
Our research also found that tenants and landlords share some key issues. They both lack knowledge on their rights and responsibilities, undermining their ability to exercise them and meaning that tenants cannot assume lawful treatment by default.
They both felt the other party had greater power in the system. Tenants feel that they lack power in the system as a whole, resulting in mistrust, while landlords have expressed frustration at a lack of power in key parts of the process, principally at the end of a tenancy.
Finally, both tenants and landlords have limited trust in the system and the ability of government to reform it, demonstrating that reforms will need to build confidence in the sector if they are to be successful.
However, it was not all doom and gloom. We also found support for reform amongst landlords. Many recognised the impact a lack of security had on tenants, particularly those with children, and expressed a willingness for extra security to be offered to renters.
The government is making positive, though tentative, steps in reforming the sector – banning letting agency fees, consulting on the introduction of longer tenancies and exploring court reform. But, as in so many areas, this important area of domestic policy risks being starved of attention in the face of dealing with Brexit.
Failing to address the issues with the private rented sector would be a major own goal for the government given the widespread support for reform: 72 per cent of the public think government should be more involved in improving and regulating the private rented sector. Moreover, analysis conducted by the housing charity Shelter has shown that in marginal constituencies, private tenants make up a significant block of voters.
That 4.7m households have limited access to a stable home, are more likely to suffer poor conditions and lack control over their home are fundamental issue of justice. But as our work has shown, tackling these issues wouldn’t just ensure that the sector was more just: it would be hugely popular with tenants and the wider public, too.
Darren Baxter is a research fellow at IPPR.