Date Published 17 July 2012
The practice of ‘retaliatory evictions' – where a landlord evicts tenants who ask for repairs to be made to their properties – has been highlighted in the House of Lords, along with the lack of regulation of both landlords and agents.
Baroness Rendell of Babergh successfully led a debate in which she proposed that ‘this House takes note of the problems faced by families in the rented housing sector'.
The baroness, a vice-president of Shelter who is best known as the writer Ruth Rendell, said the scale of problems in the private rented sector raised question marks over the suitability of private renting in general.
She said that a large number of amateur landlords were failing to offer good standards of accommodation, while there was a small number of rogue landlords deliberately preying on the vulnerable.
She said that local authorities' reluctance to prosecute was sending out ‘a clear message' that bad practice will go unpunished.
She said some tenants were so frightened of being evicted if they asked their landlords for repairs, or complained about conditions, that they kept quiet.
She cited the case of a family with two small children suffering from damp-related asthma. When they asked for repairs, they were asked to leave a week before Christmas, while the agent kept more than £100 which had been pre-paid for electricity.
She said: `Shelter regularly comes across cases where tenants have promptly received an eviction notice after making a complaint to their landlord about conditions or the need for repairs. Tenants often do not risk complaining because they are anxious about bad reactions from landlords.
`However, complaints about the most serious health and safety hazards have increased by 25% in the past two years. Local authority officers believe that the complaints stem from amateur landlords not understanding their responsibilities, and that a small minority of rogue landlords are exploiting their tenants without fear of punishment.`
Baroness Rendell went on: `Estate and letting agents are currently unregulated, meaning that anyone can set up an agency without the appropriate qualifications or knowledge. ARLA believes that full mandatory government regulation of sales and letting agents is the quickest and most effective method to eliminate unprofessional, unqualified and unethical agents from the rental market.
`Will the Minister consider the need for the Government to develop a comprehensive regulatory regime to ensure that consumers are protected across the United Kingdom? With government figures estimating that approximately 750,000 homes in the private rented sector are below standard, which roughly equates to 25% of properties in the sector, it is clear that this situation must not be allowed to continue.`
Baroness Scott of Needham Market also spoke in the debate. She said: `We make a big mistake if we think that the growth of the private rented sector is a blip caused by a temporary lack of social housing and the unavailability of mortgages. These problems are here to stay.`
Lord Greaves painted a vivid picture of absentee landlords who had never visited properties in his local area in Lancashire. He said: `People who do not live in areas such as Pendle look at these prices and think that the houses are incredibly cheap. They work out how much rent they can get and still make quite a substantial profit from a buy-to-let purchase. Many are absentee landlords. They probably bought it an auction without seeing it. They ‘manage' it through a local letting agency, and that is the extent of their personal involvement with it.`
He said landlords in the area lived in Johannesburg, Jerusalem, London or the south coast, and had been ‘causing real problems'.
Baroness Turner of Camden suggested that as rents were so high, there was a case for rent controls, and Lord Sawyer said when he was a patient recently at Guy's Hospital, he found that nurses could not afford to rent in London. `The nurses come crashing in, worn out by the travel before they even start to look after their patients,` he said.
Baroness Royall of Blaison, herself a landlord of one flat, said she had recently met a family with children living in an ex-council flat in Paddington for which the private landlord charged £2,100 a month. `That cannot be a fair rent,` she said.
She added that it was ‘imperative' that the private rented sector was better regulated, and she drew peers' attention `to what I regard as very good practice in the Labour council of Newham` which is introducing a compulsory borough-wide licensing scheme.
She added: `That is exactly the sort of scheme that, as a Labour government, I hope we would introduce across the whole of this country.`
For the Government, Baroness Hanham, minister at the Department for Communities and Local Government, said she was sympathetic to the issues that had been raised.