Channel 4’s ‘Landlords from Hell’ Dispatches documentary on Monday showed people with no options being forced to live in the most appalling conditions in private rented housing, in one case with a sickeningly violent landlord masquerading as a charity.
The shocking thing was that it wasn’t shocking to anyone who has worked in the lower end of the sector over the last 30 years. When I worked there in the 1980s, I can recall a house being discovered by environmental health officers in Haringey which had 50 people living there in shifts. The growing housing shortage is clearly making things worse, and it is inevitable that the housing benefit cuts will make the scramble for the cheapest and worst homes even more intense.
Anecdotal evidence tells me that there are fewer environmental health officers and housing advisers working in the sector than there were then, and the Chartered
Institute of Environmental Health’s journal EHP regularly reports cuts in posts and services. Back then, in boroughs like Haringey and many others, programmes like Housing Action Areas meant that the poorest areas were identified and additional powers taken for small areas of particular housing stress. Local teams of housing advisers (who understood tenants’ rights) and environment health officers (who understood property law and enforcement) worked together to go systematically from house to house dealing with bad conditions. Although landlords sometimes responded by ending a tenancy, it was the council and not the tenant that was responsible for action being taken, making it clear to the landlord that getting rid of the tenant was no way out, thereby making tenants feel less vulnerable. Picking up a small number of homeless people as a result of a large programme of intervention was seen as a price worth paying. The method was carrot and stick – grants were available to help with the works, but we would not shy away from compulsory purchase when it was necessary.
Things seem to have got worse over the years despite many changes in the legislation and
the introduction of the health and safety rating system. The service and enforcement of notices seems to be as complex and bureaucratic as ever. The sector has grown but resources, especially the number of housing environmental health officers on the ground, seem less, and it is less common to have local teams who get to know the landlords and develop relationships with them. The system seems to have reverted to responding to tenant complaints rather than planned programmes of inspections focusing on the riskiest properties.
A system that puts tenants at risk – of eviction, and occasionally of harassment – if they
complain will never work effectively. It is interesting that the CAB’s advice on getting repairs done starts with the warning: “Trying to get a repair done may put a tenant at risk. People with limited security may face eviction if they take action against their landlord.” This is the central conundrum in dealing with bad conditions in the private rented sector.
Labour’s proposed reforms following the Rugg Review were a start but are now abandoned, and the current government’s laissez faire attitude is seriously deficient. Anyone watching Grant Shapps’ interview with Jon Snow would spot the complacency and, frankly, lack of concern. There is nothing wrong with emphasising that most landlords are good, and that most tenants are satisfied, but this is no excuse for failing to have a strategy to tackle the bad landlords and the bad properties.
Private renting is the last great unmodernised industry, run by amateurs and too often
driven by the dream of the quick buck. The landlords’ organisations seem far more responsible and less defensive than they used to be: they also support action against rogue landlords and support the professionalisation of the industry.
There seems to me to be a great opportunity – rising demand, good returns, a flat property
market – for radical reform that will benefit tenants and landlords together. Taxation of private renting needs reform to encourage investment in repairs and improvements. I would argue for a stronger measure of security of tenure and the abandonment of the worst aspects of the local housing allowance changes as well. But the way forward for private renting must be based on proper regulation against a clear code and standards, a professional service, clear contracts between service provider and consumer, and swift intervention that is driven by council inspection and not tenant complaints. Just like any
other industry that has a major impact on people’s lives.