Landlords will be forbidden from evicting tenants for no reason – but reform has only just begun

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No place like home. Shutterstock.

Tom Simcock, Edge Hill University and Kim McKee, University of Stirling

Change is coming. Soon, private tenants in England will have the security they need to call their rented house a home. The UK government has announced plans to abolish “no fault” Section 21 evictions in England, meaning that landlords will no longer be able to evict tenants without a legitimate reason.

Nearly one in five households in England live in the private rented sector. At present, no fault evictions cause significant insecurity for tenants, as well as negative impacts on mental health and well-being. So an end to Section 21 will have a real, positive impact on millions of households, preventing them from being uprooted at short notice. It could also help to prevent homelessness, since the biggest single cause is the ending of a tenancy in the private sector.

As waiting lists for social housing grow, the private rented sector is accommodating more vulnerable and low-income households, as well as growing numbers of families with children. Yet research shows that insecure tenancies aren’t the only challenge facing private tenants. Poor quality and unaffordable housing remain key concerns, right across the UK.

A state of disrepair

The latest government statistics show that one in four privately rented houses in England did not meet the government’s own standards for decent homes. This means that around 1.1m private renters are living in homes which contain dangerous hazards, are not in a reasonable state of repair, or lack suitable heating.

With Section 21 in place, tenants are vulnerable to “revenge evictions” if they complain about poor conditions in their homes. Citizens Advice found that tenants had a 46% chance of being served a Section 21 notice if they complained to the local council about their landlord.

Ending Section 21 should give tenants more confidence to speak out against dangers, without the threat of losing their home. But this will depend on whether councils have the funding needed to enforce standards and compel landlords to carry out repairs.

Historically, enforcement has been a postcode lottery and landlords are rarely prosecuted. In the context of austerity, where local councils have seen spending cuts of up to 40% since 2009/10, there’s little to indicate that more consistent enforcement will be possible.

Rent controls and reclamation

Tenants also face issues of affordability; particularly vulnerable, single parent families and low-income renters. This issue has worsened due to the housing benefit freeze, which has kept allowances at the same rate since 2016, while rents have continued to rise, meaning families are facing considerable hardships.




Read more:
Housing benefit freeze still driving tenants from their homes, despite Universal Credit reforms


Even with the reforms to Section 21, it would still be possible for landlords to take advantage of affordability issues, and unreasonably increase the rent to force tenants out of their home. Appropriate safeguards must be in place to stop this from happening.

Rent stabilisation measures – like those in place across much of Europe – are one solution. These measures, which can restrict when rent can be increased, or by how much, are even supported by nine out of ten landlords in England and Wales.

Berlin is well known for its rent controls. Shutterstock.

Reforms need to be introduced carefully, to minimise any unintended consequences. For example, landlords might become more risk averse, which could lead to greater discrimination against tenants who claim benefits. Or, they could decide to let their property on Airbnb instead.




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Airbnb and the short-term rental revolution – how English cities are suffering


So the government’s proposed reforms to the court process and Section 8 are vital, to give landlords confidence that they can reclaim possession of their property quickly, for legitimate reasons. This will help to ensure that good landlords have the support needed to continue letting out safe and secure homes.

Learning from Scotland

Clearly, ending Section 21 is only the first step on a long path of reforms needed to modernise the private rented sector. But English lawmakers can look to Scotland for a good example of how to tackle all the different challenges facing the private rented sector in a joined-up way.

There, all new private tenancies since December 2017 are “private residential tenancies”. They are open-ended, meaning the tenant can remain in the property as long as they wish, unless the landlord uses one of the 18 grounds for eviction, such as wishing to sell the property. When this happens, the amount of notice required varies depending on how long the tenant has lived there and the grounds for eviction used.

Rent increases are restricted to once a year, and can be referred to a “rent officer” to adjudicate. Local authorities can also apply to the Scottish government to limit rent increases in specific areas.

Private tenants can take complaints to the new housing tribunal for free, without needing a solicitor to represent them. It is designed to be less adversarial than the court process. Among its many powers, the tribunal can serve a Repairing Standard Enforcement Order on landlords, which specifies work the landlord must undertake to ensure the property meets the “repairing standard”.

Though these reforms are still in their infancy, and by no means perfect, they show how security of tenure is only one element of a modernised sector. Other parts of the UK would do well to learn from the different approaches, all while collecting evidence on what works, sharing experiences and supporting tenants and landlords to understand their new rights and responsibilities.

Ending the “no fault” ground for eviction is vital for tenants to be able to put down roots, feel settled and make their private rented property a home. But reform can’t stop there.The Conversation

Tom Simcock, Research Fellow, Edge Hill University and Kim McKee, Senior Lecturer, Social Policy and Housing, University of Stirling

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Theresa May’s failing hostile environment: immigration checks by landlords breach human rights

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The evidence is against her. Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock.

Tom Simcock, Edge Hill University

The “right-to-rent” scheme was a cornerstone of Theresa May’s hostile environment, which she put in place during her time as home secretary to curb illegal migration to the UK. Since 2016, the scheme has required landlords to check the status of their tenants by reviewing identification documents – a passport, for example. If landlords fail to comply, they can face fines of up to £3,000 or up to five years in prison.

This controversial policy has been criticised by campaigners, who are concerned that it could cause discrimination and prevent migrants, ethnic minorities and vulnerable people from finding a home in the private rental sector. Now, the UK’s high court has found that the scheme leads to discrimination against some of the UK’s most vulnerable citizens breaches human rights.

In his verdict, handed down on March 1, 2019, Justice Spencer also blocked the roll-out of the policy across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Of course, the government has the chance to appeal and this is probably not the end of court cases on this policy. But a growing body of research indicates that the policy is not only ineffective, but also could be harming UK citizens.

Mounting evidence

Research I conducted for the Residential Landlords Association in 2017 found that landlords’ concerns over prosecution due to this policy caused them to discriminate even against legal migrants, with 42% of landlords saying that they were less likely to let to someone who did not have a British passport.

One year on, in further research for the RLA, my colleagues and I found that this had increased to 44% of landlords. This shows that there is still pressure on landlords to discriminate, for fear of prosecution if they get something wrong.

These findings are consistent with those of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI). In mystery shopper exercises, the council found that British Black Minority Ethnic (BME) citizens without a passport were more likely to receive negative responses from landlords than those who could provide a passport.

But, the council also found that there was no racial discrimination between non-BME citizens and British BME citizens who could provide a passport, when they applied for tenancies. The JCWI argued that this proved the discrimination was due to the right to rent policy, rather than any underlying racism.

The UK government itself had found that 25% of landlords were unwilling to let to those without a British passport. All of this evidence underpinned the arguments which helped to decide the high court case, where Justice Spencer ruled that the right to rent scheme breaches the Human Rights Act because it causes landlords to discriminate when they otherwise would not have.

An ineffective policy

The case not only found that the policy was causing discrimination, the judge also said that the government had failed to demonstrate that the policy was effective at encouraging undocumented migrants to leave.

In 2018, the policy came under criticism from the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration. In his report, he criticised the Home Office for failing to evaluate and assess the impact of the scheme and concluded that the right to rent policy was failing “to demonstrate its worth”.

Major failures.
Willy Barton/Shutterstock.

In the government’s own impact assessment, it estimated that 830 civil penalty notices would be issued to landlords as a result of the right to rent policy each year.

But in our research for the RLA we found that, since 2016, there had been fewer than 700 reports to the Home Office by a landlord that their tenant did not have the right to rent, while the Home Office itself had only issued just over 400 civil penalty notices to landlords across England. So far, there have been no criminal prosecutions under the policy.




Read more:
‘Hostile environment’ in Britain hasn’t put off irregular immigrants – but it’s increased their suffering


Given that the scheme is estimated to cost £106m the low levels of enforcement by the Home Office raise serious questions about the scheme’s effectiveness.

Unintended consequences

The purpose of the policy was to create a “hostile environment” for those living in the UK without leave to remain, by preventing them from accessing the basic necessities for a normal life, such as a home. But government data shows that both voluntary and forced returns have fallen each year since 2015.

The evidence shows that this policy is causing discrimination and deep divisions in society, while actual enforcement by the government has been lacklustre. What’s more, the scheme is also likely to lead to further unintended consequences, which affect some of the most vulnerable people in society.

At the last census, 17% of the population were found not to have a passport. This means that some of the most vulnerable (such as those who are homeless) or those without documentation (such as the Windrush generation) who do actually have the right to rent, have been unfairly locked out of a home because of this policy.

The case has confirmed previous research findings that the hostile environment is causing deep divisions and discrimination across communities. If the UK is to reunite after Brexit and create a more inclusive society, the government must abandon this ineffective, discriminatory approach.The Conversation

Tom Simcock, Research Fellow, Edge Hill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Housing benefit freeze still driving tenants from their homes, despite Universal Credit reforms

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Shutterstock

Tom Simcock, Edge Hill University

The controversial roll out of Universal Credit has been stalled. Under pressure from across the political spectrum, work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd has unveiled a “fresh approach”. Among the new measures, Rudd has announced that the government will launch a digital platform, which promises to streamline housing benefit payments to landlords, in cases where the tenant is having difficulty paying rent.

Though it sounds technical, there is much at stake: landlords wait much longer to receive such payments from the government under Universal Credit than they did under the previous system, which was administered by local authorities. And while they wait, tenants can slide further into arrears, leaving them prone to eviction – and possibly, homelessness.

If successful, the platform could benefit landlords, as well as tenants facing the prospect of eviction when they fall into rent arrears. Yet evidence suggests that the new platform cannot plaster over the deeper issues around housing affordability, which are causing benefits claimants to lose their homes.

Rising rent arrears

Research I conducted for the Residential Landlords Association showed that over the past three years, more and more landlords have reported tenants on Universal Credit going into rent arrears. In 2016, 27% of landlords said their tenants on Universal Credit had gone into arrears. By 2018, this had more than doubled to 61% of landlords.

Before Universal Credit, housing benefit could be paid directly to landlords without delay, at the discretion of local authorities. But now, landlords must wait until a tenant has been in arrears for two months before they can apply to receive the housing benefit directly from the government to cover unpaid rent.

On average, it takes 9.3 weeks for landlords to receive the first payment. By that time, the tenant could owe up to four months worth of rent. At this point, the tenant is at significant risk of losing their home, as landlords can lawfully evict tenants with two months of rent arrears. This was borne out in our research: 77% of landlords in my study reported that the main reason for evicting tenants on Universal Credit was unpaid rent.

If the government’s new platform makes it quicker for landlords to receive a direct payment, it could reduce rent arrears, help to sustain tenancies and ultimately reduce homelessness. But our research also showed that there was a significant increase in rent arrears for tenants who claimed housing benefit, but were not on Universal Credit. This tells us that the roll out of Universal Credit isn’t the only thing which is causing hardship for private tenants.

Five year freeze

These problems can be traced back to 2013, when the government reformed how the housing benefit is calculated. Previously, each claimaint’s entitlement was worked out using Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates, based on private market rents in the claimant’s local area.

But from 2013, the government capped how much the LHA rate could rise – first in line with inflation, and then to 1% each year. In 2016, Chancellor George Osborne froze LHA rates for four years. In effect, this means that the housing benefit has not kept up with rising rents for five years.

Recent research from Manchester Metropolitan University found that the LHA rates were a major factor in the increase in homelessness. Researchers found that tenants on benefits were more likely to lose their tenancy, and then have difficulties finding an affordable home to rent, due to the gap between housing benefit and the rent.

Can’t make ends meet. Shutterstock.

Analysis by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) has found that 90% of LHA rates across the country did not cover the cheapest rents and that some families face a shortfall of hundreds of pounds a month.

This is extremely worrying, especially as the latest figures from the government show that there are 1.2m housing benefit claimants in the private rented sector. And statistics from the latest English Housing Survey show that 81% of claimants report that their benefits only cover part of their rent.

This means that nearly 1m low-income renters are now struggling with housing affordability, and being forced to make hard decisions about how they make up the shortfall created by the government’s housing benefit freeze.

Relieving the pressure

The “fresh approach” to Universal Credit may go some way to relieve pressure on households, by making it easier for landlords to claim rent directly from the government. But it will not address the underlying affordability issues caused by the benefit freeze.

Rudd has said that the benefit freeze should not continue past 2020 – but serious questions remain. For example, if the freeze is lifted, will the LHA rates be increased to current market rent levels? The CIH estimates that this would cost the government nearly £1.2 billion in housing benefit payments, placing further pressure on the Treasury.

Building more social housing – with rents linked to tenants’ income, rather than rising property and land values – would directly address the lack of affordable housing for society’s most vulnerable. A cross-party report from housing charity Shelter recently called for the government to build 3.1m new social homes by 2040 to this end, costing £214bn over 20 years.

One thing is certainly clear: without action to improve housing affordability and end the benefit freeze, the hardship faced by renting families, those just about managing, is likely to get worse.The Conversation

Tom Simcock, Research Fellow, Edge Hill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.