There is a strong case now for a specialist housing court to give tenants better protectionby / May 11, 2018 / Leave a comment
This country faces a housing crisis and while the problems posed by a broken housing market are widely acknowledged, it can help to shine a light on specific challenges. The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, of which I am Chair, has been focusing on some of the problems in the private rented sector.
The sector has doubled in size over the last 15 years. Although the vast majority of homes within it are of a decent standard, a significant minority can only be described as shockingly inadequate.
As part of our inquiry, we visited a London Borough to find out how they enforce standards. While there, we saw a garden shed configured to accommodate not one, but two households. We heard about 25 people being accommodated in a small three-bedroom house. People were living in a walk-in freezer. A family was living in a chipboard construction in a garden, with a fridge and a washing machine powered by a wire from the kitchen.
Through our online forum, we heard directly from tenants about the poor conditions they had suffered. One submission said:
“We live in a house full of mould and damp with four young children… We have… faulty electrics and water comes through the living room window when it rains… the whole family keeps getting ill from it.”
These are shocking and unacceptable conditions.
As we know, where landlords think there is a ready supply of tenants desperate for somewhere to live, a clear imbalance in power has been allowed to develop. Tenants are often unwilling to complain about the conditions in their homes for fear of retaliation, which often can take the form of eviction, rent rises and harassment.
Forty-four per cent of tenants said that a fear of eviction would stop them from negotiating with their landlord over disrepair, while 14 per cent felt they had been penalised for complaining. More than 200,000 reported having been abused, threatened or harassed by a landlord.
Incredibly, Shelter and Citizens Advice told us that they often reminded tenants about the risks of making complaints, and how they may end up facing eviction and making a homeless application in three months’ time. That there are problems in the private rented sector is widely-known but the extent of them is perhaps not fully understood.
There need to be stronger protections for tenants. For example, we believe a Specialist Housing Court would provide a more accessible route of redress for tenants, and have urged the government to bring forward detailed proposals as soon as possible.
The lack of action against these landlords is shocking. Most local authorities told us they were generally satisfied with the powers they had to uphold standards in the sector. However, these powers are meaningless if local authorities do not, or cannot, enforce them in practice.
Figures from 2016 showed that six out of ten councils did not prosecute a single landlord, with 80 per cent prosecuting fewer than five. In fact, one local authority, the London borough of Newham, was responsible for 60 per cent of all prosecutions in London and 50 per cent across the country. There is some informal enforcement going on but some vulnerable tenants are being left without the protection to which they are legally entitled.
This can be partly explained by local authorities having fewer resources. That is why we have called for a new fund to support local authorities with this work. However, it is unfortunately true that many councils have simply prioritised other issues.
We heard from councillors who told us their authorities were reluctant to pursue prosecutions against criminal landlords if the cost of prosecuting far outweighed either the fine or the costs awarded by the court. This is shocking, but ensuring local authorities are able to reclaim their costs in full should help to boost prosecutions. Sadly, many rogue landlords view the current level of civil penalties as a cost of business and a price worth paying.
Our Committee has concluded that we need much harsher penalties—penalties that will really hit the very worst landlords where it hurts. We are calling for local authorities to be given the power to levy more substantial fines and, to combat the most egregious offences, councils should have the power to confiscate properties. Only then will we have the chance of breaking the exploitative business model of landlords who care not a bit for their vulnerable tenants.
It is time to get tough with the landlords who abuse the system. Everyone deserves a safe and secure place to call home.