The UK’s housing situation is a mess. What could be done to make it better, healthier and fairer for tenants?
A lack of affordable housing, dodgy landlords, repairs that never get done, bidding wars driving up rent…. it’s not easy out there for renters right now. The problem is expected to get even worse as landlords get charged higher interest rates on their mortgages, which could be passed on to tenants.
Private renting in the UK is broken, and campaigners around the country are calling for a shake-up of the system to make it fairer for tenants. But what could actually be done to fix it? Here are some of the ways renting could be made less of a nightmare – starting from the most likely to happen, and getting more idealistic as we go on.
1. Put an end to no-fault evictions
At the moment, a landlord in England or Wales can give notice to end a tenancy without establishing that the tenant has done anything wrong, under what is called a ‘Section 21’ eviction. To put it mildly, this is not great for renters. According to housing charity Shelter, one in four households that are homeless or at risk of homelessness are in that position because of losing their private tenancy.
No-fault evictions leave all renters living with insecurity and uncertainty about the future of their home. ‘Section 21s are being issued left, right and centre in Bristol,’ says Jessie Seal, who works at homeless prevention organisation, Caring in Bristol. ‘Today we are celebrating because a young person has moved into a shared house with friends after nearly a year in temporary accommodation. But private-rented-sector property doesn’t feel like a secure place, for staff or our clients.’
However, the likelihood of no-fault evictions coming to an end in the UK is somewhat high. The current government is (just about) behind it – but then again, it has been saying that it will end them since 2019. Time will tell.
2. Introduce deposit ‘passports’
Moving house is already an expensive thing to do – and finding a month or more’s rent in advance, when your deposit is still tied up by your current landlord, makes it even more of a challenge. Campaign group Generation Rent says the average deposit for renting in the UK is £808 (which ain’t cheap!)
A single deposit that moves with you from landlord to landlord could make things a lot easier. This is another idea that the current government has (somewhat) championed, so it could actually happen – perhaps in the form of a deposit ‘passport’ which would transfer from one property to another, when you move.
3. Set some standards
Rent prices aren’t the only problem for renters: another issue is the quality of homes. Latest government statistics show that around 12 percent of private-rented-sector homes in England have a ‘category one’ safety hazard, meaning the property is a serious and immediate threat to the resident’s safety.
Even if you’re not living with something this serious, tenants often have to wait ages for landlords and letting agents to fix problems (almost everyone has had to lend their shower to a mate at some point). One solution could be setting legally-binding minimum standards for all rents – like extending the decent-homes standard required for social housing to private-rent properties.
4. Stick every single landlord on a register
While some UK councils have landlord-licensing schemes, the reality is that there are few checks and balances on who can be a landlord. Inevitably, this can lead to some dodgy situations. Take Beth McLoughlin, from London, who says one former landlord would come into her flat without telling her (which is illegal, btw). ‘Once I came in and my bed was made, when I knew I hadn’t done it myself,’ she said. ‘I also left some gaffer tape up by the door, and when I came back it was rolled up in a ball on a shelf.’
Even in cases where something clearly illegal has happened, it’s often difficult to take action against landlords. Beth went from that flat to sofa-surfing, before finding somewhere else to rent, without ever reporting the problem.
Creating a national register of landlords and letting agents could be one solution to this. ‘Most landlords are small-scale operators,’ says Generation Rent. ‘83 percent have four or fewer properties, and most of those are not part of professional industry bodies or accreditation schemes that can give them support to rent safely.’
5. Set the rules straight
Bringing in country-wide regulation which sets out what landlords can and can’t do is high on the agenda of most private-rent campaigners. At the moment, renters are at the mercy of what local authority you’re living in, with a massive patchwork of rules.
Landlords as well as tenants have called attention to this, with the National Residential Landlord Association releasing a report in February which found a postcode lottery of local authorities that were enforcing the rules that do exist. Paul Conway, who runs a site called Yuno aiming to help landlords track regulation, says that ‘on average it changes every nine days throughout the UK’.
‘The private-rented sector needs a single regulatory body,’ says Neil Goodrich, housing expert and former chair of the Chartered Institute of Housing Futures. ‘One that looks after the interests of tenants and their consumer rights, while balancing this with the rights of landlords.’
6. Give renters more rights to their homes
This is a simple one. Other countries have much longer tenancies, and it’s much harder to get evicted. In Germany, the longer you rent a place, the more notice the landlord has to give to end the tenancy. Lots of properties in Germany don’t come with fitted kitchens: the tenant puts them in. This gives a sense of the difference that long, secure tenancies can give, because the idea is basically unthinkable in the UK.
7. Put some sort of cap on rent
This is the big one. You can’t really fix the private-rented sector without doing something about prices. And that means, in one form of another, introducing a rent control that limits rent increases or even sets a new living rent.
This is what most campaigners hope could make things much better, and it’s an idea that has already been tried in some parts of the UK. In Scotland, councils can apply to become ‘rent pressure zones’ if prices are out of control. But since the power was introduced in 2016, it’s not been used an awful lot (no zones were around in 2020), and campaign groups want more to be done.
Pressure group Living Rent wants rent to be linked to a rent affordability index for a local area, which could be major for priced-out renters. And just last month, the Scottish government announced that it would be freezing all rents in response to the cost-of-living crisis – suggesting that it is possible for these things to be done.
8. Stop bidding wars
Even without full-on rent control, there could be other limits in place to make renting more affordable. ‘Bidding wars’ have emerged in UK cities with a shortage of places available, like in London, where prospective tenants outbid each other to secure properties. In turn, this drives up prices even more. ‘Make it illegal to let at above the advertised rent,’ suggests building writer Kate de Selincourt.