Rented accommodation not safe to live in – do sharp practices of letting agents exacerbate this?
Households which can afford private rents not only have insecure tenancies but are subject to practices, which make clear the landlord is their customer and not the tenant. Some landlords are committed to providing a fair and safe housing service and yes, some tenants treat properties very badly. However, many tenants look after the property and pay their rent regularly and yet there are letting agents who abuse these tenants. The percentage of young people aged 25-34 years vulnerable to these practices is more than double in 2014, 48% than in 2004 when it was 21% .
Example 1: the hot water heating system failed for three young people in Leeds. They could not afford to run the heating – the only way to obtain hot water. They emailed the agents asking for a repair and there was no response. Telephoning the agent was only allowed for emergencies. If the agent deemed the situation not to be an emergency, a fine of £20 would be levied. This was too great a risk to take. They could not complain for fear of being evicted.
Example 2: the letting agent treating current tenants as new tenants each time someone new moved into their shared house meant four young women in Norwich had to pay the whole individual administrative fee each time one tenant left. It is hard to see how these three figure sums are justified when they have been tenants for some years.
Example 3: a letting agent in Leeds, widely known for poor practice, hides its identity behind another business who does the marketing. At the point of signing the contract the tenant-to-be discovers that the contract is with the agent they intended to avoid. By then, it is too late not to sign and they know they are vulnerable to sharp practices again. The current Housing and Planning Bill proposes to address these issues with rogue letting agents and landlords. The powers are delegated to local councils but according to research by Karen Buck MP despite 51,916 complaints to 120 local councils (2013 figures) on average councils prosecuted fewer than one landlord a year each. The reasoning of the local government minister Marcus Jones for the defeat of the Labour amendment seeking to ensure that all rented accommodation was “safe for people to live in” was that the proposal would result in “unnecessary regulation and cost to landlords.”
Those of us whose work is committed to social justice should not be reassured as yet by this Bill. The suggestions of Paul Mason, economics editor of Channel 4 News to start with principles and then to shape the market towards smart outcomes gives hope for a way forward.