After several years of hard work, frustration and steadfast determination the MP for Westminster North, Karen Buck has finally succeeded in getting a new law passed to protect private sector tenants from landlords who are intent on exploiting and abusing them.
The Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act received Royal Assent just before Christmas.
It was Ms Buck’s third attempt at getting greater protections for tenants onto the statute book with her previous efforts talked out largely by Conservative MPs, who also happened to be private landlords themselves.
Will the simple threat of court action be enough to get the worst landlords to mend their ways?
Unsafe or unfit to occupy
However, on this occasion she got Government support for her private members’ bill and this made all of the difference. She had also won over representative bodies like the Association of Residential Letting Agents.
A happy Ms Buck later said: “There are a million properties, home to some three million people, that are unsafe or unfit to occupy and this act will provide those tenants, private and public, with a way to act against bad landlords.”
The new law does not actually impose any new standards on the quality and type of housing which tenants can expect. Its main focus is providing tenants with the power to enforce those standards that already exist. However, it does contain a clause extending its remit to the common parts of a building - this is understood to have been added as a result of concerns over safety problems in the communal parts of buildings like Grenfell Tower.
Threats of court action
The new law means that if landlords fail to provide accommodation that meets existing legal standards, their tenants can take the landlords to court and force them to undertake the works. It also means tenants are not reliant on councils’ enforcement teams to prosecute landlords on their behalf.
All social and private sector landlords or agents acting for them will be required to ensure that a property is fit for human habitation at the beginning of the tenancy and then throughout its duration. The one exception being where the tenant causes damage to the property and this makes it unfit.
It is hoped that the simple threat of court action with the associated penalties, legal costs, damages and reputational harm will be enough to get even the worst of landlords to mend their ways and carry out essential repairs and other works in agreement with their tenants.
It will be interesting to see how quickly spaces can be found in busy court schedules and how smoothly the first few prosecutions go. If there are delays in the process, then it is easy to imagine some landlords will simply evict their tenants in response to the legal processes being started, or they could increase rents to pay for any repair works.
There is of course another fear which is that the new law could result in many private landlords leaving the sector – either by selling some or all of their properties, or in simply leaving them empty. This could exacerbate problems over the supply of rental properties, with a shortage of available properties already forcing rents up in many parts of the country.
Before Christmas figures emerged showing that the number of landlords in the East of England who were exiting the rental market had shot up and now stood at twice the national average. Rising costs and continuing legislative changes are being blamed for the latest rise in landlords selling up, with some forecasters predicting the upward trend will continue into the early months of 2019 with Brexit adding to feelings of uncertainty.
In a briefing note on the new law, campaigning group Shelter said, as well as helping tenants take action directly, it would “help to raise conditions generally, through the broader positive impact on landlord education and awareness of their responsibilities and the risk of being sued”.
While David Cox, Chief Executive ARLA Propertymark is aware of the challenges faced by his landlord members, he also welcomed the new law. He said: “These rules give renters greater protection against criminal operators and it is a step in the right direction for the market. We congratulate Karen Buck and we look forward to continuing to work with her to achieve better enforcement against those who bring the sector into disrepute.”
The new act, which amends the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 and the Building Act 1984, comes into force in late March and will affect new tenancies from that time. Existing tenancies that are renewed will be brought under its scope in a year’s time.
In other good news for tenants and landlords alike, the Government has re-issued its guidance on the permitted size of bedrooms to combat the number of overcrowding cases being reported. There were an estimated 231,000 overcrowded households in the private rented sector in 2017.
Since last October, rooms used for sleeping by one person over 10 years old have had to be at least 6.51 square metres, and those slept in by two people over 10 years old will have had to be at least 10.22 square metres. Rooms slept in by children of 10 years and younger have to be at least 4.64 square metres in size.
There were concerns that the changes could have seen councils forced to take action against landlords, where a tenant gave birth and as a result there were two people in a room sized for one. A landlord who sought to evict in this scenario would be carrying out unlawful discrimination.
Following extensive discussions across the sector, fresh guidance has made it clear this should not happen. It notes that, in instances where a tenant has given birth to a child since moving into a House of Multiple Occupation, there is an expectation that local authorities will not be acting in the public interest if they commence a prosecution.