An open letter from Let Down, supported by Welsh Tenants, Shelter Cymru & Tai Pawb.
Renting is tough. It causes problems across the UK, but here in Wales, we have an opportunity to change it.
At the end of September, the Welsh Assembly will vote on the Renting Homes Bill. The Welsh Government has introduced this to reform renting, primarily by condensing a confusing amount of tenancy contracts (those issued by landlords and letting agents) into just two, easier to understand, contracts. This goes hand in hand with the Housing Act that was passed last year, which amongst other things will ensure all landlords and letting agents are licensed as a ‘fit and proper person’. This is progress but it does not go far enough.
Let Down in Wales has been campaigning for better renting over the last two years. We believe that renters are bearing the brunt of the housing crisis and we need to properly reform the sector so they have more of a voice. We’ve all heard how difficult it is for them: renters have to use most of their wages on their rent, meaning they can never save. Renters often have to put up with awful landlords without knowing who they can turn to for help. Renters have to deal with the fact that if they are ever able to save money, they probably still won’t be able to afford to buy a home.
Given that renting isn’t going away, we think it needs to be reformed, alongside a suite of other measures to increase house-building, increase options for housing (i.e. co-operatives, social housing, shared ownership) and to ensure landowners and planning law does not hold up dealing with housing need.
Let Down has launched a manifesto that asks AMs to vote for progressive measures in the Renting Homes Bill and to consider further measures in their 2016 manifestos. The Assembly election next year gives renters an important opportunity to tell the political parties what they need to survive the private rented sector. Here are five things that would change how we rent in Wales.
- A Private Tenants Tribunal, or an expansion of the Residential Property Tribunal (RPT)
This would encourage and promote mediation between landlords and tenants. It needs to provide a safe, free route for tenants to settle disputes with bad landlords. The Renting Homes Bill originally proposed to make the RPT smaller in scope, but with legal aid being removed and the courts only open to those who can afford it, it’s more important than ever that tenants have a safe place to tackle bad landlords.
- Higher standards in the private rented sector, with a Welsh Tenants Quality Standard
This would be used in parallel with the Welsh Housing Quality Standard (WHQS), used in social housing. This would ensure there is a drive and a level of enforcement to tackle poor standards, without creating the burden on landlords to immediately get properties to a WHQS level. Local authorities also need to be given powers on fixed penalty notices to ensure they can enforce this.
- A ban on letting agent fees in Wales
This would go alongside a legal requirement to ensure all letting agents are part of a redress scheme. Letting agent fees are a business cost and should not be put on the tenants. They ought to either be absorbed by the business or taken from the landlord, the one who owns and profits from the business.
- Rent control measures to ensure that rents cannot rise beyond inflation
We would not propose unreasonable restrictions but simply ensure no landlord can use rent hikes in order to kick out tenants. There also needs to be well publicised forms of appeal if a tenant thinks their rent has risen unreasonably, compared to the quality of the tenancy and property.
- Support for a Tenants Union
Social housing tenants have more representation by charities and housing associations, but private tenants are often likely to be just as poor and just as vulnerable. Creating a Tenants Union would ensure real tenants can help feed into revisions of the Code of Conduct for landlords/agents. A union could also help with information gathering in order to license all landlords and letting agents — in cooperation with Cardiff Council — and encourage tenants to know their rights and responsibilities within Wales’ new tenancy contracts.
All of this would drastically help to improve private rented conditions. But we also need to campaign against two things the Renting Homes Bill proposes to do when AMs vote on it this month.
The ‘six-month moratorium’ is an existing level of security for tenants that the Renting Homes Bill will take away. It ensures that no one can be evicted within the first six months of a tenancy. The Welsh Government wants to remove this, arguing that it will make landlords ‘more likely to rent to at-risk tenants’. We would argue that if a landlord wants the flexibility of evicting someone after only 3 months, they should not be taking in tenants at all, least of all vulnerable tenants. If a renter needs a shorter contract, it should be on their terms and from them making a request when signing for their new home. The six-month moratorium needs to stay by default.
There are also parts of the Bill on abandonment of the property, where the landlord will be allowed to provide written notice to tenants saying they ‘think’ it has been abandoned. If they receive no response within 4 weeks, they will be able to regain possession of the property without a court order. This sets a dangerous precedent and possession orders need court oversight for a reason. This is also something being proposed in England and we think it may be to the detriment of tenants’ rights.
All of things show how important it is for renters to have a voice. A wide range of housing organisations have been campaigning on these issues and our manifesto and our five proposals for reform are supported by Shelter Cymru, Welsh Tenants and Tai Pawb. Combined, they represent tenants’ voices, which we think needs to be heard more than ever.