As many as half a million homes in England could be affecting the health of residents, according to the Public Accounts Committee. Image: Matilda Wormwood / Pexels
Deathtrap homes that pose “a serious threat to the health and safety of renters” are costing the NHS an estimated £340 million a year, MPs have warned.
Around 13 per cent of privately rented properties in England currently cause a threat to health – amounting to 589,000 homes according to the Public Accounts Committee’s (PAC) report. But tenants face a postcode lottery with as many as a fifth of homes in areas like Yorkshire and the Humber deemed unsafe.
The Westminster government is set to bring sweeping reforms to the sector in the next couple of months through the Renters’ Reform Bill. But the committee said the “poor understanding” of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) on issues such as overcrowding, harassment, evictions and the effect of regulation could hamper its impact.
“Unsafe conditions, overcrowding, harassment, discrimination and dodgy evictions are still a huge issue in the private rented sector,” said Dame Meg Hillier MP, chair of the Public Accounts Committee.
“And yet the sector is a growing provider of homes and rents keep rising, meaning that safe, suitable housing is too often out of reach for renters. Renters with a problem are faced with a complex and costly redress system which is not fit for purpose and many tenants give up at the first hurdle.”
The private rented sector in England has doubled in size in the last two decades to accommodate 11 million people.
The balance of power has also been tipped in favour of landlords with no-fault evictions – which allow a landlord to evict a tenant without giving a reason – leaving households at risk of homelessness.
MPs also found tenants face difficulties when trying to enforce a legal right to a safe and secure home with an “inaccessible, arduous and resource-intensive court process” and the risk of retaliatory eviction if they want to complain.
Unlawful discrimination remains a problem in the sector too. The committee found a quarter of landlords are unwilling to let to non-British passport holders and just over half are unwilling to rent their property to tenants who receive housing benefit.
Rohan Kon, ACORN chair, said continued discrimination in the private rental market is a “national disgrace”.
“This is a timely opportunity to reshape the regulation of private renting to make it fairer and safer for renters, be that by creating simple and coherent avenues for redress, and closing loopholes that mean tenants live in fear of rent hikes and eviction,” said Kon.
“However, we will still see the same problem in five years’ time if local authorities are not given resources to properly enforce regulation.”
The Renters’ Reform Bill white paper is set to counteract some of these issues when it is unveiled this Spring, delivering on a three-year promise to axe no-fault evictions and exploring a national landlords register.
However, the committee said DLUHC’s “piecemeal legislative changes” in recent years have made the regulatory system “even more overtly complex and difficult to navigate” for tenants, landlords and local authorities.
MPs also accused the department of failing to understand the scale of the problem and councils’ resources to help renters as well as lacking robust data on complaints, overcrowding, harassment and eviction.
The Renters’ Reform Bill white paper must bring ambitions for the private rented sector as well as a strategy for the property market as a whole, added Dame Hillier: “We need to see a change in balance. We expect DLUHC to produce the promised white paper in a timely and effective fashion, and start to turn around its record on addressing the desperate housing crisis in this country.”
A DLUHC spokesperson told The Big Issue that local councils had the power to “crack down on rogue landlords” through fines of up to £30,000 and bans.
“As part of our mission to improve housing conditions and to give residents the power to hold landlords to account, we’ll introduce new legislation to improve the quality and regulation of social housing and explore proposals for a national private landlord register in England,” the spokesperson said.
“We’ll also publish a landmark white paper this spring and consult on introducing a legally binding Decent Homes Standard in the private rented sector for the first time ever.”
Generation Rent is one of a group of campaigners which have joined forces as the Renters Reform Coalition to call for reforms in the sector.
Dan Wilson Craw, deputy director at Generation Rent, said a national register was “essential” to raise awareness of renters’ rights, improve support from councils and to let central government understand where changes need to be made.
“None of us should have to live in a home that could make us ill, but it can be an uphill struggle for private renters to get landlords to fix anything,” said Wilson Craw. “As he designs a new tenancy system, Michael Gove must make sure landlords cannot use threats to avoid their responsibilities.
Ben Beadle, chief executive of the National Residential Landlords Association, who provided oral evidence to the committee, agreed with the committee that the government must commit to a long-term strategy.
“Such a strategy needs to include assessing the impact of reforms on the supply of homes for rent at a time when demand for them is soaring,” said Beadle.