Opinion

Disabled renters need protection – and the Tories' watered-down renter reforms don't deliver it

It’s clear that disabled renters need stronger rights that compel landlords to make the adaptations they need, writes Labour MP Nadia Whittome

spring budget/ disabled people

Disabled people fear being forced into unsuitable work. Image: Unsplash

Almost every renter has their fair share of horror stories: struggling to find anywhere suitable that’s within your budget, landlords ignoring your emails or refusing to fix things, revenge evictions or huge rent hikes after making complaints.  

But what if you’re also disabled? If you’re trying to find a wheelchair-accessible property? If you need grab-rails to use the bathroom, lowered counters or adapted appliances to cook in your kitchen, a lift to get up the stairs? 

More than one in six disabled people are currently living in the private-rented sector. With a chronic shortage of social housing and home ownership far out of reach – especially when disabled people’s incomes are lower on average – many have no other choice.  

One in three of these disabled renters are in properties that are unsuitable for their needs. People like Robert, who has visual and mental health impairments and lives alone in a privately rented flat, and has spoken to Disability Rights UK and Inclusion London about the impact of his poor living situation. 

A lack of accessibility features means Robert risks injuring himself in his home and cannot use his cooking facilities, such as his kettle and toaster. Despite his requests for adaptations, Robert’s landlord has been unresponsive. He faces anxiety and stress due to this unsafe environment, compounded by financial strain from rising housing costs and utility expenses. He cannot consider moving to another property as rents in his local area have sharply increased, so he’s trapped in a dangerous home. 

Funding to make adaptations to disabled people’s homes is, in theory, available through the disabled facilities grant (DFG), yet only 6% of DFGs go to private renters. Many barriers exist, the most common being that private landlords refusing to make adaptations. In fact, the DFG Review in 2018 confirmed that more than 10% of applications for DFGs were discontinued because the landlord or owner refused permission, so it’s clear that disabled renters need stronger rights that compel landlords to make the adaptations they need. 

The Renters Reform Bill 

Reform for renters, disabled or not, is long overdue, and with the Renters Reform Bill making its way through parliament, renters’ rights are under the spotlight. 

But what started off as a piece of legislation that, while flawed and inadequate, seemed a significant step in the right direction, has now been dramatically watered down by a government desperate to appease landlords, including those on its own benches.  

Most prominently, the long-promised ban on no-fault evictions has been delayed indefinitely, and as the Renters Reform Coalition wrote in a letter ahead of the latest debate in parliament last week, “this legislation is intended to give the impression of improving conditions for renters, but in fact it preserves the central power imbalance at the root of why renting in England is in crisis.” 

Strengthening disabled renters’ rights

In an attempt to shift this power imbalance towards disabled renters and away from landlords when it comes to home adaptations, I tabled an amendment to the Renters Reform Bill last week. The change I proposed would make it explicit in law that landlords cannot “unreasonably refuse home adaptations for the purposes of a disabled person’s access to or usage of the home”. 

With landlords often refusing to make even the simplest of adaptations, like grab-rails, and rejecting requests even when changes would be paid for through government funding, disabled renters’ rights need to be strengthened. 

Unsurprisingly, the Tories refused to back it. Instead, the government successfully amended the bill to delay the abolition of no-fault evictions and prevent tenants from leaving a contract within the first six months, further weakening the legislation to benefit landlords. 

What is needed instead

It is clear that the Renters Reform Bill now barely even tinkers around the edges of a system that is fundamentally broken. It does little for most renters, but particularly those at the sharpest end of the housing crisis, who most need better rights and protection. It’s no wonder that most housing charities and campaign groups have now withdrawn their support. 

Instead, more drastic action is required. As well as an immediate ban on no-fault evictions, with one in four disabled people in poverty, a rent freeze should be introduced followed by a system of rent controls to stop spiralling housing costs. Local housing allowance must keep pace with rent so that those receiving benefits are still able to access the private rented sector. 

But essential to tackling the housing crisis in the long-term is a rapid, publicly-funded expansion of homes for social rent. More council housing needs to be built, Right to Buy must be scrapped and local authorities should have first refusal if landlords decide to sell their properties. These new homes must be designed with accessibility in mind, growing the pool of suitable and affordable places for disabled people to live. 

This may be expensive, but so is inaction: from record rates of homelessness, to shameful levels of poverty, to the knock-on impacts on our NHS and social care system, our housing crisis breeds its own costs, both to the taxpayer and, more importantly, to people’s lives. 

In the sixth largest economy in the world, it is beyond time that the right to affordable, accessible, warm and safe housing for all was a guarantee. 

Nadia Whittome is the Labour MP for Nottingham East.

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