Telegraph Voices: Would Sheffield tenants benefit from greater regulation on private rental housing?

STOCK: Sheffield housing.
STOCK: Sheffield housing.

This week’s Telegraph Voices feature focuses on the debate around controls on the private rental market.

Harriet Cooke, Martin & Co Estate Agents

Recently we have seen a raft of new legislation aimed at making rented properties safer, fees more transparent and more protection from retaliatory eviction and we will also see the banning of all tenant fees shortly.

In Scotland, when similar regulation was introduced, it resulted in higher rents for tenants so in the end you could say it is the tenant who picks up the cost.

What we need is balance - more regulation can help but it must rid the industry of rogue agencies who steal deposits and rents.

We need more enforcement of the existing rules from trading standards and local authorities and we need to educate tenants more.

When legislation was introduced to make fees transparent, only 77 out of 81 agencies were compliant when checked and it’s a similar record on agents having to belong to a redress scheme - even today some continue to trade while not registered.

It needs to be made law for agents to belong to a Client Money Scheme (CMP) and an industry organisation that can regulate this, ensuring that agents are audited regularly, proving that they handle clients’ money correctly and carry insurance should they cease trading.

New legislation is needed to stop agents who get expelled from the redress schemes from trading - there have been many cases where agencies just take a ‘business as usual’ approach.

Recent surveys also show that most tenants are completely unaware of what to look for when choosing an agency so it is vital that tenants be educated on the schemes and organisations that good agents will be members of.

The law from 2015 states these must be displayed in all the offices so tenants should be looking for proof that agents are part of The UK Association of Lettings Agents (UKALA), National Approved Letting Scheme (NALS) and Association of Residential Letting Agents (ARLA).

It is a legal requirement that a tenant must be given the Government’s ‘How to rent guide’ when they sign the tenancy agreement, but this is shutting the gate after the horse has bolted – many rogue agents won’t provide it.

More focused regulation, better enforcement and greater education for tenants - that has to be the way forward.

Desiree Fields, lecturer in urban geography, Sheffield University

The UK’s longstanding, overwhelming emphasis on home ownership has allowed private rented housing to serve as a residual sector, existing to meet the housing needs of disadvantaged and deprived households and groups for whom getting on ‘the property ladder’ is an unrealistic proposition.

The private rented sector (PRS) has grown substantially in recent years, now serving as the tenure for one-fifth of UK households and outpacing social renting.

The growth of the PRS is not a problem in and of itself; in many countries long-term renting is a viable and secure option. But this is not the case in the UK. Structural conditions (erosion of council housing, wage stagnation and insecure work, increasing indebtedness) are changing the size and composition of the PRS for at least the medium term.

However regulation has not caught up with the fact that the PRS is increasingly not a stop along the way to home ownership, but the only viable housing choice for many. Barring a dramatic turnaround, if the PRS is to serve as a potentially lifelong housing option, it should be subject to further regulation.

This is not simply a question of quantity but of kind: for example, while the recent ban on agent fees is a welcome one, it does not necessarily contribute to greater security for tenants.

Rather, what is needed are changes like long-term or indefinite leases, controls to regulate rent increases, greater political representation for tenants’ interests and ‘just cause’ eviction, rather than eviction for any or no reason. As local efforts to organise PRS tenants grow, they should also coordinate at regional and national scales to build greater influence and push for better legal protections.

Molly Williams, Sheffield Hallam University student

Private tenants would benefit massively from greater controls over rent and landlords. The private rented sector has almost doubled since 2002, rent prices are increasing, and there is a growing number of prosecutions relating to the Sheffield renting sector.

Stronger regulation on rent prices or a cap on how much it can increase by would be ideal for tenants who have to repeatedly suffer the extortionate rises in rent. University students in London have even gone to the lengths of rent striking.

As well as this, students would certainly benefit from more control over our terms of contract. Most of us have to pay for 11 months despite only living there for seven months. If we could choose terms that fit our study we wouldn’t be drowning in quite as much unnecessary debt.

And if we are paying more for where we live we should get more from it. As tenants we have a right to have our home maintained, repairs made by our landlord, and to not be harassed - it’s written in law. But for some they can be left without electricity or heating for days, or subject to frequent unexpected visits from their landlord. Greater enforcement of our rights is needed. Fortunately regulators such as the Housing Ombudsman Service, Sheffield Council, and Snug work to keep things in order.

However if people don’t tell the council they have a problem, they cannot help. So alongside more controls, tenants would benefit from more education on their rights and what to do if they have an issue.

And why leave it to the regulators? We could also hold poor practices to account and praise the good ourselves with a local Rate My Landlord website where tenants can review their experiences, giving us more of a say. There should be greater controls than there are now - in order for renting to survive it needs to be fair for both tenant and landlord. Perhaps the best way to start making it fairer is by us all treating homes as primarily somewhere to live rather than just another way to make a profit.

Coun Jayne Dunn, Cabinet Member for Housing, Sheffield Council

We are fortunate that we have some very good landlords in Sheffield and most are responsible and meet their legal responsibilities.

However some don’t and, as the cabinet member responsible for housing, I think greater regulation of private rented housing would benefit tenants – providing it’s of the right kind.

By this I mean regulation which gives greater protection without placing an extra burden on the vast majority of landlords who are doing the right thing.

The council’s private housing team responds to around 2,000 complaints annually and in the past year, we have prosecuted more landlords than ever before. Despite the growing need for our services, I don’t think blanket-wide regulation, such as a city licensing scheme, is the answer as it would ask more from landlords without solving any of the problems, requiring us to concentrate upon compliant landlords.

Instead what we need, and what I’m lobbying Government for, is greater regulation in certain areas where there are gaps.

The law currently helps people at threat of eviction, to protect against unsafe conditions and to deal with problematic empty properties. But what we need is new legislation where there are loopholes. One area is where we declare a landlord ‘Not Fit and Proper’ which means they’re not able to manage certain types of property. But this ruling doesn’t stop them renting out all types of homes. We’d also like to see an extension of ‘management regulations’ to all types of homes. These would impose duties on landlords, but the good ones are already complying.

Everyone should be able to live in safe, high-quality housing and I will continue to fight for it in Sheffield.

The council was the first outside London to use new legislation when the landlord redress scheme came in and we will continue to use all new legal powers available to us.