The private rented sector is at a crossroads. It has the potential to provide safe, stable homes, yet too often people find themselves trapped in sub-standard housing at the mercy of bad landlords. With growing numbers of people renting privately, pressure is mounting on the government to act. As a recent poll showed, housing policy is likely to be a swing issue for large numbers of private renters.
Too often the private rented sector fails to provide the homes that people need. This is particularly true for those on low incomes with little choice over where they can live. With rents at record levels, wages stagnant and housing benefit being cut, increasingly, the sector is a cause of homelessness.
In early 2014, a three-year investigation by Crisis and Shelter provided a shocking insight into conditions faced by many people at the bottom end of the private rented sector. It offered a catalogue of bad practice and unhealthy conditions: infestations were common and people's homes were often so cold or damp they caused or worsened health problems.
Reform of the sector is long overdue to ensure tenants do not rely on the postcode lottery of finding a good landlord. The government is starting to look these issues and how to improve conditions, but can they provide the shake up private renting needs?
At the heart of the proposals are measures to tackle illegal and revenge evictions, which our research shows are major sources of stress for many on low incomes. In particular, the government proposes to restrict evictions from properties that are in a serious state of disrepair and introduce rent repayment orders for landlords who evict a tenant illegally, or where the property is in a poor condition.
These measures are welcome as too often renters on low incomes are afraid to complain about poor conditions for fear that they will be evicted. Many people who took part in our investigation reported stress and sleeplessness around poor conditions and were worried about the impact on their health.
On top of such measures, there's a proposal to review the sanctions available to local authorities for less serious breaches. This is another step in the right direction. There are too many barriers to prosecuting law-breaking landlords. Prosecutions are rare and fines are often very low. However, we need all of these proposals to be implemented with real teeth and used by central and local government across the country to improve practice on the ground.
However there is one area where the proposals fall down. The government wants to restrict councils' ability to use licensing schemes for landlords.
Licensing is not unduly burdensome for good landlords and could provide a much needed tool for councils to take enforcement action. Voluntary accreditation – where landlords decide whether or not to sign up to a set of standards – is no substitute. People on low incomes desperate to find somewhere to live are unlikely to be able to choose who they rent from on the basis of whether or not the landlord is accredited. Local authorities should be free to implement licensing schemes that are suitable for their areas. This should also be accompanied by a national register of landlords.
Without licensing, local authorities are less able to identify bad landlords and other measures are weakened.
These policies directly affect people's lives and it is important the government gets this right. Many of its proposals are good, but they fall short of the reforms needed to transform private renting into a sector that works for everyone. Too often the sector fails to meet the standards tenants ought to expect, and many may well be prepared to vote to make sure this happens.