Considering the proposals for change to the private rented sector in Northern Ireland
Officials from the Department for Communities attended our Housing Advice Practitioner’s Forum, to elicit feedback from attendees on their proposals for change to the private rented sector in Northern Ireland.
During the meeting, Department officials outlined the main proposals, which relate to the following key areas:
- supply of housing
- affordability of rented housing
- security of tenure
- tenancy management
- property standards, and
- dispute resolution
Questions on proposals
Discussion on the proposals centred on a number of key areas. Organisations or individuals who plan to respond to the consultation may find the content of this question and answer session a useful source to inform their responses.
Student representatives asked for clarity on the Commission on Disposals of Land Order 1986, a piece of legislation which prohibits the charging of commissions to tenants, in light of the Department’s proposal to introduce new legislation banning letting fees.
While this legislation appears to outlaw the charging of certain fees, no body has been appointed to enforce this law and the courts are yet to make a ruling on the matter. Housing Rights is currently assisting other interested parties in bringing a case to test the provisions of the 1986 Order. The Department confirmed that it is watching this case closely, but acknowledged that any new legislation required to regulate fees charged by businesses may need to be carried forward by the Department for the Economy. While Housing Rights believes that the existing Order prohibits fees, it may be useful to look to the example in Scotland where fees had been illegal since 1984, but it took the clarification of the existing law in 2012 to ensure that agents across Scotland stopped charging tenants.
The review of the private rented sector is primarily concerned with tenants. The scope of legislation relating to private tenancies does not extend to licensees, so providers of temporary accommodation will not be subject to additional requirements by virtue of any new law. However, Housing Rights has noticed an increasing trend in subletting, particularly in areas with dense concentration of privately rented accommodation. Other cities have seen an increase in both authorised and unauthorised subletting, and similar increases are likely to hit Northern Ireland in the near future. The Department acknowledged this point and thought that further consideration should be given as to how sub-tenants can be protected in legislation.
The Migrant Centre for NI raised an issue relating to the changes to eligibility criteria for Housing Benefit, stating that increasingly migrant workers are living with family members in overcrowded housing. Although Houses in Multiple Occupation are subject to overcrowding provisions, this does not apply to other accommodation. It was pointed out that council officers’ attempts to enforce housing standards can be frustrated by an inability to effectively deal with overcrowding in properties, which do not come under the HMO regime. Many other jurisdictions apply a common overcrowding standard to all properties, which local authorities can enforce.
Fitness and disrepair
The consultation document includes a number of proposals in relation to fitness. However, attendees were concerned that these were insufficient to deal with the prevailing concerns about disrepair in the privately rented sector. The Department confirmed that the proposals in their document will not supplant any plans to review the fitness standard and that this process is ongoing.
Citizens Advice stated that many of the complaints they receive from private tenants relate to disrepair and delays with repairs, or refusals to carry out repairs. The Department hope that mandatory terms in a model tenancy agreement will clarify the situation in relation to repairing obligations, but acknowledged that the problem with the current default obligations is a lack of enforcement powers should a landlord or tenant fail to comply. Consideration could be given to how any obligations should be enforced and to imposing statutory time limits for dealing with requests for repairs.
Supply of housing
The Department is keen to explore how housing associations could be involved in the provision of privately rented housing. It is hoped that associations will be able to bring their expertise in housing and tenancy management to the sector and provide private tenants with the professionalism of a social landlord, albeit at higher rents. Dove House advice centre raised concerns that involving housing associations in the provision of private housing could diminish the provision of social housing. The Department confirmed that housing associations involved in the provision of private housing will have to operate the two roles as separate functions, using separate funds to purchase, improve and manage each distinct set of properties. They do not anticipate that this change in practice will cause any detriment to those waiting for a social tenancy, but believe that it will increase choice for people in need of somewhere to live.
The Department proposes a new fast-track eviction process to deal with problem tenants. The current system in NI is perceived by some to be costly and overlong.
Housing Rights briefly mentioned some of the difficulties, which had arisen with the fast-track process in England and asked that the Department provide more detail on the operation of such schemes in England. A fast-track eviction will, in theory, remove the requirement for an initial court hearing, although orders granted under this service must still be enforced through the courts in order to prevent an unlawful eviction. The Department confirmed that the English system can only be used in certain circumstances and that any new local system will come with safeguards in place to ensure that the eviction process is not abused. Suggested safeguards include a possibility that this process could only be used after the landlord had attempted to resolve the problem through mediation.
It is likely that any cases suitable for fast-track eviction would first have to be referred to a new housing panel, which will attempt to resolve the dispute first. Housing Rights is holding an event to discuss dispute resolution in the private sector in February.
Affordability and increased notice to quit periods
Dove House asked what consideration had been given to aligning the notice required for a rent increase with that required in order to end a tenancy. Under the proposals, a landlord will not be allowed to increase the rent more than once in a 12 month period and the minimum notice to quit period will increase to 8 weeks for tenancies that have existed for longer than 12 months. Dove House pointed out that a tenant should be able to serve notice to quit a tenancy in response to a notice increasing the rent if this increase was unaffordable, and so it is essential that these periods be aligned.
The Department has proposed a number of changes relating to tenancy management, chief among them further development of CIH’s accredited training programme for landlords, the creation of a landlord helpline, the development of a tenant information pack and the introduction of a regulatory framework for lettings agent. While attendees welcomed plans to improve the availability of information and advice to both tenants and landlords, the point was made that any tenant information pack would have to be of interest to tenants. A suggestion was made that the pack should not just contain standardised items, but should also contain information tailored to the specifics of the property. Putting practical and useful information relating to the running of that particular property in the pack will increase the chances of a tenant reading and reviewing the document.
The Department will give consideration to the format of any information in there, including considering issues relating to literacy and language requirements. The Private Tenants Forum has stressed the importance of making any such pack visually appealing and the Department has said that it is keen to work with the forum further on the particulars of a tenant information pack.
The Department is carrying out a broader consultation exercise and will be holding public sessions, as below:
- Monday 13 February at The Sandel Centre, Coleraine
- Wednesday 15 February at Craigavon Civic Centre
- Monday 20 February at Cookstown Enterprise Centre
- Wednesday 22 February at Grosvenor House, Belfast
The Department is keen to hear from tenants and has, with assistance from Housing Rights, developed a short online survey to gauge tenants’ views on the key proposals.
Housing Rights will be holding a seminar to examine the potential for an Independent Housing Panel, on the 15 February. The event will have expert speakers sharing their views on what it could mean for Northern Ireland.
The Department’s full PRS-Proposals for Change consultation is available online.