Housing Rights responds to proposals for the private rented sector
Housing Rights has responded to the Department for Communities’ consultation on the Proposals for Change in the Private Rented Sector. We welcome many of the proposals, but have suggested further refinement in some areas to strengthen the impact of such proposals on the ground.
We’ve summarised a few of our key proposals:
Housing Rights welcomes the intention to limit rent increases. However it should be noted that in so doing there may be unintended negative consequences the Department should be aware of. It is our view that the proposal should be strengthened through appropriate safeguards.
Security of tenure
The proposal to bring forward legislation to ensure that all private tenants are issued with a written agreement containing mandatory terms, regardless of the type or length of the tenancy is also welcomed.
The notice to quit proposal may offer a lot of tenants who contact Housing Rights concerned with short notice to quit periods extra protection. However, it is our view that unintended consequences of this proposal could impact tenants’ housing options, specifically in relation to tenants who seek accommodation in the social rented sector and those tenants who present as homeless to the NIHE.
Housing Rights has some queries about the evidence base for proposing the introduction of a Fast Track Eviction procedure. We would welcome more comprehensive detail on the average time and cost associated with possession proceedings in Northern Ireland. We would also like to see further examination of what the exact delays are in the eviction process in Northern Ireland which make the process so lengthy, and at which point in the eviction process these occur. It is our view that appropriate safeguards are extremely important and further comments are made in this respect.
We welcome the proposal to develop a tenant information pack which is to be provided to tenants by the landlord at the start of a tenancy.
We recommend that the Department consider the broader area of tenant support in the context of the review of the private rented sector. Specifically, it is our view that support for tenants renting privately should also include continued commitment to help tenants access independent, specialist housing advice services.
Furthermore, it has been our experience that specific, skilled support and appropriate levels of resourcing are required to sustain the meaningful involvement of private tenants. Whilst such infrastructure exists in the social rented sector, no such infrastructure exists for private tenants. It is our view that steps should be taken to address this. Housing Rights specifically notes the proposal in Annex B to ‘explore the feasibility of allowing scheme administrators to use monies in designated accounts to work with Housing Associations to invest in affordable housing’. It is our view that it would be significantly more appropriate for such monies to be redirected to support tenant involvement.
Professionalising the sector
Proposals which seek to professionalise the sector by improving knowledge and promoting compliance with the law are welcomed. It is our view that both the proposal to review the impact of the CIH Learning to Let course and to fund a dedicated landlord advice line pilot are important developments.
Housing Rights is disappointed that the Department is not proposing to introduce a landlord licensing scheme. Improvements to property conditions can only reasonably be achieved when there is proper enforcement of a robust standard. If the Department choose to progress the current policy option, we suggest that consideration is given to the insertion of such a test, possibly also in the form of self-certification, alongside the amendment proposed.
It is our view that the proposal to introduce a regulatory framework for all letting agents is important and strongly welcomed. It’s critical that such a framework has the confidence of all parties who engage with letting agents, including tenants and landlords. It is critical that standards must be applicable and enforceable across all letting agents. It should include an independent, effective form of redress is available for parties who are impacted by letting agents failing to adhere to appropriate standards.
We welcome the proposal to introduce legislation to ban letting fees. We believe this practice may already be illegal under Article 3 of the Commission on Disposals of Land (Northern Ireland) Order 1986. A test case is currently progressing to establish clarity on this issue. Regardless of the outcome of this case, legislation to ban fees is necessary to clarify the law in this area. Housing Rights notes that the recent legal ban on letting fees in Scotland can alleviate some concerns about the impact of such a ban in Northern Ireland.
We welcome the proposals in relation to property standards. It is our view, however, that whilst these proposals are welcome, they do not replace the need for an improved fitness standard.
It is pleasing that the proposals for the private rented sector acknowledge the importance of providing a dispute resolution mechanism in the sector. The organisation notes that the development of a Panel has been suggested as a safeguard for tenants in some areas. It is our view that to truly act as a safeguard, an independent housing panel must be in place prior to (or at minimum, at the same time as) for example, changes to the eviction process.