The rental market is being asphyxiated in front of our eyes

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 24 April 2019 in Comment

If MPs are also landlords you could be forgiven for expressing a certain cynicism over the prospect for change

Image credit: Holyrood

It was hard to watch the Sky News interview with housing campaigner Kirsty Archer without feeling a howl of rage. For anyone unfamiliar with the interview in question, the clip went viral because of how the presenter, Jayne Secker, spoke to the young woman, who is facing eviction from her flat by the end of the month, simply because she raised a complaint to the landlord about repairs.

In the interview, Kirsty explains that, facing rents of up to £2,000 a month, and unable to buy a flat, she now faces the prospect of being unable to live anywhere near where she works. But Secker – herself a landlord – was apparently dissatisfied with this answer.

“Some would say that, especially with the younger generation, you very often find tenants don’t really know how to do a great deal in homes,” she explained. “I’ve had people complaining lights have popped because they don’t know how to change a lightbulb, I’ve had tenants complain about heating, because they don’t know how to turn the boiler on. If you lived in a flat you owned, you wouldn’t have anyone to fix these things for you… Do you think, among your friends, you aren’t equipped with the necessary skills to rent?”

It was unclear what role people being unable to change lightbulbs play in rising rental prices, in honesty, and the interviewer was so patronising it was painful. But Kirsty's story will have been immediately familiar to anyone with experience of the private rental market. Broken doors and intercoms, dodgy boilers, rising prices and a pervading sense of insecurity. That’s the situation tenants find themselves in. Trapped in a shrinking market, with too many landlords absent or disinterested, and too many letting agents happy for them to live in squalor.

Meanwhile the growth of holiday lets, particularly in Edinburgh, is continuing to reduce housing stock. In the course of twelve months, the number of entire flats now available to let in the city jumped from 5,474 to 7,366.

The market is being asphyxiated in front of our eyes. That’s a bigger story than tenants failing to understand how boilers work, and it’s one the media should do better at telling.

That particular interview stemmed from an announcement from the UK Government meaning private landlords would no longer be able to remove tenants from their homes at short notice and without good reason. In Scotland, tenancy rights were tightened up with the introduction of new Private Residential Tenancies (PRTs) with no end date, which were hailed by Shelter Scotland as a “new dawn for all private renters”.

Yet, scratch beneath the surface and the ‘new dawn’ doesn’t look so bright. For a start, under the terms of the new PRTs, there are still 18 grounds for terminating a tenancy, and it’s easy to see how the new system could be exploited.

For example, a landlord can end a tenancy on the basis that they intend to sell the property. But critics have questioned how they would go about proving their ‘intention’ to sell. What if an unscrupulous landlord, unable to raise the rent due to restrictions imposed in the new framework, tried to circumvent the rules by announcing they plan to sell and evicted the tenants, only to have an apparent change of heart and deciding to re-let the property, this time at a new, higher rent?

Lurking behind all this is the simple fact that many of those entrusted with policy-decisions, including around a fifth of MPs, are themselves landlords. You could be forgiven for expressing a certain cynicism over the prospect for tipping power towards tenants.

Yet until MPs, MSPs and TV interviewers understand the experiences of those who are struggling, rather than viewing them as sources of cash, there’s little hope for structural change.

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