How to improve the quality of student housing

Rory Hughes is a housing policy and campaigns consultant

My last article explored the impact of the forthcoming Renters Reform Bill on student tenancies in the private rented sector, and how we can ensure the promises of government are fulfilled.

In this article, I want to explore some other sections of the Renters Reform White Paper and how SUs can influence the forthcoming changes – namely the new Decent Homes Standard and the aligned Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards regulations as well as the role of local authority enforcement and the proposed new PRS Ombudsman.

Decent Homes Standard (DHS)

The Renters Reform White Paper states that government will, “legislate to introduce a legally binding decent homes standard” in the PRS following the completion of its ongoing review of the current social housing DHS.

The original DHS was introduced by Tony Blair in the noughties and underpinned the Decent Homes Programme which sought to improve standards in social housing which had been significantly underfunded during the Thatcher/Major years.

To access funding to improve “non-decent” social homes, the programme also encouraged local authorities to transfer their housing stock to housing associations, or at least management of them to Arms-Length-Management-Organisations (ALMOS).

The DHS was last updated in 2006 and the headlines of it are:

  1. Housing must meet the current statutory minimum standard for housing. To do so it must not contain one or more Category 1 “serious” hazards as assessed under the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (the HHSRS is also currently under review). Such hazards include serious damp and mould, infestations, electrical hazards, leaking roofs and gas safety hazards.
  2. Housing must be in a reasonable state of repair
  3. Housing must have reasonably modern facilities and services (kitchens and bathrooms not older than 20 and 30 years respectively)
  4. Housing must provide a reasonable degree of thermal comfort (a decent heating system and some insulation)

I have been a member of government sounding boards reviewing the DHS in the last year and there are a variety of criteria in which we are likely to see change. It is likely the new DHS will have a greater focus on removing health and safety hazards (particularly damp and mould), tackling disrepair, improving home security, modernising electrics and digital connectivity and adapting homes for climate change through things like improved shading and water efficiency.

These are all to be welcome but, in reality, the main issue with the DHS in the social housing sector has been enforcement. In the early years of the DHS, the government did succeed through a combination of headline political targets and significant funding to drastically improve the state of social housing so it is now the most “decent” of all tenures.

However, post-2010 the fact that the DHS is not legally enforceable nor monitored effectively by the Regulator of Social Housing has left tens of thousands of social housing residents in non-decent conditions year after year. Social housing providers self-report their levels of compliance with DHS to the Regulator annually.

Yet, the best independent dataset on rented housing in the country, the English Housing Survey, has found 13% continue to fail the DHS. Social housing providers have come under severe scrutiny in the last year for this from a combination of pressure from social housing residents and campaigners like Kwajo Tweneboa, ITV investigations, legal and ombudsman cases and government scrutiny.

Whilst the extension of the DHS into the PRS should be welcome (given an even greater 21% of PRS homes are currently non-decent, and 12% have serious “Category 1” hazards), it is a sector that has even less effective enforcement than social housing. In theory, the current patchwork of statutory and regulatory standards that the PRS is required to meet across England should have addressed many of these decency issues already.

The reasons they haven’t been addressed are many. Renters either don’t know their rights or have feared landlord retaliation if they seek to enforce them (something the forthcoming changes to eviction should help to address). Legal aid has also been decimated and severely underfunded local authorities have been appointed the main route of standards enforcement – some of whom have no political drive to improve the lives of renters.

Add onto this that many local authorities choose to spend their time engaging with landlords but not renters, engaging with “local residents” but not student residents and are captured by the ever-pervasive meme that “student housing should be crap” as a rite of passage has left student housing in a particularly bad way.

NUS’ Homes Fit for Study 2019 research found 40% of students living with damp and mould, 20% with vermin infestations, 16% with electrical safety hazards and 9% with gas safety hazards. SOS-UKs updated 2022 survey showed a worrying continuation of these conditions.

Time for SUs to step up

So, how can SUs help to boost student housing standards as the Bill comes into being? Firstly, there is still an opportunity to influence Stage 2 of the DHS review and the ongoing review of the HHSRS through engagement with local MPs. Utilising data from student surveys and housing advice cases to show what the most common decency issues are in their local student housing market could be a good first port of call. Following that, the government has committed to a public consultation on the new DHS which SUs can also prepare to engage with through written submissions.

In the White Paper, the government has also committed to running a series of pilot schemes with local authorities in Yorkshire and the Humber, the West Midlands, and the North West where decency issues are at their worse, “to trial improvements to the enforcement of existing standards and explore different ways of working with landlords to speed up adoption of the Decent Homes Standard.”

SUs and universities in these regions should write to their local authority and ensure they are engaged in any forthcoming pilot schemes. SUs and universities could be major players in helping to identify non-decent homes and enforce against them. SUs and universities with various types of letting services could also offer their support to the pilots and make conditions of advertising to students align with the forthcoming standards.

SUs should also start getting in contact with, and copying the tactics of, activists like Kwajo – who went from posting videos of shoddy social housing conditions on social media to meetings with Michael Gove within weeks. There is an opportunity to go beyond statistics and highlight more viscerally the conditions of student housing and to build solidarity with non-student housing activists and those in other tenures.

Finally, one of the major forthcoming changes to the DHS will be the likely removal of the “thermal comfort” element of the standard. In its replacement, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will soon beef up the existing Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards for the PRS to require landlords to invest large sums of money in improving the insulation and energy efficiency of their homes to tackle the climate and fuel poverty crises together. These regulations are likely to require PRS homes to be “EPC C” by 2028. Again, SOS-UK have recently detailed the scale of the issue of high bills, damp and mould, persistent cold and drafts and the impact on the climate of shoddy student housing insulation.

Landlords will be required to fund most of this energy efficiency investment themselves, however, there are a variety of government funding schemes that SUs could work with local authorities to target toward student PRS housing. A wave of funding has recently been allocated but there are also further waves including the Home Upgrade Grant worth £950m from 2022/23 – 2024/25. You can read more about all of this in the Government’s Heat and Buildings Strategy.

In the meantime, SUs could again be encouraging landlords to upgrade the energy efficiency levels of their home by restricting lettings and advertising support to homes in certain EPC bands and advising students on what EPC band to look for before signing a contract.

Finally, given we have spoken a lot about enforcement, let’s take a look at the proposals for the new PRS Ombudsman in the White Paper.

Currently, all letting agents in England and social housing providers are required by law to sign up to an ombudsman, but there is no such duty on PRS landlords. As a result, nearly all enforcement comes from local authorities and the courts. A new PRS ombudsman is to be welcomed, and students with support from their SU advice services are likely to be served relatively well by it. However, it will be critical that the new ombudsman is geared up to market itself to students and to accept group complaints (as 10 students living in a HMO all with a redressable issue shouldn’t have to go one-by-one to the ombudsman).

Furthermore, redress usually only considers financial or amenity loss, but in many circumstances the main casualty of poor student housing conditions is the disruption to students of their studies. SUs should seek to influence the establishment of any new ombudsman with this kind of student-renter specific question in-mind to ensure students don’t yet again fall through the cracks of enforcement.

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