Back in June the government announced a raft of major changes to improve the rights of tenants in the private rented sector.
Landlords have been furiously lobbying ever since to change or water down the reforms – with particular reference to the student market, with the National Residential Landlords Association writing to both vice chancellors and MPs arguing that the changes could impact students’ mental health!
Although there is not set to be a formal consultation by the government on the white paper ahead of legislation being introduced to Parliament in the autumn, now the influential Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee of MPs has resolved to set up an inquiry to scrutinise the proposals.
The committee wants to hear views and is taking submissions from anyone with answers to the questions in the call for evidence until Friday 19 August 2022. That’s quite a tight timescale and it’s vital that SUs engage with the call for evidence to ensure that student voices are not drowned out by those of the powerful and organised landlord lobby.
Submissions should not be longer than 3,000 words where possible and emailed to the committee. As well as responding individually, some SUs might want to pool resources and case studies and consider joint responses from groups of SUs around a city or town.
You can find numbers and proportions of students in different types of accommodation (“other” is HMOs) below (remember 20/21 might be skewed by Covid):
In July the National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA) began their lobbying campaign over the forthcoming bill with an email to universities, urging them to help them resist the proposals on the basis that they might impact on student welfare:
The planned changes will prevent landlords from being assured that their current student tenants are moving out at the end of the academic year… meaning they would be unable to advertise the property for next year’s renters… this will be of particular concern for first year students looking to move out of halls of residence or purpose-built accommodation into private rented housing with their friends. It would be a recipe for chaos, confusion and could have a damaging impact on students’ mental health.”
The attempt is to deny students the rights that everyone else will have – to cancel a tenancy on two months notice and to stay in a property at the end of the year – and to argue that that will somehow hit their mental health – and is a clear sign of the battle ahead on the issues and signals a need for SUs to get going on campaigning quickly.
For now at least, the government’s position on ending fixed term tenancies is as follows, as outlined in this answer to a parliamentary question:
We expect most students will continue to move in-line with the academic year. However, the proposed reforms will support student households who have children or local roots to remain in their properties after studying if they wish to. It will also mean that students are not locked into contracts when their circumstances change or if property standards are poor.
The NRLA has already taken part in a ministerial roundtable with housing minister Eddie Hughes, calling for exceptions to the planned introduction of indefinite tenancies within the student market. You can find a set of arguments underpinning their objections on their website.
You can find blogs and articles on the proposals here:
- Blog: Students are about to get better housing rights – and landlords are absolutely furious
- Achieving a fairer private rental sector – what SUs need to know
- Rental reform is coming – what should SUs do next?
- How to improve the quality of student housing
- Will rental reform help students in halls?
As well as seeking general views, the inquiry is seeking answers to a particular set of following questions:
1. Will the Government’s White Paper proposals result in a fairer private rented sector (PRS)?
There are several ways in which the proposals will drive fairness – and SUs will want to highlight them, drawing on casework where possible. Thousands of students unfairly evicted by Section 21 ever year will be much better protected, students won’t be forced to rent early, where students sign for a room they will not be stuck with paying for it if they change their mind or drop out of their course, they will be able to stay in a house as others will be able to and where students need repairs or home improvements they will longer be threatened with of eviction.
The White Paper also states that landlords will be forced to repay any upfront rent they have charged to a tenant if a tenancy ends earlier than the period that tenants have paid for – and it will limit the amount of rent that landlords can ask for in advance. SUs will want to highlight that this is good for international students and those who struggle to provide a guarantor and are left at the mercy of advance-rent demands – as long as landlords don’t find other ways to discriminate against them (see below).
2. What do the proposals in the White Paper and other recent reforms indicate about the role the government envisages the PRS playing in providing housing nationally?
SUs may want to use this question to comment on the role that the PRS plays in facilitating learning and participation in higher education locally.
3. Have the Government’s announcements already led to any changes in behaviour in the PRS?
If, in particular, your advice centre has picked up on any behaviour from landlords responding to the changes already you may want to discuss this here. However be wary of noting any supply constriction – the landlord lobby will argue that the changes can’t be made as landlords will not rent to students any more. There’s little direct evidence for that and it’s arguably not in and of itself a reason to water down students’ rights – see below.
4. Do the proposals for reforming tenancies, including the abolition of Section 21, strike the right balance between protecting tenants from unfair eviction and allowing landlords to take possession of their properties in reasonable circumstances?
Again, the landlord lobby will argue that the inability to evict student tenants will impact the ability for newer students to find housing.
5. How easily will tenants be able to challenge unfair rent increases under the proposals?
SUs may want to use this consultation to argue that the fact that students only tend to rent for 12 months at a time means that landlords have a much better opportunity to raise rents between tenants than they do with other types of tenant – and so a different solution to high rents needs to be found.
6. Does the PRS need its own ombudsman? If so, what powers should it have?
At the moment because it’s so hard to take a landlord to court, nearly all housing or consumer law enforcement comes from local authorities – but they are underfunded. The proposal is a new PRS ombudsman which will function like the OIA for academic appeals and complaints. SUs will want to argue that the new ombudsman promotes itself to students and accepts 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).
In addition 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 will want to address these kinds of student-renter specific questions to ensure students don’t yet again fall through the cracks of enforcement.
SUs may also want to argue that the existing ombuds and codes schemes for halls should be partially replaced with the ability to use the ombudsperson for halls too.
7. Will the proposals result in more disputes ending up in the courts? If so, will the proposals for speeding up the courts service suffice?
8. What impact, if any, will the reforms have on the supply of students’ homes in the general PRS?
This is the big one. Landlords argue that the changes will destroy supply in many student cities and towns and landlords decide to sell up or no longer rent to students. There’s two major arguments here.
The first is that a change to a similar regime of “Private Residential Tenancies” in Scotland has not seen any particular evidence of collapse in supply of student accommodation. There have been some particular pressures – landlords not being able to short-term let during the Edinburgh festival, for example, and Covid initially causing under and over supply. But there is not any evidence specifically of bedspace reduction being caused by the change in tenancies.
The second is that we should expect universities in an area to collaborate with local authorities to manage the number of students recruited (especially during clearing) such that there is a sufficient number of bedspaces for the number of students being brought to an area. If addressing poor quality homes or unfair contracts reduces the number of landlords, the answer is obviously not to just accept poor quality homes and unfair contracts – any more than it would be to accept even worse quality or even less fair contracts if a university chose to expand.
9. What impact, if any, will the reforms have on the supply of homes in the PRS?
10. What should be included in the new decent homes standard and how easily could it be enforced?
It’s likely that many landlords will want the new standard to watered down. SUs will want to gather examples, photos, stories etc from casework and students to demonstrate the need for the standard and to ensure it is high.
Remember 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.
There is also a strong argument – particularly in the context of energy price hikes and the cost of living crisis – for the standard to include energy efficiency and sustainability measures.
11. How enforceable are the proposals to make it illegal for landlords to have blanket bans on letting to people on benefits or with children? What other groups, if any, should be protected from blanket bans?
This could be a good opportunity to argue that students – and in particular international students – should be protected from blanket bans on renting from landlords.
12. Overall, what additional pressures will the proposals place on local councils, and how many of these will require new burdens funding?
If you and/or your advice centre believes that the resources going into enforcement from your local council are insufficient, this question is a good opportunity to argue for extra resources to ensure that students are protected.
- Call for Evidence Terms of Reference
- White paper: A fairer private rented sector
- Blog: Students are about to get better housing rights – and landlords are absolutely furious
- Briefing: Achieving a fairer private rental sector – what SUs need to know
- Blog 1: Rental reform is coming – what should SUs do next?
- Blog 2: How to improve the quality of student housing
- Blog 3: Will rental reform help students in halls?