The Renters (Reform) Bill reaches committee stage

The public bill committee for the Renters (Reform) Bill began its work in the Commons yesterday.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Once the committee had kicked off by welcoming the 16th housing minister to their post since 2010, discussion quickly turned to students.

Timothy Douglas, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Propertymark (the “the leading membership body for property agents”) was keen to advocate for the “flexibility” of a student being able to opt for a fixed-term tenancy.

What he didn’t explain was why being trapped in a 12 month rental contract up to a year before move-in with no ability to cancel that contract would be “flexible”.

Ben Beadle, the CEO at the National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA) argued that the student market “is not broken”, which probably reflects that while it’s not broken for landlords, it certainly is for students.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Labour, Brighton Kemptown) pointed out some of the reasons for affording students the same right to cancel a contract as everyone else:

Is it not the case that people look at the house and say, “This isn’t working for me. The house isn’t quite what I thought it was, or what I thought was advertised.” Perhaps it is very cold at night and expensive to heat. I am not saying that these are enforcement matters for the local authority; they are just things that would lead normal people to say, “I want out of this.” Also, people’s circumstances may change. Why should they, or their guarantor, be stuck with having to pay the bill for six months, when the accommodation might not be appropriate? Surely the best way of getting the market to improve its standards is to have the ability for someone to walk in, realise it is not a very good property, and walk out again.

An intemperate scuffle ensued, but Tim Douglas was on hand to smooth things over:

In the student market, there would be the option for landlords to rent on a licence or give individual tenancies. That would potentially mean more student properties being rented on a room-by-room basis. If a student leaves within the term, any non-student could come in to fill the property. I am not convinced that all students would be happy with that.

Nobody, of course, noted that students would probably put up with that if they were able to escape being trapped in a 12 month contract up to 12 months in advance.

One particularly interesting section of proceedings concerned the oft-spread panic surrounding supply.

Readers of The Times, the Telegraph or Universities UK briefings would believe that a “landlord exodus” will ensue in the private rented sector if tenants’ rights improve.

In fact this idea that landlords are leaving in their droves is blamed for poor quality properties, rocketing rents and tenant insecurity. The problem, as the Renter’s Reform Coalition pointed out yesterday, is that there is no clear evidence the sector is shrinking, or that there has been a mass exodus of landlords. Here’s the ONS data:

Hence Beadle argued:

We are already seeing landlords and, critically, homes leave the sector …. The exodus is well under way.

But that gave shadow DLUHC minister Matthew Pennycock the opportunity to quote back at Beadle something else he’d said:

the truth is that while some landlords are leaving the sector, this sector is actually still increasing.

We had ought to think about the principle. Let’s imagine that affording citizens the power to end a tenancy on 2 months notice is something we don’t apply to students because it might put landlords off. Why would we allow one group of citizens a right we don’t afford to others?

On what basis would it be OK to say “you don’t deserve that right”? You maybe could argue for this kind of collectivising of rights if the costs and risks were collectivised. But they’re not.

Imagine two tenants. One can exit a contract if their circumstances change. One can’t because the grown ups haven’t planned properly for them to have somewhere to live. That doesn’t sound right.

What probably is true is that the risk of a student not needing a tenancy by move in date or not being able to afford one by then (or during) has increased as the sector has grown in size and student diversity, and as the cost of living crisis bites.

What is undeniable is that all pretty much of that risk remains on students. If, once they’re afforded the same rights as everyone else, landlords consider the risk to be too high, that’s a reason to find mechanisms to collectivise the risk – not to deny them the right.

If the risk of fire was greater in a given period we wouldn’t say “well if students get decent fire protection there will be no homes for them because landlords will leave”, but we might have to consider incentives for landlords to still rent to them (other than the vast and obscene profits they already make via the tiny box rooms they offer up these days).

Maybe more of that will come in later sessions, but that was pretty much it for the committee’s deliberations on students – although we do now have sight of the detail on the government’s proposal to allow landlords to evict students at the end of an academic year.

Jacob Young, who is a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State within the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities department, is proposing a new ground for possession by a landlord as long as the house is a shared student house, and the intended date for possession is between 1 June and 30 September.

Young Jacob may not be aware of students whose academic year doesn’t quite match the traditional September-Summer he’ll have had on his HNC at Teesside – who knows if anyone will explain, given that circa 30 organisations will be chipping in the committee sessions, and only NUS will be advancing a student perspective.

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