The shift to renter rights

Originally published on March 11 as a blog for Inside Housing. 

Can it really be less than five years since Labour’s plans for three-year tenancies in the private rented sector were attacked by the Conservatives as ‘Venezuelan-style socialism’?

And is it really less than three years since Royal Assent for a Housing and Planning Act that included provisions to abolish secure tenancies and make fixed terms mandatory for new council tenants?

A plan for that to apply to housing association tenants as well was only dropped because of concerns over their public-private status but many associations enthusiastically took up the voluntary option of fixed terms they were given in the 2011 Localism Act.

Until very recently it seemed that social housing was set to follow the private rented sector into a marketised world of flexibility and insecurity.

However, the pace of change on this issue in the last 12 months has been rapid and it is still accelerating.

The biggest move so far came on Friday when Labour followed up on its conference pledge to scrap no-fault evictions by announcing plans for indefinite private tenancies.

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Freezing out ‘No DSS’ landlords

Originally published on March 5 as a blog for Inside Housing.

The way that responsibility for housing is split between different government departments means that sometimes the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.

The classic example of this came in parliament yesterday when even as MPs were approving another year of frozen working-age benefits, the housing secretary was making a written statement attacking landlords for refusing to let to tenants on housing benefit.

The vote means that the local housing allowance (LHA) will be frozen for the fourth year in succession and the benefit cap will stay stuck at the reduced rate of £20,000 (£23,000 in London).

The impact of that will fall directly in the ‘thousands of vulnerable people and families’ mentioned by James Brokenshire in his written statement and will be felt most by families with children and those living in the most expensive areas.

And it will come on top of the continuing impact of the transition to universal credit and all the problems with waiting times, delays in payment and supposed simplicity for tenants and landlords that it brings in its wake.

If it reinforces the sense of relief among social landlords that the government abandoned plans to cap housing benefit for social and supported housing at LHA rates, it means many social tenants face a freeze on the rest of their incomes despite rising prices.

But the freeze will give private landlords yet more reasons to think twice about letting homes to tenants on benefits.

And the move by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) comes at precisely the moment that ministers at the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) give their backing to a campaign by Shelter on ‘No DSS’ adverts.

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10 things about 2018 – part two

Originally posted on December 28 as a column for Inside Housing. 

The second part of my look back at the year runs from land to Brexit via renting and council housing. Part one is here.

6. The land question

If 2018 was the year of the tenant, then another issue was not far behind as the land question took on an importance arguably not seen since before the First World War.

A developing political consensus around the potential of land value capture as a funding mechanism for infrastructure and affordable housing found expression in a favourable report from the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee and an open letter signed by former Downing Street insiders and think tanks and organisations across the political spectrum. One report put the net profit made by landowners just for getting planning permission for housing at a cool £13 bn a year.

At the same time the chancellor appointed former Cabinet minister Sir Oliver Letwin to lead out an independent review of the slow pace at which homes get built. Letwin quickly focussed on slow-build out rates on large sites but concluded that the reason why they take an average of more than 15 years to complete has less to do with landbanking (hoarding land with planning permission) than the absorption rate (the fact that developers only build as fast as they can sell for a required profit in local markets).

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Who gets the most subsidy in housing?

Originally posted on November 21 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

A report out this week comes as close as we are probably going to get to answering one of the most vexed questions in housing: who gets the most subsidy?

Feather-bedded home owners sheltered from the tax paid on all other forms of investment? Social housing tenants who don’t know how lucky they are to get a tenancy for life at a subsidised rent? Fat-cat landlords lining their pockets with housing benefit? Housebuiders trousering huge Help to Buy-financed bonuses? The answer has changed over time.

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The legacy of the 1988 Housing Act 30 years on

This week marks the 30th anniversary of Royal Assent for the Act that set the framework for the housing system as we have known it ever since – but as its influence wanes is it going into reverse?

The 1988 Housing Act led to lasting change in social and private rented housing. Not everything happened at once – some provisions were amended in later legislation and some took time to have an effect – but this was what set the basic ground rules for what followed.

In the social rented sector, it meant private finance, higher rents, stock transfer and housing associations replacing local authorities as the main providers. In the private rented sector, it meant the end of security of tenure and regulated rents and the arrival of assured shortholds and Section 21.

But it also created a system that was full of contradictions that are now only too clear. The stage was set for the revival of rentier landlordism but also the eventual decline of home ownership, the fall of municipal empires but the rise of mega housing associations and a belief that housing benefit could ‘take the strain’ of higher rents that always seemed unlikely and drained away with austerity.

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Private renting ten years on

Originally posted on September 10 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

So what is the state of the private rented sector – and what can be done about it?

Ten years on from their official review for the government, Julie Rugg and David Rhodes of the University of York are back with an update for the Nationwide Foundation.

Despite finding some progress – the average condition of rental property has improved, the average tenancy has got longer and Build to Rent investment is at long last producing results – the problems remain depressingly familiar and in many areas things have got worse.

The private rented sector is now 40% bigger but that growth is more down to the decline of home ownership and social renting than a wave of new construction or an expansion of choice. Perhaps half a million homes sold under the Right to Buy are now private rentals.

Thanks to Buy to Let, the sector is even more dominated by individual ‘investors’ looking to boost their wealth by getting tenants to pay the mortgage – mainstream commercial property companies account for just 3% of the stock.

The review estimates there are now 2.3m adults in England who are landlords – of those, 9% are themselves also private tenants and (surely some mistake?) 1% are social tenants.

And the bottom end of private renting – the only option for tens of thousands of tenants on benefit – is under such pressure from welfare reform that it is becoming ‘a residual slum tenure’.

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What the English Housing Survey says about private renting

Originally posted on August 2 on my blog for Inside Housing.

The second in a series of blogs looking at the latest English Housing Survey considers the state of the private rented sector in 2016/17.

Home to a fifth of us

The private rented sector has doubled in size over the last 20 years from 10% of households in 1996/97 (2.1m) to 20% in 2016/17 (4.7m). Most of the growth took place after 2003.

To put that growth into perspective, the private rented sector now accommodates a greater share of households than at any time since 1970. As recently as 1997, following rapid decline in the 1970s and 1980s, it was half the size of the social rented sector.

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