We need better regulation of Private Landlords

I was delighted to attend the Edinburgh Private Tenants Action Group (EPTAG) campaign launch for tougher enforcement against rogue and criminal landlords.

Over 50 people turned out to a public meeting – tenants, landlords, council officers, politicians – to find out more about the campaign and listen to the often harrowing stories of tenants’ experiences.

Several tenants told how they had been subjected to illegal administrative fees, had their deposits withheld for no reason, been refused basic but essential repairs like fixing gas leaks, lived in flats without HMO (Houses of Multiple Occupancy) licenses, been verbally abused by landlords, and, as if all this was not enough, been made homeless courtesy of illegal evictions.

And yet no one seems to do anything. The police, fire service and courts were all criticised for inaction, but perhaps the most disturbing aspect of all of this was the Council’s complacency about this issue.

Areas in Edinburgh, like the city centre, have some of the highest proportions of private tenancies in Scotland. Many of these private tenants are young people who cannot afford the deposits or mortgages for property ownership, and this sector is likely to grow over the coming months and years as home ownership continues to become less affordable. And yet this is the most unregulated tenure sector.

The social rented sector has its own regulator but the private rented sector only has piecemeal legislation that seems to rely on the ‘market’ to sort out many problems.

Roddy Samson from Granton Information Centre and Bill Fraser from Sustainable Communities Scotland described the ‘light touch regulation’ that applies to the private rented sector. Tenancy fees – anything over and above rent and deposit – are illegal under Scots law, but the vast majority of Edinburgh letting agents charge fees ‘to cover administration or reference checking’.

Landlords are required to ensure their properties are fit for habitation and that all installations/fixtures are in reasonable repair and proper working order. But there are countless examples of tenants not having heating over winter, living in damp flats or not having working fridges.

And there is a process for evicting tenants, including statutory notice periods which are often ignored. And yet the landlords and agents responsible get away with this illegal behaviour. The Scottish Government is making progress on a tenancy deposit scheme to safeguard the proper return of rent deposits, but nothing is being done about these other problems.

Enforcement is clearly an issue. Councils and Sherriff Courts are the main routes for enforcement, but neither seems to be working. The City of Edinburgh Council holds a register of landlords in the city as part of the National Landlord Registration scheme and has the power to remove rogue or criminal landlords from this register. However, not one landlord has been removed from this list, even if they have been convicted of illegal activities by the Courts!

We need a Council that supports tenants, informs them of their rights, and takes seriously concerns about unacceptable landlord behaviour.

The Council should crack down on rogue letting agents and landlords, and use its powers properly to ensure people are safe and secure in their homes. I would be interested in exploring the use of the Council’s Compulsory Purchase powers against landlords who break housing laws. And of course, there needs to be a strong private rented sector regulator and a shift in the piecemeal approach to the regulation of the private rented sector. There should be legislative parity across all housing tenures.

EPTAG’s campaign is an important step in this process. I was the first Councillor to sign their pledge, promising to do all I can to ensure landlords with criminal convictions for being bad landlords are removed from the Landlord register the Council holds.

Councillor Rob Munn, who also attended the meeting, has also signed it. I hope we can encourage all councillors to take these issues seriously and support EPTAG in their fight for justice for private tenants.

This article first appeared on the Edinburgh STV Local site.

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