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Issue #1713      December 2, 2015

Private renters powerless

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” wrote Charles Dickens in a Tale of Two Cities. Govan Law Centre’s (GLC) report on Glasgow’s private-rented sector tells the tale of one city and it’s a story that may surprise and shock you in its squalor.

We searched out and listened to the personal experiences of a wide range of tenants in Glasgow’s private-rented sector.

Our report is their story.

Their voice represents a common experience which we have no reason to believe is not replicated across Scotland and the rest of Britain. Our study, funded by the National Lottery, reveals that most tenants feel powerless and worry that they have little more than a month’s security of tenure.

While short assured tenancies in Scotland have to run for at least six months, they can operate on a rolling monthly basis thereafter. While tenants have significant legal rights, our report shows they are frightened to rely on them for fear of their tenancy being ended. Who wants to be homeless?

One thread running through almost all of our tenant experiences is they never chose to enter the private rented sector.

They had little or no choice as to where they lived, more often than not they were desperate and confronted with the “take it or leave it” harsh reality of life.

This goes to the very heart of our finding that tenants have little or no power in their relationship with their landlord. They are over a barrel all of the time. It’s a stressful and unhealthy way to live.

What flows from this unequal relationship is a litany of disrepairs that never get fixed, from dampness and mould, inadequate heating, broken windows and really poor decor.

And yet half of our survey group struggled to pay their rent, sometimes going without food.

The shocking irony is tenants in the private-rented sector can pay almost double the equivalent social-rented sector rent – but instead of getting a lovely home, they pay twice as much for a grubby flat.

Legal protections were routinely ignored such as the tenancy deposit scheme where a landlord has to place deposits in a third-party regulated scheme. In practice people’s deposits were regularly pocketed by unscrupulous landlords.

Communication between tenants and landlords was generally poor, with rudeness, threatening behaviour, and in more severe cases assault and unlawful harassment.

From our research we now understand why so many tenants put up with awful living conditions and nasty landlord behaviour. It comes down to a combination of low expectations – people have been ground down – and the fact they have no choice, no options.

They are ripe for exploitation and that is precisely what happens to the many, not the few. Those in power have been asleep at the wheel while these immoral, unethical and often unlawful practices have spawned across Scotland.

The private-rented sector has almost doubled in the last 12 years and now represents 14.6 percent of all households in Scotland. Eighteen percent of all homeless applications come via the private-rented sector.

In addition to rent paid privately, there is almost half a billion pounds in housing benefit going into the private-rented sector each year. And yet there is very little control of quality standards or indeed compliance with Scots housing law.

Three-quarters of private-rented sector landlords have a single home, while 29 percent are “accidental landlords” unable to sell their properties. A significant number of landlords view renting out properties as a cash cow.

The tenant pays his or her rent, and the landlord collects it. The law is ignored as a matter of course and people are afraid to enforce their rights. The system is broken. It is unfit for a modern 21st-century Scotland that talks about equality of opportunity for the many.

Our report illustrates very powerfully that too many private-rented sector tenants have no expectations, choice, security of tenure or indeed a proper voice and stake in the policy-making process.

This isn’t a minority group, it’s the norm. This has to change and the Scottish government has the power to change it – even if so many of our politicians are private landlords.

The Private Housing (Tenancies) Bill recently published by the Scottish government will make it easier to evict and will do absolutely nothing to tackle the problems that the Govan Law Centre’s report has identified. That isn’t good enough.

Mike Dailly is principal solicitor and solicitor advocate at Govan Law Centre, Glasgow.

Morning Star

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