Consultation on a Private Rented Sector Code of Practice for Landlords and Agents

Shelter Cymru warns that Welsh Gov’s new landlords code of practice needs a lot of work before it does the job

Shelter Cymru works for the prevention of homelessness and the improvement of housing conditions. Our vision is that everyone in Wales should have a decent home. We believe that a home is a fundamental right and essential to the health and well-being of people and communities.

Vision
Everyone in Wales should have a decent and affordable home: it is the foundation for the health and well-being of people and communities.

Mission
Shelter Cymru’s mission is to improve people’s lives through our advice and support services and through training, education and information work. Through our policy, research, campaigning and lobbying, we will help overcome the barriers that stand in the way of people in Wales having a decent affordable home.

  • Values
    Be independent and not compromised in any aspect of our work with people in housing need.
  • Work as equals with people in housing need, respect their needs, and help them to take control of their lives.
  • Constructively challenge to ensure people are properly assisted and to improve good practice.

Introduction
Shelter Cymru welcomes the opportunity to respond to this consultation. We are strong supporters of landlord licensing, and during 2014 we worked hard to persuade Assembly Members to pass Part 1 of the Housing (Wales) Act 2014.
Unfortunately we cannot support the Code of Practice in its current format. The draft Code needs to be restructured and rewritten to be much clearer and more easily navigable. In its current form we do not believe it is capable of supporting compliance or best practice.

As currently presented, the separation between the ‘statutory requirements’ and ‘best practice’ sections is likely to ensure that most landlords and agents will read only what they need to read, and will probably not read ‘best practice’ at all.

We are also concerned that there has been no tenant involvement in defining ‘best practice’. We believe that if tenants had been involved, the content of the draft Code would be considerably different.

We have identified a number of additional points that we believe need to be included – and we are convinced that engagement with private tenants themselves would identify further important points.

In partnership with other housing organisations we would be in a position to arrange this engagement within a short timescale if the Welsh Government agrees with us that the Code, and therefore the implementation of Part 1, would be more effective as a result.

  • Drafting points
    The structure of the Code should be revised so that statutory requirements and best practice are presented together. There should be no need to repeat all the different sections twice. Presenting both side by side will make it much more likely that both elements are read and understood. Enabling readers to distinguish between ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds’ ought to be straightforward.
  • There is considerable repetition between the two sections, and ‘best practice’ includes numerous statutory requirements. This is likely to confuse readers, and gives the impression that anything listed under ‘best practice’ is essentially optional. This is a further reason why we advocate a restructure.
  • The language is overly legalistic and not very user-friendly. The point of the Code should be to communicate the law, not just to reflect it. One example of this is the description of landlords’ statutory duties relating to the HHSRS: ‘Conditions in or around a property that contribute to a hazard and are determined to pose a serious risk must be mitigated so that they do not pose such a significant problem.’ The meaning of this sentence is far from clear. The word ‘mitigate’ is not likely to be widely understood. The concept ‘not…such a significant problem’ is very weak. The sentence does not effectively communicate the essence of the law, which is that landlords must ensure that there are no serious hazards on the premises. It would also be beneficial to include examples of such hazards.
  • There are too many obscure terms used such as ‘prudence’, ‘mitigate’, ‘divulgence’, ‘diligent’ etc.
  • There is too much use of the passive voice, which at times leads to a lack of clarity about who precisely is being asked to do what. One example is the HHSRS sentence above: who determines whether hazards pose a serious risk? And who should be mitigating?
  • Additional points
    The Code makes no mention anywhere of what penalties landlords and agents may face if they fail to comply with existing law. This is quite misleading. We argue that landlords and agents should be reminded of the potential consequences of non-compliance in each area of the Code.
  • There needs to be clearer guidance regarding transparency in fees and charges. Although the Code states that ‘all non-optional fees must be disclosed and made clear’, it does not mention the requirement to include charges in property adverts and listings following the Advertising Standards Authority ruling of March 2013.
  • There is no mention of excessive penalty charges, although such charges may constitute a breach of the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contract Regulations 1999 and should be included as a statutory requirement.
  • The guidance on ending a tenancy needs to be much clearer. The current Code refers briefly to not evicting ‘without a possession order and following due process’. There is no mention of harassment. The Code needs to make it clear that harassment and illegal eviction are criminal offences that carry a penalty.
  • There is no mention of security of tenure. Landlords and agents should be made aware that best practice is to offer tenancy lengths that meet the needs of the household, including offering longer fixed terms to tenants who have passed a probationary period and who want long-term security. Letting agents should not insist on six- or 12-month tenancy agreements as a blanket policy, just in order to maximise their renewal fees – a practice that we know is widespread.
  • There is no mention of allowing tenants to decorate to their own tastes. We suggest that this is something that is important to tenants and ought to be included as best practice.
  • ‘Best practice’ should include reference to adaptations for disabled tenants. Landlords should be asked to consider consenting to adaptations being made for tenants who require them, and should be reminded of the benefits of setting up long-term tenancies in these circumstances.
  • There is no mention of steps that landlords and agents may take to assist with the prevention of homelessness. We would urge the Private Sector Housing team to engage with Homelessness on the best practice elements of the Code relating to the ending of tenancies. With the advent of Part 2 of the Housing Act, many local authorities in Wales are trying to encourage private landlords to make contact with them at an early stage, prior to eviction, in order for prevention work to take place. The most proactive authorities are going out and speaking at local landlord forums to urge members to get in touch if they have problems with their tenants that may lead to eviction and a potential homeless presentation. Furthermore, we have been contacted by numerous landlords who want guidance on how to deal with vulnerable tenants and prevent problems escalating to the point where eviction is the only solution. We think it is very important that the Code reflects this, and signposts landlords and agents to potential sources of help and support offered by the local authority and other agencies. At present there is nothing in the Code about prevention, even though the loss of a PRS tenancy is the second highest contributor to homelessness.
  • Finally, best practice among landlords and agents ought to include signposting tenants to sources of independent housing advice. The best landlords in Wales are already doing this via their websites, written information and personal contacts with tenants.

New homelessness legislation

As new Welsh homelessness legislation kicks in, housing charity Shelter Cymru urges the public to make use of new services. From today new legislation will mean people facing homelessness in Wales will be helped in significantly different ways than before.

Shelter Cymru is urging the public to seek help from services at an early stage, not just when crisis is imminent. People can approach local authorities or seek help from independent advice providers such as Shelter Cymru.

With the introduction of Part 2 of the Housing (Wales) Act 2014, homelessness prevention services will be available to all households who are in danger of losing their home within 56 days – even those with no local connection and who don’t fit any of the ‘priority need’ categories.

This means that more people have a right to assistance than ever before.

At the same time, the types of help offered by local authorities are changing. Social housing will no longer be the main way of assisting people out of crisis.

Instead, local authority Housing Options teams will have the power to discharge their homelessness duties with an offer of privately rented accommodation.

Authorities have a duty to take ‘all reasonable steps’ with the aim of preventing homelessness for at least six months. This means that as well as helping to find accommodation, they may also assist with bonds and rent in advance, refer people to support services, refer to mediation to keep families together, as well as a range of other interventions depending on what people need.

If this activity doesn’t resolve the problem, the local authority will then look at whether households qualify as priority need, unintentionally homeless, and whether they have a local connection.

Although this still won’t guarantee an offer of social housing, the authority will be required to ensure that a household is in suitable accommodation – provided they pass the tests.

There has been very little awareness-raising among the public of the new homelessness duties, and the vast majority of people currently in housing crisis will be unaware of the changes.

‘Homelessness prevention services are for everyone who is at risk of losing their home. You don’t need to be on benefits and you don’t need to fit into a ‘priority need’ group anymore,’ said John Puzey, Director.

‘The fact is that homelessness can happen to anyone no matter what their background may be – a fact recognised by the Welsh Government who is opening up services wider than ever before. People need to be aware that this source of help is available to them.

‘It’s also important that private landlords let local authorities know when they have tenants who may be at risk of homelessness through eviction. The authority may be able to intervene and prevent problems getting out of hand.’

Notes
Shelter Cymru is supportive of the Welsh Government’s approach but has opposed certain elements of the new scheme, particularly the removal of priority need status for prison leavers. We have called for the Welsh Government to gradually phase out the priority need test altogether, as has happened in Scotland.

We have also raised concerns about the discharge of homelessness duties into the private rented sector against households’ consent. We are particularly concerned about the low level of security of tenure offered by the private rented sector, since most households will only have a six-month tenancy.

Shelter Cymru is Wales’s People and Homes charity. We have offices all over Wales and prevent people from losing their homes by offering free, confidential and independent advice.

Last year we helped nearly 15,000 people, preventing homelessness in 89 per cent of the cases where it was faced, while more than 140,000 people visited our website looking for help.

Additional funding to improve housing stock

The Welsh Government has announced a further £20 million investment to improve the Welsh housing stock and bring thousands of derelict and inhabitable properties back into use.

We very much welcome this additional funding. We have been campaigning since 2009 for action to bring the vast wasted resource of Wales’s long-term empty properties back into use and the Houses into Homes loan scheme has shown that a great deal can be achieved with a relatively small upfront investment.

The loan scheme for homeowners will be a big help for many people in Wales struggling with poor conditions who are unable to afford to carry out repairs. Wales has some of the oldest and worst housing stock in the UK, with far too many people having to cope with problems such as damp, mould, and excess cold.

These can lead to many health problems, especially for children, which in turn has an impact on the health service. It’s estimated that health problems associated with poor housing cost the NHS around £67m every year in treatment costs alone.

Renting Homes Bill – myths and facts

The Renting Homes Bill introduced by Welsh Government aims to reform and simplify tenancy law in Wales.

All existing tenancies will convert to either a ‘standard contract’ or a ‘secure contract’, both of which will explain in clear terms to landlords and tenants what their rights and responsibilities are. We welcome this as it will ensure standard practice and promote greater clarity for both landlords and tenants.

The Welsh Government states that private renters will have a similar level of security under the standard contract as they do now under the Assured Shorthold Tenancy (AST). However, one major change is that the Bill proposes to remove the ‘six month moratorium’ which currently protects tenants from eviction during the first six months of their tenancy. This will enable private landlords to offer tenancies with no fixed term at all – giving tenants in Wales a level of security of tenure that is lower than in any other country in Western Europe.

Download the Renting Homes Bill in full here »

Equal Ground Standard

The Equal Ground Standard is a tool for embedding person-centred principles in frontline homelessness services. It has been designed by service users in order to help further the aims of Part 2 of the Housing (Wales) Act 2014.

We are offering free support to local authorities to embed the Equal Ground Standard and carry out user-led service evaluations.

Shelter Cymru has won funding from the Big Lottery Fund for the Take Notice project, a three-year initiative to develop the skills and confidence of service users and offer a service to local authorities and other providers to help check the quality of services.

Adopting the Standard is a process that can be taken as quickly or as slowly as resources allow – goals are short-, medium-, or long-term as required.

Download the Equal Ground Standard (Eng) →
Cymraeg →

We are keen to partner up with authorities across Wales to implement Equal Ground. If you would like to discuss this, please get in touch with Jennie Bibbings, Policy and Research Manager at jennieb@sheltercymru.org.uk.

The EGS is supported by the Welsh Government.

Shelter Cymru supports Welsh Ministers call to abolish ‘ right to buy’

Shelter Cymru has been campaigning for an end to the Right to Buy for several years. We have long believed that the Right to Buy has contributed to homelessness and housing need in Wales by reducing the social housing available.  It makes little sense to continue to sell rented houses at discounted prices when affordable housing provision still falls so short of projected need.

Of course the Right to Buy isn’t the only factor that we must think about. We must improve the supply of affordable housing across Wales, including low cost home ownership, secure and affordable private rented housing, and more social housing through the work of housing associations and local authorities.

Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-30918677

Take Notice project

Take Notice is an exciting new project funded by the Big Lottery for three years to improve housing and homelessness services across Wales.

We want to give people who have experienced homelessness and bad housing a voice and to support them to lead a positive change in the way that the services they use are planned and delivered in Wales.

We offer full support and training and a range of activities to help participants to contribute to this process in the way that suits them best. You can be involved in a way that you decide!

Take Notice is supported by The Big Lottery Fund.

For more information please visit our projects page »

Hundreds of social tenants lose their homes as repossessions hit seven year high in Wales

Social housing repossessions hit a seven year high this year in Wales with nearly a thousand social tenant households losing their homes, a leading housing charity has revealed.

Shelter Cymru analysed Ministry of Justice data on court possessions and found that while mortgage repossessions have fallen in recent years, repossessions in social housing have risen 12 per cent over the last year and are now at the highest level since before the recession.

John Puzey, Director of Shelter Cymru, said: “This year has been particularly tough for social tenants, many of whom have suffered due to changes in welfare benefits and the rising costs of living. We have been working with landlords to ensure that they are doing everything they can to help tenants stay afloat – but these figures show that more clearly needs to be done.

“While some landlords are working hard to help tenants make the most of their income, others are failing to put support in place and are rushing to court far too quickly. We are hearing that some have started charging rent in advance from new tenants, forcing families into debt right from the outset of their tenancies.”

Social housing repossessions peaked in January to March 2014 – during these months Welsh social landlords were making more than 21 households homeless per week or three households homeless every day.

Across all tenures, nearly 2,200 households had their homes repossessed by bailiffs in Wales – equivalent to more than 42 households every week or six households per day. Many more would have lost their homes without going to court, so would not be included in these figures.

John Puzey added: “Tenants who are evicted from social housing have very few options open to them. Other landlords often won’t take them on if they have arrears so the only choice is the private rented sector where they may be vulnerable to rogue landlords.

“The worst time of year for repossessions is always the first three months of the year. This year, perhaps social landlords should show some forbearance post-Christmas and not rush to court as soon as the holidays are over.”

Notes
The figures are based on analysis of Ministry of Justice Mortgage and Landlord Possession Statistics available herehttps://www.gov.uk/government/collections/mortgage-and-landlord-possession-statistic.

Over the last year (Oct 13 to Sept 14 – most recent figures available) 2,195 households had their homes repossessed by bailiffs in Wales. There were 1,002 mortgage repossessions; 958 repossessions from social housing; and 235 PRS repossessions.

Shelter Cymru is Wales’s People and Homes charity. We have offices all over Wales and prevent people from losing their homes by offering free, confidential and independent advice.

Last year we helped nearly 15,000 people, preventing homelessness in 89 per cent of the cases where it was faced, while more than 140,000 people visited our website looking for help.

Homes for All Cymru Manifesto

Homes for All Cymru brings together key housing organisations in Wales and aims to maximise the contribution housing makes to the health and wellbeing of communities.

The group provides a united voice on a range of housing issues and has recently agreed this housing manifesto to illustrate the combined concerns of its members and how improvements can be made to help people in housing need.

Membership

  • Age Cymru
  • Care and Repair Cymru
  • Chartered Institute of Housing Cymru
  • Community Housing Cymru
  • Cymorth Cymru
  • Disability Wales
  • Home Builders Federation
  • Homeless Link Cymru
  • RNIB Cymru
  • Rough Sleepers Cymru
  • Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors
  • Shelter Cymru
  • Tai Pawb
  • Tenant Participation Advisory Service Cymru (TPAS Cymru)
  • Welsh Refugee Council
  • Welsh Tenants Federation
  • Welsh Womens Aid

Manifesto 2014

Affordable and suitable homes
There is a housing crisis with more than 90,000 households on waiting lists and at least 5,000 affordable homes needed in Wales each year to meet current demand. It is vital that we explore innovative ways to increase the supply of affordable homes and better utilise the existing stock for use.

We need a better understanding of peoples’ diverse housing needs; a more sophisticated approach to local housing market assessments and supply development is needed in order to address those needs and improve the planning and provision of specialist accommodation.

Providing more affordable homes not only meets need; it is a key lever for local economic regeneration and employment and job creation.

Tenancies
More families are finding themselves in the private rented sector in Wales because of a lack of alternatives. In order to provide stability for families and neighbourhoods, greater security of tenure is needed as well as improved consumer rights and defences against retaliatory evictions.

Improved levels of enforcement need to be in place to ensure that conditions are improved and those poorer landlords are held to account. Local authorities need to consider how they can work in partnership with third sector organisations to identify poor landlords and take action.

Private tenants also need greater access to legal advice to safeguard tenancies and should be supported in developing Private Tenants Associations.

Housing Conditions and Health
Poor housing conditions cost the Welsh NHS millions each year. The Building Research Establishment and Shelter Cymru estimated that Category 1 hazards cost Wales more than £160 million a year in treatment costs, lost time from work etc.

Access to secure, good quality housing is also extremely important for the whole population’s mental health and wellbeing. Poor housing or homelessness can cause or exacerbate mental health problems and have a negative impact on the health and recovery of people with mental illness.

Recognising the crucial public health and preventative role of housing, a greater emphasis on exploring jointly funding health and housing initiatives to address housing conditions should be explored.

Suitable housing for older people
Current policy and services are heavily weighted toward a crisis intervention approach. We need to develop a more coherent strategy and a proactive approach that informs, promotes, and facilitates greater housing choice in older age. To do this, we need to extend and improve the range of housing options and services. This includes:

Information and advice services that help people think about and plan for where they want to live when they are older
Improved services for helping people remain independent in their own homes, including Care and Repair services, housing adaptation services and financial help with getting repairs and improvements done (eg affordable loans and safe equity release) that make properties fit to live in.

Services that provide information and practical help that assists older people to move to different accommodation across all sectors – social, owner occupied and private rented.

In the social housing sector, develop more options and provide more choice – sheltered, extra care, retirement villages, residential care, on the strength of more robust data and local needs assessments and local strategies for housing older people.

Continue to plan and develop lifetime homes but in addition, plan and build accommodation that is not only simple to adapt in later life, but straightforward to extend and increase space – such as the ability to extend or convert lofts, to accommodate older relatives moving in.

Fuel Poverty
We believe that the time has come to stop the 2,000 plus excess deaths every winter of older people in Wales because they cannot afford to heat their own homes.

To achieve this, better use needs to be made of the significant schemes and funding that already exist to help alleviate fuel poverty, such as ARBED, ECO and NEST. Over recent decades schemes such as HEES, HEES Plus, CESP and CERT have made inroads into improving energy efficiency of social housing in particular, but much remains to be done.

This includes greater emphasis on more difficult to reach, and more widely dispersed properties in the owner occupied and private rented sector, occupied by fuel poor older people and others on low incomes. There needs to be better use of data on scheme activity to date, in order to understand where future effort most needs to be targeted.

Homelessness
The number of people experiencing and facing the trauma of homelessness is increasing. The Housing (Wales) Act 2014 sets an important new framework with an emphasis on prevention and partnership work. It is crucial that this new framework influences positively the culture of homelessness services, making them more user-focussed, including involving users in the design and delivery of services.

This culture change needs to include a commitment to respect people’s points of view and meet their stated needs wherever possible. In each case local authorities should strive to ensure that the household agrees with the identified course of action.

In order to assess and continually improve the effectiveness of homelessness prevention work, user feedback, which captures important person-centred outcomes such as confidence to manage a tenancy and social support networks, should be simultaneously collected alongside the service prevention performance indicator data. Such a dual measurement will then highlight the gaps between the professional assessments of success with those of the people actually receiving the service.

The new Act also provides an important opportunity to align support for the most vulnerable citizens with developments under the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act to ensure services work collaboratively to prevent homelessness.

Poverty and Equality
We believe that investment in, and the provision of, affordable and social housing is critical to supporting wider equality and anti-poverty agendas.

The Welsh housing industry has pioneered the principle that public and housing investment programmes can deliver wider community benefits, with a particular focus on maximising targeted recruitment and training (TR&T) opportunities and developing local supply chains through the use of the principles of the i2i Can Do toolkit.

This approach has travelled beyond both housing and Wales. Community benefits are a long-term solution for bringing employment, economic and social gain to disadvantaged populations, to help break the cycle of poverty and to promote the principles of equality and inclusion, as well as to help resolve the current housing crisis.

Housing organisations provide a range of additional functions for the communities in which they work, including services and projects relating to digital and financial inclusion and tackling domestic abuse and anti-social behaviour.

We believe that housing organisations are critical to developing partnerships that implement innovative and proven methods to tackle the further marginalisation of diverse and disadvantaged groups caused by increasing poverty, stigmatisation and prejudices.

Funding and budgets
Funding for housing and housing-related services should be safeguarded and increased to better reflect the preventative nature of work and outcomes delivered.

Essential programmes such as Supporting People and Care and Repair keep older and vulnerable people safe, warm and independent at home, out of less appropriate and more expensive institutional care settings, reducing demand for overstretched ambulance services, GPs and emergency hospital admissions.

There is a need for greater transparency of all publicly-funded grant streams, with clarity of purpose and much better cross-cutting understanding and working so that shared outcomes can be achieved more efficiently and cost-effectively across Welsh Government Directorates and other funding streams.

There is also a need for more flexible funding to allow planning over a longer period rather than being constrained by annual budgets.

Devolution
Wales has an opportunity to maximise benefits for Welsh communities and business through a better constitutional settlement in both fiscal and democratic terms. We would welcome the opportunity to introduce further powers to vary taxation or where appropriate to devolve further purposeful powers to enable Wales to better respond to changing demands in housing.

Caroline’s story

Things started to go wrong for Caroline after she was diagnosed with MS. A single mother with two children, she worked as a carer until she was forced to give up due to ill health. Despite the recommendations from her GP and hospital specialists, Caroline was found fit to work by the DWP medical assessment. As a result, her sickness benefit stopped and she fell into debt.

“Physically I lost weight as I couldn’t afford to eat. On several occasions I went several days without food. I had some help from food banks but you can’t have more than three vouchers. On one occasion I went four days without hot water as I had no money for gas. I had to sacrifice my car – I couldn’t afford to run it. This meant it was difficult to get out of the house, especially on the days when my legs were bad. I was just stuck in the house constantly. I think it would have helped me to cope with my health problems better if I had been able to see friends socially but there was no way I could go out with no money. My rent arrears continually went up … I couldn’t afford to pay the shortfall – I ended up in court where I was afraid of being evicted. It was very stressful and the stress of it made me even more ill.”

Caroline contacted Shelter Cymru for support and was put in touch with Suzanne, her local adviser. Suzanne has worked for Shelter Cymru for nine years.

Suzanne is our Housing Support Worker in Flintshire and has worked for Shelter Cymru for nine years.

“With Caroline, her illness made her extremely vulnerable, having to give up work not only increased the financial pressure on her and her family but also had an impact on her mental wellbeing. She simply couldn’t make ends meet. Facing potential homelessness at this point was the final straw and she felt so low that at times she felt that she couldn’t face the future.”

Suzanne has been working with Caroline and her family for two years, helping Caroline deal with her welfare benefit issues, her rent arrears and financial management, getting her back to work and supporting her with her health problems and mental wellbeing.

“I am so pleased Caroline is now feeling well enough to be doing permitted work (which is designed to support people to get off benefits and back into employment). Caroline was embarrassed to be on benefits but she like many others had no choice. Being back in work has made a huge difference both financially and mentally to Caroline. Although she is still suffering from MS, she can now look after her family again, something every mum wants to be able to do.”

“I don’t know how I would have coped on my own. The way the support has been delivered has been great – home visits were perfect for me as I know I wouldn’t have been able to get to appointments when I was feeling so low. I really don’t know what I would have done without Shelter Cymru’s support.”

Caroline and her family are unfortunately not alone. Family break ups, job loss, sudden illness, debt, the list of reasons why a family falls into rent or mortgage arrears is endless but the result is often the same, that their home is put at risk.

That’s where we come in. Every day, we work with families at risk of losing their homes.

Please help us this Christmas to support more families across Wales at risk of losing their homes by donating to us today.