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PRS2020 Conference report: Future-Proofing Private Renting 

Housing Rights held its annual conference on the private rented sector on the 25 November 2020. TDSNI sponsored this year’s conference, with support from PropertyPal and Electrical Safety First. The conference focused on future-proofing the sector and meeting Covid-19 challenges. The day was grouped into 3 main sessions: 

  • Sector Overview 
  • Major Challenges in the PRS  
  • Landlords and Tenants  

Sector Overview  

Chair Paddy Gray and Housing Rights Director Janet Hunter introduced the conference’s context and purpose in the Covid-19 period. Then, Minister for Communities Carál Ní Chuilín, gave an overview of her department’s plans to improve the private rented sector.  

The Minister highlighted the importance of both securing and sustaining tenancies. She also underlined her commitment to extend Notice to Quit to protect tenants, push forward intermediate rents to improve affordability, and build new homes to reduce pressure.  

Minister’s statement 

Following the Minister’s statement, Jordan Buchanan, the Chief Economist at PropertyPal, provided his presentation: ‘Economic and housing market update: Challenges and Opportunities in a new landscape’.  

The key issues raised included: 

  • Covid’s disproportionate impact on young people in the PRS 

  • House prices increasing at a greater rate than real wages 

  • Difficulties in saving for a deposit (takes an average of 11 years)  

  • Furlough scheme often still leaves a gap for paying rent  

Many live in the private rented sector while saving to become a first-time buyer. However, as Jordan highlighted, affording a mortgage is increasingly difficult without a high-income or family help. Jordan also pointed to Brexit as another source of uncertainty going into 2021.  

Jordan Buchanan’s recording 

Jordan Buchanan’s slides  

Dr Jennifer Harris, a Senior Research Associate for the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE), gave the 1st session’s final presentation. Her talk on ‘Improving Compliance and Enforcement in the UK Private Rented Sector’ focused on these key themes: 

  • Systems- Multi-agency and interconnected responses needed 

  • Clarity- Important to provide strategic and clear leadership  

  • Responsiveness- Responsive regulation helps de-escalate disputes 

  • Intelligence- Discussed data-sharing protocols and how to monitor compliance 

  • Purpose- Must focus on compliance, not enforcement, to improve standards 

  • Technology- Working on new technology to improve remote capabilities   

The presentation shone a light on the role of compliance in creating a sustainable PRS. We need to improve the data available to local authorities; re-consider our approach to resource allocation to local authorities; and consider legislative changes.  

Dr Jennifer Harris’ recording  

Dr Jennifer Harris’ slides 

Major Challenges in the PRS 

After enjoying a quick coffee break, the delegates each joined one of 4 workshops. 

Home, Health and well-being in the context of the Covid-19 Pandemic (Dr Amy Clair, University of Essex)

Dr Amy Clair’s session highlighted lessons learnt and recommendations for improving interdepartmental working with regards to health and homelessness as we look to the future of the PRS. Good housing is key to good health so we must keep housing a priority.  

Covid-19 Preventing Evictions in the PRS in Wales (Alun Jones, Wales Council for Voluntary Action and Gareth Baglow, Welsh Government and Tenant Saver Loan Scheme)

Alun and Gareth discussed current challenges facing PRS in Wales, with around 28% of tenants in 8 weeks, or more, arrears. In reaction to the crisis, the Welsh Government’s Tenant Saver Loan Scheme provides access to a one per cent APR interest, affordable loan. Payments can be sent directly to landlords and repaid by tenants over 5 years.  

Mediation in the Private Rented Sector (Laura Coulter, Housing Rights)

Laura Coulter has been developing the first Housing Mediation service for the private rented sector in Northern Ireland. The session focused on the Mediation service’s first year and a number of case studies to illustrate how the service helps resolve disputes. You can find a referral form here: Resolving disputes   

The Perfect Storm; the impact of Covid-19 on private renters in NI (Dr Martina McAuley Housing Rights)

Housing Right’s own Dr Martina McCauley launched her new research focused on Covid’s disproportionate impact on PRS tenants. They are caught in a ‘perfect storm’ of low incomes (often as a result of job losses, furlough or reduced hours), job insecurity and tenure insecurity.  

The research uses evidence from case records relating to clients who contacted Housing Rights during the period March-June 2020 and showed the majority of our those calling about Covid-related issues were from the PRS.  

Landlords and Tenants  

After lunch, Ailbhe Hickey, Assistant Director of Land and Regeneration at the Northern Ireland Housing Executive was first to the ‘stage’ to discuss ‘Insights on Northern Ireland landlords’ from the Housing Executive's recently published research. The research shows most landlords are small-scale but relatively experienced. Ailbhe also highlighted welfare reform as an area where awareness and knowledge are challenges.  

Indeed, the presentation pointed to the issue of affordability. Many landlords are not willing or able to absorb rent loss. Almost 40% of landlords are unwilling or unsure about renting to people on Housing Benefit, partly due to perception issues.  

Ailbhe Hickey’s recording  

Ailbhe Hickey’s slides 

Next up was Housing Rights’ own Claire Maddison. Claire leads on ‘Renter’s Voice’, a project supported by Housing Rights and funded by Nationwide Foundation. It aims to build a strong voice for private tenants in Northern Ireland and a culture of tenant participation in the development of the private rented sector (PRS).  

Claire’s presentation focused on ‘Overcoming Challenges – Expected and Unexpected’, and, of course, reflected on the impact of COVID-19 in terms of transforming engagement to a web-based approach.  

Jenni, one of the project’s first tenant participants, praised the project and highlighted issues in the PRS such as:  

  • Landlords refusing to carry out essential repairs during Covid  

  • Challenges for people with disability due to lack of provision and suitability  

Claire Maddison’s recording  

Claire Maddison’s slides  

Finally, Maureen Corcoran spoke about ‘How Germany provides better private renting for all - lessons for future proofing the PRS in Northern Ireland’. Corcoran highlighted the factors that make renting privately in Germany more popular, affordable and future-proof than it is in Northern Ireland. These include:  

  • Better regulation- For example, rent brakes limit rents to no more than 10% above the rent index (Mietspiegel) and protection from gentrification (Millieuschutz) 

  • Widespread adoption of tenant associations- Representing private and social tenants alike, tenant associations in Germany are a powerful political lobby.  

  • Security of tenure- Germany has a 3-month minimum NTQ from the landlord. Also, landlords cannot easily terminate tenancies.  

  • Response to COVID-19- No evictions until 2022. Combined with more generous welfare benefits, German renters are better supported to stay in their tenancies. 

Maureen made recommendations for improving our PRS. These include publishing public data on local rent levels, giving local authorities power regulate these rent levels, and exploring a regulator for the sector. 

Maureen Corcoran’s recording 

Maureen Corcoran’s slides 

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Private Tenancies
This article was written on 3 December 2020. It should not be relied on as a statement of the current law or policy position. For help with housing issues please contact our helpline on 028 9024 5640 or use our online chat service at www.housingadviceNI.org.