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PRS 2019 Conference Report: A Changing Sector? Raising standards for private renters

 
Housing Rights’ annual Private Rented Sector Conference was held on Wednesday 20th November in the Skainos Centre. The PRS 2019 conference, which was sponsored by TDS NI, focused on raising standards in the private rented sector and the day was grouped into three sections:
  • Emerging Issues in the Sector
  • Current Challenges for Landlords & Tenants
  • Future Proofing the PRS
Housing Rights’ Director Janet Hunter welcomed delegates and speakers to the conference and provided context around the need for the conference. Janet introduced Professor Paddy Gray as Chair of the Conference, who gave an overview of the agenda and welcomed the first speaker of the day, David Polley.
 

Emerging issues in the sector

David Polley, Acting Director of Housing Supply Policy at the Department for Communities provided an update on the Department’s work in relation to the private rented sector. David highlighted that the levels of people in housing stress are increasing which is resulting in more people renting privately for longer periods of time. 
 
In relation to raising standards in the PRS, David shared recent progress which includes the transfer of management of HMO’s from the Housing Executive to local Councils, the introduction of a Landlord Helpline and the delivery of training for landlords. In addition, the Department for Communities have approved a pilot mediation service which will run over two years and will offer an accessible, effective and proportionate means of resolving a dispute. David also informed delegates that the Department have commissioned research in relation to affordable homes in Northern Ireland, and have invited partners in the sector to work with DfC in relation to making full use of Discretionary Housing Payments. 
 
 
Jordan Buchanan, Chief Economist at Property Pal gave a presentation on the possible impacts of Brexit for the private rented sector. Jordan provided an overview of recent trends in the PRS in addition to trends in the labour market and incomes, and highlighted that since 2015 real income has decreased whilst real rents have increased by 7%.  The presentation included a range of areas impacted by Brexit such as the Mortgage market, Housing supply, Housing affordability and EU migration, and explored the implications of these on the PRS. Jordan stressed that underlying issues in the PRS and short term uncertainty is likely to increase demand for rental properties as consumers ‘wait and see’. 
 
The final presentation of the first section on Emerging Issues in the Sector was provided by Claire Diggin, Head of Dispute Resolution at the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB). Claire discussed the Dispute Resolution Service and the evolution of the Telephone Mediation Service provided by the RTB in Ireland, and highlighted the benefits of mediation to tenants and landlords. The presentation showed that the most common disputes are related to rent arrears, invalid notice of termination and deposit retention, and that the majority of cases (59%) are taken by the tenant. Claire stressed the importance of mediation in negotiating solutions for tenants and landlords in the private rented sector, and in preventing homelessness. 
 
 
Following the presentations, Alison MacDougall from TDS NI joined the speakers in a panel discussion and provided an overview of the work which TDS are involved in, focusing on deposit protection schemes and dispute resolution. 
 

Current Challenges for Landlords and Tenants

Founder of the UK’s first social enterprise letting agency, Susan Aktemel, presented the Homes for Good model and discussed the challenges of welfare reform for tenants and landlords. Susan highlighted that for tenants in receipt of Housing Benefit in Scotland, only 7% of properties are affordable to them, however the quality and standards of properties are often poor. Homes for Good create homes for people who need them and offer tenancy support to help tenants sustain their home. Homes for Good have a 5 year plan to increase the number of homes from 244 to 1000, and are working with the Simon Community to explore replicating the Homes for Good model in Northern Ireland.
 
 
Joe Frey provided an insight into research by the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE) on the private rented sector. Joe’s presentation highlighted the guiding principles of CaCHE research which include informing policy and practice with a particular focus on addressing poverty and equality, and providing support for funding for small projects e.g. Falling Behind. Joe stated that the private rented sector is seen as a key focus of research and highlighted a number of PRS research projects of particular relevance to NI. 
 
 
Dr Kim McKee, Co-investigator at CaCHE and Senior Lecturer in Social Policy & Housing at University of Stirling, presented the key findings from the ‘Beyond Generation Rent’ research. The research explored the experience of middle aged renters (35-54 year olds) in Scotland and England, the key findings of which were similar to that of the 2018 research into the experience of younger renters (under 35 year olds). Kim highlighted that the shared experiences between the age groups included unaffordable rents, insecurity of tenure and poor quality housing. The research found that middle aged renters face distinct pressures, particularly in terms of raising a family in private rented accommodation and also in relation to ageing bodies and the inability of the sector to cope with the needs associated with older age. 
 
 
The final presentation in this section was from Karly Greene, Head of Research and Equality at the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Karly’s presentation focused on emerging insights from surveys with private rented sector landlords in Northern Ireland and began by highlighting the rise in the private rented sector which is 17% and is larger than the social rented sector. Karly stated that the landlord survey is still live and there have been 1500 completed surveys to date. The themes which have emerged so far include properties and management, future intentions, affordability, welfare changes and sustainable tenancies. The launch of the Landlord Survey Report is due to be published in Spring/Summer 2020. 
 
 
The presentations were followed by a panel discussion involving speakers from Section 2. 
Following the lunch break, delegates participated in Practitioner workshops, hosted by Housing Rights staff. The three workshops were focused on:
 
  • Exploring the impact of Brexit on private renting- exploring some of the issues facing housing practitioner’s with Brexit, this workshop shared insight from queries received by Housing Rights and provided clarification in relation to Brexit related PRS issues.
  • Practical support to sustain tenancies in the PRS- with recent research showing that almost 9 in 10 private rents are not covered by Local Housing Allowance, this workshop explored the additional support which may be required to support low income private renters to stay in their homes. 
  • Time for a strong tenant voice in the private rented sector?- this workshop reflected on the value of private tenant engagement and heard from private tenants themselves on the value of and challenges with creating a strong tenant voice. Delegates also heard about the brand new Renters Voice project which has just begun at Housing Rights and will run for the next three years. 
 

Futureproofing the PRS

Dr Lorcan Sirr from the Technological University of Dublin gave a presentation on Airbnb with particular focus on the experience in Dublin. Lorcan highlighted the extent of Airbnb in Dublin and stated that there are 7,323 listings of Airbnb in Dublin City, a city with over 8000 homeless people. The top 10 hosts on Airbnb in Dublin have generated £23.7 million in revenue from a business which is unregulated and unmanaged. The majority of Airbnb’s in Dublin are located in residential areas, which causes the displacement of communities, affects younger people trying to get on the property ladder in their local area, and also causes the value of land to double. Lorcan reiterated the need for regulation of Airbnbs and suggested that they should be planned strategically in line with local development planning. 
 
 
Belfast City Council’s NIHMO Manager provided a presentation on the new HMO Regime in Northern Ireland and discussed the changes including the transfer of responsibility from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to Belfast City Council. Kevin discussed how and when an application for a HMO should be submitted to BCC and the circumstances in which planning permission is required. Kevin highlighted emerging issues for HMO managers and tenants including the threat of immediate eviction, the strict regulations with regards to Fire Safety and Anti-Social Behaviour plans, as well as the risks of late renewal. 
 
 
Dr Steve Rolfe, a research fellow from the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Stirling, provided a presentation on Tenant Participation in the Private Rented Sector. Steve discussed tenant participation through bottom-up activism and highlighted how the cycle of activism can empower tenants to achieve both housing and non-housing outcomes. Steve also provided examples of tenant participation in activism from Scotland and stressed the importance of the sharing of power and support for tenant activism.
 
 
Section 3 on Future Proofing the PRS concluded with a panel discussion and an opportunity for delegates to ask the speakers questions. 
Housing Rights’ Director Janet Hunter thanked all delegates and speakers for taking part in this years’ conference, and emphasised the importance of the conference theme, ‘Raising Standards for Private Renters’. Janet expressed hope that the conference had given food for thought for those working across the sector and discussed Housing Rights plans over the next 12 months which will contribute to raising standards for private renters. 
 

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Benefits, Brexit, Legislation, Outside NI, Regulation, Research, Social Tenancies, Private Tenants Forum, Private Tenancies, Practical tips, Policy