Dr Kim McKee and Dr Steve Rolfe summarise findings from their evidence review regarding the role of PRS landlords in enabling tenants to feel at home. This piece was first published on the Housing Studies Association blog.
In the context of Covid-19, we have all become more aware of the importance of ‘home’, as national lockdowns force us to spend more time in the house. We know from a range of research around tenant perspectives that making a home can be particularly difficult in the Private Rented Sector (PRS) – factors such as insecure tenancies, issues with property quality and problems of affordability undermine tenants’ comfort, autonomy and self-worth. Moreover, there is a growing evidence base that the lack of a sense of home is detrimental to health and wellbeing.
Addressing these issues is particularly important given the rapid growth of the PRS in the UK since the turn of the century, drawing in more low-income and vulnerable households, many of whom now stay in the sector for long periods. Whilst there has been a significant shift over the last decade towards greater regulation of the PRS and an emphasis on professionalisation, particularly in Scotland, legislation can only go so far. Hence, we set out to review the academic and grey literature regarding the impacts of landlord behaviour on tenants’ ability to make a home in the PRS across OECD countries. Alongside our report, we summarised the findings in a good practice leaflet, which highlights seven key areas where landlords (and letting agents) can make a positive contribution.
Investment in property quality, adaptations and energy efficiency
Sadly, research on the experiences of tenants in some parts of the PRS shows that there are still too many properties which might be just about lettable, but are not really liveable. However, the evidence also shows that where landlords do invest in their properties, it can really help tenants to settle quickly and boost their wellbeing. Notably, there also appears to be a welcome shift towards concern for energy efficiency amongst tenants and landlords.
Multiple studies highlight problems that tenants face in getting repairs done quickly or effectively, including evidence that some avoid making requests for fear of retaliatory eviction. Positive responses and good communication about repairs have been shown to improve tenants’ sense of home and also enable landlords to gain early warning of underlying issues.
Discrimination in tenant selection
Research has long highlighted the exclusion of some groups from accessing the PRS, such as BAME groups, migrants and those in receipt of benefits. Whilst blanket bans (like no DSS) are discriminatory and illegal, there are undoubtedly challenges for landlords in the financial delays involved with benefit claims, or the additional ‘right to rent’ requirements in England. Nonetheless, the evidence suggests that renting to people who find it hard to get a tenancy can be a good business decision and support is available to help landlords.
Renting to families and pet owners
Many landlords are wary of letting to pet owners or families with children, fearing damage to the property or problems with neighbours. However, the research shows that landlords who take the time to meet prospective tenants and understand their circumstances often gain real benefits in terms of tenants who stay longer.
Personalising the property
Even in the most difficult circumstances, tenants try to personalise their property in order to make it feel like home. Whilst no landlord is likely to let tenants repaint on day one, the evidence suggests that negotiating with tenants around which changes they can make is likely to keep them in the tenancy and may save landlords money in terms of refurbishment costs.
Engagement with tenants
The evidence shows that the way in which landlords and letting agents engage with tenants is a crucial factor, cutting across many of the other issues. Unfortunately, there are still landlords in the PRS who do unannounced inspections, or treat young tenants like children. Where landlords treat their tenants with respect and communicate well, taking into consideration tenants’ rights and cultural needs, the research shows that tenants gain a sense of control within their tenancy, helping them to feel at home.
Tenancy length and rent stability
Unsurprisingly, tenants find it easier to develop a sense of home when they feel secure in their tenancy, both in terms of the length of the tenancy and the possibility of increases in rent. Even in Scotland, where the Private Residential Tenancy has improved security, there are still significant concerns about lack of protection for tenants. From the perspective of landlord behaviour, the key issue is about clear and early communication regarding any change to rents or possible termination of a tenancy. This is even more important in the current context of a global pandemic, where mobility is restricted and the economy is experiencing a significant downturn. Clearly, all of these aspects of landlord behaviour need to be situated within a wider structural context – neither landlords nor tenants can directly influence factors such as welfare reform or economic changes that affect tenant employment and landlord finances. However, we argue that the evidence from our review provides valuable guidance for landlords and letting agents regarding ways in which they can help tenants to feel at home, often with direct benefits to themselves in terms of tenants who look after properties and remain in tenancies for longer. In the context of an expanding sector and the immediate challenges of Covid, landlords in the PRS can make a substantial difference for some of the most vulnerable households.
The full review report is available here, alongside the guidance leaflet for landlords and letting agents and a short video providing a summary of the project. The review was funded by SafeDeposits Scotland Charitable Trust and conducted together with Dr Tom Simcock and Julie Feather from Edgehill University, and Dr Jenny Hoolachan from Cardiff University.