How  the Renters (Reform) Bill could reduce health inequalities

In this blog, Head of Policy and Research Lisa Whiting explains the proposals in the Renters (Reform) Bill and how the Bill has the potential to improve the lives and health of renters in England.

The Renters (Reform) Bill introduced last month, includes a set of proposals that if passed, has the opportunity to transform the private rented sector in England into a system that supports good physical and mental health. As outlined in our previous blog, safe and secure housing is a building block of health and research has shown that England’s poor-quality rental accommodation has significant negative impacts on health and wellbeing.

Problems such as damp, mould, and cold temperatures contribute to respiratory problems, cardiovascular disease, and other health issues. Insecure housing increases stress and can be a major driver of poor mental health. These impacts are also not equally distributed with low-income households, minoritised ethnic communities, disabled people and people seeking asylum statistically experiencing the worst impacts of poor-quality housing, which further entrenches health inequalities.

We’ve looked at the Bill’s key proposals, how they could help to improve health and what we hope to see included to increase the Bill’s impact.

What’s included:

  • Removal of section 21 “no-fault” evictions

“No-fault” evictions are when landlords evict a tenant without providing a specific reason. They leave open the possibility for landlords to evict tenants who raise concerns about the quality of the property. Around one in 12 private tenants in a survey conducted by Shelter said they were too scared of losing their home to report a problem and/or request improved conditions. Additionally, respondents to a 2018 Government consultation on overcoming the barriers to longer tenancies in the private rented sector said they felt unable to plan due to housing insecurity, which impacted children’s education and residents’ mental health.

Removing no-fault evictions should support more tenants to feel secure in their homes. If the proposals operate as intended, we should expect to see decreases in stress and anxiety related to insecure housing as well as more tenants feeling comfortable raising concerns to landlords about poor standards. These, in turn, will have a knock-on effect on wider physical health and education.

  • More targeted enforcement through a landlord database

Poor housing conditions impact the physical and mental health of tenants in various ways. Research from Shelter found that one in ten renters said their health had been affected because of their landlord not dealing with repairs and poor conditions in their property in the last year, and nine percent of private renting parents said their children’s health had been affected.

Currently in England, landlords must ensure their properties are free from hazards that pose a serious threat to health, but despite this, currently 14 percent of properties have a serious unaddressed health hazard.

The National Audit Office review found that one factor contributing to this is limited enforcement of standards by local authorities. There are many challenges facing local authorities trying to enforce standards and one is that it is difficult to identify which properties in their local area are privately rented. Local authorities are therefore forced to be responsive to complaints rather than proactively investigating compliance, and tenants often will not feel safe to raise concerns for fears of retaliatory evictions.

The Government intends to introduce a database that will require landlords to register their properties. This could also include requiring proof of certain health and safety checks. This has the potential to facilitate more targeted enforcement against landlords who fail to meet regulatory requirements and improve the conditions of these properties for tenants. It will be important to consider who has access to this information and to make sure the process is not so burdensome that landlords end up selling their properties which would reduce the supply of rented homes at a time when rents are rising.

  • Allowing tenants to keep pets can improve wellbeing

There is evidence to suggest that for some people, companion animals can have positive impacts on mental and physical health. Research has also suggested that for renters, being able to keep a pet can increase their sense of belonging by making a house feel more like a home which is associated with increases in wellbeing. Currently, many rental properties have restrictions that ban pets which also makes it difficult for those with pets to find a new home if they’re required to move.

Within the legislative proposals, the default position will be that tenants should be allowed to keep a pet unless their request meets specific conditions for refusal where keeping a pet would be inappropriate. Landlords will be able to require pet insurance to protect against damage to their properties. This change is likely to provide tenants with pets with more choice within the rental market, as well as improving wellbeing for those who wish to keep a pet but currently are not permitted.

What’s not yet included:

  • New standards that will protect tenant’s health

In the A Fairer Private Rented Sector White Paper, the Government committed to extending the Decent Homes Standard to the private rented sector. This would mean that landlords will be required to consider more than just health hazards in the upkeep of their properties and must also consider the facilities, repairs and thermal comfort.

So far, these proposals have not been published within the legislation however, there is an expectation that this will follow at a later stage. We hope to see the details of these proposals soon because of the significant potential for such standards to improve the physical and mental health of tenants.

  • A sustainable system for funding local authority enforcement

As mentioned above, enforcement is essential in making sure rental homes support good physical and mental health by improving housing conditions and punishing landlords who repeatedly break the law. This also supports good landlords by making the market fairer and incentivising compliance.

In the National Audit Office’s review, concerns were raised over the funding local authorities have to enforce housing standards. This is in the context of declining local authority funding. Central government funding to local authorities has been cut 37% in real-terms between 2010 and 2020. This has led to councils being forced to make difficult choices between prevention and response to an increasingly complex range of issues, including housing enforcement.

The proposals within the Bill will require effective enforcement to achieve its goals, so we hope the Government sets out its short and long-term plan for sustainable funding of enforcement.

  • A timeline for implementation

For too long tenants have experienced poor conditions with little support to protect them. The Bill is a necessary step to improving housing conditions across England and needs to be implemented urgently so that the lives and health of millions of renters can start to improve. We urge MPs and Peers to support this important piece of legislation to strengthen the protections on security and quality which we know support better physical and mental health. The Government must then look to implement these reforms as quickly as possible, ensuring tenant voice is at the heart of implementation.

We will continue to follow the passage of the Bill and update on its progress and what it means for homes as a building block of health.

Lisa Whiting

Lisa Whiting is Head of Policy and Research at People's Health Trust.