Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the University of Sussex Students’ Union

Introduction

The Students’ Union is the representative body for the approximately 13,1661 students at the University of Sussex and Brighton & Sussex Medical School (the latter in conjunction with the University of Brighton Students’ Union). Our mission is to enable students at Sussex to make a positive difference to their University experience.2

The University of Sussex is able to house approximately 4,700 students in both on-campus and off-campus University accommodation.3 The vast majority of the remaining students at Sussex live in the private rented sector in nearby Brighton and Hove and the surrounding area.

Housing is the second most common issue (after financial issues) that students seek advice about from our advice service (the ARC) with 29.6%4 of all enquiries during the 2011–12 academic year relating to housing issues.

Our most recent Rate Your Landlord survey,5 an annual survey that looks at the experience of students from both Brighton and Sussex universities who are living in the private rented sector had 1,780 respondents and identified a range of problems faced by students before, during and after a tenancy.

The quality and regulation of private rented sector housing is a key area of interest for both the Students’ Union and our membership and we welcome the opportunity to respond to this consultation.

Response to the Consultation Issues

Quality of private rented housing

1. The poor quality of private rented sector properties remain a serious issue for many Sussex students with the prevalence of mould and damp being particularly problematic. Other common problems include poor insulation, draughts and leaks, inadequate and broken heating, structural problems, infestations of rats, mice and slugs, poor electrics, faulty appliances and badly maintained gardens. In an area where there is high demand for private sector housing but an inadequate supply many students feel that they are forced into poor quality housing.

2. Respondents to the most recent Rate Your Landlord survey who had viewed two or more properties cited “poor condition of property” as the main reason (selected by 56.8% of respondents) why they rejected a property.6 The same research found that once they had secured a property 27.4% of respondents rated the quality of that property as being either fairly poor or very poor. Many non-UK students also commented in the open responses that they were shocked at the difference in the standard and condition of the accommodation available in the UK compared to in their home country.

3. Many Sussex students report difficulties in getting whoever manages their property to undertake repairs with some forced to get Environmental Health involved in order to resolve problems. 39.1% of respondents in the most recent Rate Your Landlord survey rated speed of problem resolution as being either fairly poor or very poor.7

4. The Students’ Union believes there should be greater regulation of the private rented sector at a national level in order to raise standards and increase accountability amongst landlords and managing agents. We believe that the introduction of a compulsory set of standards that would be binding on all landlords and managing agents would have a positive impact on the quality of private sector housing on both a national and local level.

5. The Students’ Union supports the expansion of local accreditation schemes and more vigorous enforcement of existing housing laws as an interim measure and calls for sufficient additional funding to be made available to local councils to administer and support these schemes. The Students’ Union maintains however that landlords and managing agents would be held most accountable by a national regulatory scheme and that the introduction of national regulation would therefore be the most effective way of improving property standards.

Levels of rent

6. Affordability is a major factor for many students seeking accommodation in the private rented sector with national research indicating that over 50% of students either agree or strongly agree to the statement “I regularly worry about not having enough money to meet my basic living expenses such as rent and utility bills.”8

7. 42.5% of respondents to the most recent Rate Your Landlord survey who had viewed two or more properties cited property being too expensive as a reason why they rejected it.9 This was particularly evident for international (non-EU) students and students on postgraduate taught courses, groups that are not generally eligible to receive any form of UK government financial support package.

8. The same research found that the average rent in the private rented sector in the Brighton and Hove area was £90-£94.99 per week, an average increase of 5.5% from the previous year’s survey, in which the average rent paid was £85-£89.99 per week.10

9. Prices vary considerably in the private sector with students paying a wide range of rents depending on their individual circumstances and needs. The most recent Rate Your Landlord survey found that 4.3% of respondents paid rent under £70 per week and 14.8% paid rent of over £100 per week with UK students being the most likely group to pay under £70 per week and international and EU students being the most likely groups to pay £100 or more per week.11

10. The Students’ Union believes that consideration should be given to the idea of rent control as this may provide protection to students and other tenants in the private rented sector against inflated rents for poor quality properties and over inflationary rent increases.

Regulation of landlords

11. The most recent Rate Your Landlord survey found that although most respondents used a letting agent to find their property, once secured most properties were then managed by landlords.12 The differences in satisfaction levels between those whose properties were managed by a letting agent and those which were managed by a landlord were stark, with landlords outperforming letting agents in all areas. The results showed that across the board, properties managed by a private landlord provide a significantly better service than their letting agent counterparts.

12. The Students’ Union believes that there should be greater regulation of the private rented sector at a national level in order to raise standards and increase accountability. We believe that this should include some regulation of landlords, through for example landlord registration, but that such a scheme must be careful not to create high additional charges that might be passed on to tenants or be so restrictive that it would discourage responsible landlords from remaining in the sector.

Regulation of letting agents

13. The most recent Rate Your Landlord survey found that where properties were managed by letting agents rather than landlords there were very high levels of dissatisfaction amongst tenants.13 In particular, letting agents scored very badly in the categories of helpfulness and speed of problem resolution.

14. The same piece of research found that when letting agents were ranked using a scoring system based on students’ ratings of their experience, the highest scoring letting agent only scored three out of a possible 20. The lowest scoring letting agent scored -15 with the lowest score possible being -20.

15. The open responses in this piece of research also included many comments about the discrepancy between what prospective tenants were told verbally by letting agents prior to moving in and the reality when they moved in. There were also many examples given of poor customer service with respondents reporting that they felt that they were treated with a lack of respect due to their student status and that they were only shown properties in the poorest condition.

16. The Students’ Union believes that there should be regulation of letting agents at a national level in order to raise standards and increase accountability and that this should be treated as a priority given the poor experience reported year after year by Sussex students living in the private rented sector. We believe that the regulation of letting agents should involve a compulsory set of standards that all letting agents have to abide by including standardised regulation of fees, time scales for problem resolution and property standards.

17. The Students’ Union also believe that a free and independent service to deal with unresolved complaints by tenants against letting agents should be established as an alternative way for tenants to resolve unsettled complaints without having to go to court.

18. The Students’ Union is concerned with the unregulated fees and charges imposed by landlords and letting agents to prospective tenants. These range from fairly standard charges such as administration fees, credit check fees and referencing fees to less standard and often unanticipated charges such as fees for copies of the tenancy agreement and the collection of keys. The lack of transparency about fees and charges is of particular concern and can greatly impact on affordability to prospective tenants. The most recent Rate Your Landlord survey found that most respondents who used a lettings agent to find their accommodation were charged administration fees of over £150 although the amount charged varied greatly between landlords and letting agents.14

19. Another related concern is the plight of Sussex students who are required by landlords and letting agents to provide a UK-based guarantor but who are unable to do so. The most recent Rate Your Landlord survey found that 68.7% of respondents were asked to provide a UK-based homeowner as a guarantor to their tenancy. This is not always possible where for example a non-UK student does not have any family living in the UK or where a UK student is either estranged from their family, is an independent student whose family do not support them financially or where a student’s family rents rather than owns their own home. Where students were unable to provide a UK-based guarantor, the majority (31.5%) of respondents were charged six months’ rent in advance as a deposit.15 Bearing in mind that the average rent paid in Brighton and Hove was between £90 and £94.99 per week (see paragraph 8) this means that students who do not have a UK-based guarantor had to provide well in excess of £2,000 in addition to the usual fees and charges in order to secure a property.

20. The Students’ Union calls for the regulation of letting agents to encompass the fees and charges often required to secure a property and the amounts charged to those tenants who are unable to provide a UK-based guarantor. We would however suggest the need to build in some protection against any additional charges introduced through regulation being passed on to tenants.

Regulation of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs)

21. Although the University is able to house approximately 4,700 students in both on-campus and off-campus University accommodation,16 the vast majority of the remaining students at Sussex live in the private rented sector, many in HMOs in Brighton and Hove and the surrounding area. HMOs offer affordable housing in areas with good access to facilities and transport links to the University.

22. The Students’ Union supports the introduction of additional licensing of smaller HMOs in 5 selected wards across Brighton and Hove17 and believes that adherence by landlords in licensable houses to the required standards18 is likely to raise standards in those properties, subject to the existence of robust inspection and enforcement. This will in turn benefit student tenants living in those properties.

23. Brighton and Hove’s Student Housing Strategy19 also recommends the introduction of an Article 4 Direction in the same five selected wards in response to concerns raised by resident groups and individuals about the negative impacts on them and on the character of the area arising from high concentrations of HMOs.20 Following a consultation process the decision on whether or not to confirm the Article 4 Direction is due to be made at a Council Policy and Resources Committee on 24 January 2013.

24. The Students’ Union has lobbied against the introduction of an Article 4 Direction on the grounds that it will not solve any of the problems that it is being brought in to address. It is not retrospective and so cannot reduce the number of HMOs already in existence and deals solely with property status; it does not deal with property standards.

25. The Students’ Union believes that national regulation, additional licensing, the expansion of accreditation schemes and other methods of managing property standards would be far more likely to impact on standards and address issues that are identified as being problematic in areas where there are a high density of HMOs. We also feel that restricting the number of HMOs available for rent in areas that are popular to students may result in some unintended and undesirable outcomes for Sussex students; for example higher travel costs/longer travel times for students who have to live in further afield areas.

26. The Students’ Union calls on the government to revoke the power of councils to use Article 4 Directions as a means of restricting otherwise permitted development rights in HMOs believing that other methods will be more effective in addressing any issues arising in areas where there are a high density of HMOs.

Tenancy agreements and security of tenure

27. The most common form of tenancy in the private rented sector is the Assured Shorthold Tenancy (AST)21 but this only offers tenants limited security of tenure. This creates a lack of security for tenants that prevent many from feeling that their property is their home. Students at Sussex also often report to our advice service that they do not feel able to push for the enforcement of their rights in fear of reprisals such as the non-renewal of their tenancy.

28. The Students’ Union believes that greater security of tenure should be offered to tenants as has been the case in the past. We also believe however that any change in regulations in this area should ensure that adequate flexibility for both landlords (who may need to sell their property) and tenants (who may need to move out without fear of remaining liable to pay the rent for the remainder of the tenancy) is built in.

Homelessness duty of local authorities

29. Homelessness remains a significant problem in Brighton and Hove. High property prices and low incomes have resulted in high levels of homelessness, and demand for affordable property in the city far exceeds supply.22

30. There is thought to be a relatively low incidence of homelessness amongst Sussex students and the Students’ Union’s advice service (the ARC) only had four enquiries during the 2011–12 academic year relating to homelessness23 although this may be unrepresentative as many students report that they “sofa surf”24 when they can no longer afford to remain in their own private rented accommodation.

31. The Students’ Union believes that sufficient additional funding should be made available to local councils to ensure they are able to re-house anyone who has been made homeless into good quality private rented sector housing. We also believe that local councils should be provided with sufficient funding to be able to provide preventative information, advice and services to all tenants threatened with the possibility of homelessness.

Conclusion

The Students’ Union believes there should be greater regulation of the private rented sector at a national level in order to raise standards for tenants and increase accountability amongst landlords and letting agents, with the regulation of letting agents being treated as a priority.

We call for the introduction of a compulsory set of minimum standards that would be binding on all landlords and letting agents and for a free and independent service to deal with unresolved complaints by tenants against letting agents.

The Students’ Union believes that the success of national regulation of the private rented sector depends on the existence of sufficient additional funding being made available to local councils to ensure enforcement, and on tenants being made aware of their rights and responsibilities under the regulations.

The Students’ Union supports the use of additional licensing for HMOs as a means of ensuring landlords of smaller HMOs adhere to a minimum set of property standards but calls on the government to revoke the use of Article 4 Directions as a means of restricting otherwise permitted development rights in HMOs.

The Students’ Union calls for further research to be undertaken into ways to increase security of tenure and for the provision of sufficient funding to ensure the existence of good local preventative services and re-housing options for anyone who has been made homeless, or is under threat of being made homeless.

January 2013

1 University of Sussex, Digest of Student Statistics 2011-12 www.sussex.ac.uk/studentsystems/data/digest/2011-2012

2 University of Sussex, Students’ Union Strategy 2011-2014 www.sussexstudent.com/strategy

3 University of Sussex Housing Office www.sussex.ac.uk/residentialservices/index

4 University of Sussex Students’ Union, ARC statistics 2011-12

5 University of Sussex Students’ Union, Rate Your Landlord Report 2011-2012 www.sussexstudent.com/files/minisites/40123/ryl2012.pdf

6 University of Sussex Students’ Union, Rate Your Landlord Report 2011-2012 www.sussexstudent.com/files/minisites/40123/ryl2012.pdf

7 University of Sussex Students’ Union, Rate Your Landlord Report 2011-2012 www.sussexstudent.com/files/minisites/40123/ryl2012.pdf

8 NUS, Pound in Your Pocket Interim Report 2012 www.nus.org.uk/PageFiles/23557/PIYP%20Survey%20Results.pdf

9 University of Sussex Students’ Union, Rate Your Landlord Report 2011-2012 www.sussexstudent.com/files/minisites/40123/ryl2012.pdf

10 University of Sussex Students’ Union, Rate Your Landlord Report 2011-2012 www.sussexstudent.com/files/minisites/40123/ryl2012.pdf

11 University of Sussex Students’ Union, Rate Your Landlord Report 2011-2012 www.sussexstudent.com/files/minisites/40123/ryl2012.pdf

12 University of Sussex Students’ Union, Rate Your Landlord Report 2011-2012 www.sussexstudent.com/files/minisites/40123/ryl2012.pdf

13 University of Sussex Students’ Union, Rate Your Landlord Report 2011-2012 www.sussexstudent.com/files/minisites/40123/ryl2012.pdf

14 University of Sussex Students’ Union, Rate Your Landlord Report 2011-2012 www.sussexstudent.com/files/minisites/40123/ryl2012.pdf

15 University of Sussex Students’ Union, Rate Your Landlord Report 2011-2012 www.sussexstudent.com/files/minisites/40123/ryl2012.pdf

16 University of Sussex Housing Office www.sussex.ac.uk/residentialservices/index

17 Confirmed by Brighton & Hove City Council’s Housing Committee in a meeting held on 20th June 2012, see Housing Committee Meeting minutes 20-06-12 www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/downloads/bhcc/housing/Housing_Committee_meeting_held_on_20_June_2012.pdf

18 Brighton and Hove City Council, Standards for Licensable Houses in Multiple Occupation www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/downloads/bhcc/housing/New_and_confirmed_HMO_Licensing_Standards_-Sept_Cttee.pdf

19 Brighton and Hove Council, Student Housing Strategy 2009-2014 www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/downloads/bhcc/Brighton_and_Hove_Student_Housing_Strategy_Jan_2010.pdf

20 Brighton & Hove City Council, Direction made under Article 4(1) www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/downloads/bhcc/planning/Article_4_direction.pdf

21 Gov.UK www.gov.uk

22 Brighton & Hove City Council www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/index.cfm?request=c306

23 University of Sussex Students ‘Union , ARC statistics 2011-12

24 ‘Living or traveling rent free by sleeping on the sofa of friends or relatives’, The Urban Dictionary www.urbandictionary.com

Prepared 16th July 2013