A quiet revolution is turning rented houses into homes '“ James Mullaney

On the first anniversary of the introduction of the game-changing Private Residential Tenancy, James Mullaney of Shelter asks if Scotland is seeing the first signs that renters are finding their feet and asks how can we ensure all tenants know their rights.

As the housing market has boomed, the number of people renting homes from private landlords has tripled since 1999 (Picture: Phil Wilkinson)

A quiet revolution in renting is underway in Scotland. In December 2017, the ground shifted for Scotland’s private renters with the introduction of the Private Residential Tenancy for all new tenancies alongside a new free-to-access tribunal, set up to resolve disputes between landlords and renters.  

The new system was introduced to rebalance the relationship between private renters and their landlords. Shelter Scotland was one of the leading voices in the decade-long campaign for this new type of tenancy.

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Last year, 36 per cent of calls to our free housing advice helpline came from private renters – a disproportionate number as privately rented homes represent only 15 per cent of households in Scotland – many of whom complained of repairs issues and who often felt the balance of power lay squarely with their landlords, given the limited security that the old Short-Assured Tenancy offered.

The statistics on private renting show high growth in the sector, which has tripled in size since 1999. Many more people are wanting to rent from private landlords for longer and looking for the additional security that a long-term home provides.

This is why Shelter Scotland campaigned for the new tenancy which, we hope, will eventually provide private renters with the stability they want while retaining the flexibility they need.

A key change introduced by the new system is the removal of the “no fault” grounds for eviction. Landlords must now provide a tenant with a valid reason should they want the property back – and tenants can now challenge this at the new tribunal, if required.

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So far, there is evidence that shows the new tenancy is having a positive impact. Over the past year, we have been running workshops and talking to tenants and landlords and letting agents.

One tenant told me that the new rules were giving people back a sense of security. The tenant, who said she is soon to become a landlord herself, said that “at one point it was accepted that you could be born and die in the same home. But for years the lack of secure housing has meant people have been constantly on the move, uprooted from schools, family, support networks”. 

The removal of fixed-term tenancies for new renters means that people should feel more stable and be able to plan ahead. One tenant who had been renting in central Edinburgh for the last three years talked about her experience of being forced to commit to a rent increase every six months or face looking for a new place to stay, which was stressful. She now has one of the new tenancies which means that rent increases are limited to one every 12 months – and with three months’ notice.

Although she does feel more secure as a result, she still has concerns over how landlords may “try to get around the rules” – such as trying to evict so they can make seasonal ‘killings’ during the Festival season. This is the sort of bad practice the new tenancy hopes to eradicate.

Another tenant had put up with a bad neighbour rather than move, as she knew her existing landlord wouldn’t end her tenancy unexpectedly, but had heard of many other renters being told to move out after their initial six months’ contract ended and so chose to accept the unwanted noise rather than encounter the unknown.

The same renter also highlighted, even with the removal of “no fault” evictions, there are still 18 grounds for eviction that a landlord may use to end a tenancy so there is still an element of uncertainty in private renting.

At Shelter Scotland, we believe that over the long-term, the security and stability afforded by the new tenancy will drive up standards in the private rented sector. Some renters talked about their disrepair over experiences before the new rules came in. One renter went without heating or hot water for several weeks because the letting agency didn’t treat a broken boiler as an urgent repair. Under the new tenancy agreement, this tenant could demand the letting agent or landlord act without fear that they might be evicted should they complain.

A year on and there is no doubt the legislation has begun to shift the power balance between tenant and landlords towards a more equal footing. There is still a long way to go, not least because far too many private tenants aren’t aware of their new rights and how to enforce them.

In my experience of the last year, private tenants are more likely to take issues to the tribunal or contact their landlord or letting agent directly with issues because they feel empowered and more secure under the new system. The tenant who had the faulty boiler? She said it wasn’t just the fear of eviction that stopped her demanding an urgent repair, it was that the agent didn’t respond to her calls.

As another client, whose washing machine flooded the kitchen the day after she moved in, put it: “It feels too challenging asking the agency to do things. It took several phone calls to them and then Shelter Scotland to seek advice. It proved incredibly stressful and affected my mental health.” We need more people to tackle bad landlords and letting agents to ensure that private renting genuinely is fit for the 21st century. The legislation is in place and private residential tenants have greater rights. It is now vital that they are empowered to use them when necessary – the real transformation in private renting will be when they don’t have to.

James Mullaney is project officer on Shelter Scotland’s Private Renters’ Voice Project