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18 October 2007 Edition

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Regulate private landlords, says Fra McCann

Fra McCann

Fra McCann

EARLIER this month, the Assembly endorsed a call by Sinn Féin for a mandatory register of all private landlords. West Belfast MLA FRA McCANN, who tabled the motion, tells LAURA FRIEL about an issue currently shaping the housing debate in the North.

THERE has been a massive growth in the private rented sector in recent years that has coincided with a serious crisis in the provision of social housing in the Six Counties. “People are forced into private rentals because there is nowhere else to turn,” Fra McCann says.
Last year, the number of people declaring themselves as homeless topped 21,000, a 4.4 per cent increase from the year before. However, of those cases only 9,744 were accepted by the Housing Executive. This means a majority of 11,000 were abandoned to the unregistered private sector. Fra says:
“The Housing Executive does not know how many houses are being used as private rented accommodation. They can tell you how many people are in receipt of housing benefit, but that is the limit of their knowledge. In 2006, the Housing Executive paid out £140 million in housing benefit to private landlords. This represents a massive flow of public money into private pockets.
“As an MLA I am repeatedly called upon to resolve problems with private landlords. Many landlords provide an excellent service but, without regulation, tenants have no protection against the unscrupulous landlord. There’s a range of problems associated with private tenancies, including poor conditions, lack of repairs, unfair rents and other payments as well as cases of intimidation and eviction.
“I’ve known tenants on housing benefit being charged as much as £200 extra a month by private landlords. Other people have been forced to hand over a £1,000 deposit to secure a tenancy only to discover it will not be refunded on the basis of false claims of damage by the landlord. In multi-occupancy tenancies, individuals are crammed into houses often in a terrible condition and forced to pay £75 a week for a bed.”
Within eight months in 2003, the Housing Executive inspected the addresses of multi-occupancy properties in which migrant workers were living. Of the 86 properties looked at, 73 were given notices requiring the landlord to upgrade the dwellings to the correct standards.
According to the Housing Executive’s report, the majority of unregistered multi-occupancy houses fail to meet the regulatory standards. Fra McCann says this is unacceptable.
“In other words, some of our most vulnerable people are often those experiencing the worst conditions with the least means of seeking redress.
“In other areas an increase in private rented accommodation has thrown up different problems. In some places, private landlords have been dumping anti-social tenants amongst other residents without any regard to the disruption experienced by the established community.
Fra believes that other jurisdictions have been quick to recognise that the sudden expansion of private rented accommodation would present problems and moved to legislate it. In the South, the Residential Tenancies Act requires landlords to register all tenancies with a central board. There are strong enforcement laws and the board rigorously pursues failure to comply.
“The board deals with matters such as deposit refunds, breaches of tenancy obligations, lease terms, termination of tenancies, market rent, rent arrears and neighbours’ complaints about tenants’ behaviour. In Scotland, anyone who applies for registration must pass a ‘fit and proper person’ test before he or she can become a landlord.
“It’s a ridiculous situation. Private landlords are making fortunes out of the public purse but to date have been largely unaccountable to the public and their political representatives.
“The introduction of legislation to make landlord registration mandatory will send out a clear message that the Assembly will no longer allow vulnerable tenants to fall prey to unscrupulous landlords.”

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