It’s time for a Strong Voice for Private Renters in Northern Ireland
by Claire Maddison, Renters’ Voice Co-Ordinator, Housing Rights
Sheenagh McNally’s contribution to this blog in September reflected on the past five years of tenant participation in the social rented sector in Northern Ireland and, whilst there remains work to do, there has been fantastic progress in the involvement of Housing Executive and housing association tenants under the Tenant Participation Strategy NI 2015–2020. In contrast, tenant participation in the private rented sector in Northern Ireland is still in its infancy.
Renters’ Voice, a project supported by Housing Rights and funded by Nationwide Foundation, started in November last year with the aims of building a strong voice for private tenants in Northern Ireland and a culture of tenant participation in the development of the private rented sector (PRS).
As is evident from the language here, the starting point for Renters’ Voice has been largely one of building from scratch. There are some notable exceptions to this. The Private Tenants Forum, a project established with funding from Oak Foundation and supported by Housing Rights from 2012-2017, conducted an influential ‘mystery shopping’ exercise into letting agent fees, developed an ‘Agenda for Action’ outlining their main asks and were involved in the working group which developed the DfC’s Proposals for Change to the PRS in 2017, among other achievements. There have also been campaigns by grassroots and students’ groups, including successful legal challenges to letting agent fees. Despite these inroads, however, it would be a stretch to say that there is an existing culture of tenant participation in the PRS in Northern Ireland.
This lack of tenant involvement in the PRS would be easy to dismiss as understandable, or even inevitable, given the nature of private renting. The sector is diverse and unstructured. Unlike in the social rented sector, where the Housing Executive is landlord to over 80,000 households and housing associations have hundreds or thousands of tenants, most landlords in the PRS only own one or two properties. Many private tenants hold short term tenancies and move more frequently than social tenants or homeowners. In the absence a government at Stormont from January 2017 – January 2020 there has been no decision-maker with the authority to implement change.
Private tenants are also often perceived to be a younger group, largely made up of students and young professionals, who choose to live in private rented accommodation because of the level of choice and flexibility it can offer. However, the reality is that 18% of households in Northern Ireland now rent privately and many people do so out of necessity rather than choice, due to being priced out of homeownership or unable to secure a Housing Executive or housing association home.
Renters’ Voice’s funding from Nationwide Foundation’s Tenants Voice Programme was secured on the basis that more people than ever who are likely to face problems with living in the PRS, for example, due to lower income, older age or the challenges of raising children in a rented property, now find themselves with little other choice. Nationwide Foundation is keen to support the project to build tenant participation in the PRS in Northern Ireland because of, as well as in spite of, the challenges.
Needless to say, 2020 has brought further unexpected challenges. Our first tenants’ meeting, planned for March 2020, had to be cancelled due to Covid-19 and our focus switched to conducting surveys to provide a voice for private tenants in the response to the pandemic and to raising private renters’ awareness of their rights through online information sessions.
We are only now starting to hold regular online meetings with private tenants to build their involvement in and ownership of the project but the alternative path that we have taken has allowed us to engage regularly with a mailing list of over 100 private tenants as well as forging stronger relationships with a smaller group who are keen to build the project and grow their numbers.
We have recently released a new survey (which private tenants can complete here) asking again about the impact of Covid-19 on private tenants and also the bigger picture and what reforms would make private renting work better.
We will soon be holding accredited Renters’ Voice training for tenants and will be launching the project at Housing Rights’ annual PRS Conference on 25th November.
Nearing the end of a challenging first year, we are pleased to say that the future is hopeful for Renters’ Voice and tenant participation in Northern Ireland at a time when it is needed more than ever. You can help us on our way by sharing the survey link with private renters in NI (respondents will be entered into a draw for a £50 high street voucher) or by contacting me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 07936 929752 to find out more.