Very little comfort for tenants - Report on housing rental market

Any young family or individual trying to keep pace with relentlessly climbing rents, any pensioner on the verge of losing their home of many years because rents are being increased far, far faster than their income will have been dismayed by yesterday’s report on the rental sector. It offered them little or no comfort much less security.

Professional landlords and investors in residential property, however, will feel that their position has been vindicated and that the argument against State intervention in their business has been strengthened. They will feel that the overriding primacy afforded to property rights by this society has been recognised and reiterated.

The Private Residential Tenancies Board (PRTB) report suggested that the introduction of rent controls would make the problems in the private-rented sector worse than they are already. It suggested too that rent controls would drive many landlords out of the sector and exacerbate an already critical housing situation, especially in the larger urban centres.

Property owners feel it is their absolute right to maximise profits in a free market, but the other group in the equation — the tenants — feel they have a right to secure long-term housing and protection from the worst excess of the profiteering made possible by today’s dysfunctional, under-supplied and dog-eat-dog market.

In the world we have designed for ourselves both groups are right. Both groups are entitled to expect official and legal support for their position. It is a function of public policy to manage the consequences of that interface and because one-in-five families now live in rented accommodation it is important that today’s rental free-for-all be managed in a way that can allow landlords make a fair profit while tenants can enjoy security at an affordable rent, a rent that cannot be changed at a whim to take advantage of unexpected shifts in the housing market. Looking at the problem through today’s prism it is hard not to conclude that tenants nearly always get the short end of the stick.

It is not surprising that housing charity Threshold rejected the report, arguing that the sector must be regulated to discourage spiralling rents which make homelessness a very real prospect. There are few issues on which the rights of property and the obligations of social responsibility clash with such force and complexity; it seems almost impossible to support one group’s rights without impinging unfairly on the other group. Nevertheless, civic morality means that some form of intervention is unavoidable. There are far, far too many casualties in a tooth-and-claw rental market.

The fact that very few if any social housing units have been built in recent years feeds into this difficult situation and it must be hoped that promises to build more are quickly realised. There are many solutions and one at a moment when so many private pension schemes are so very threatened may be a role for some sort of public bond where individuals could invest in a housing development fund just as they invest in a pension. Though this can hardly happen next week the idea might resolve two pressing problems.


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