72 agendaNi reviews the Assembly’s latest Housing Bill.

The Housing (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill aims to regulate the private rented sector, tackle fuel poverty, promote effective housing management and clarify the existing law on homelessness.

Landlords must register on a departmental database for the first time and refusal to do so will result in a fine of up to £2,500.

The legislation, currently in Committee stage, deals with the private rented sector and also includes the formation of tenancy deposit schemes which will safeguard the money paid in advance of renting a property. A scheme administrator will be appointed and each scheme must be approved by the department. When a landlord receives a tenancy deposit, they must adhere to the requirements of an approved scheme within 14 days.

The need to provide a statement of tenancy terms will be abolished and this information will need to be placed into a rent book.

In order to avoid prosecution, landlords who have breached registration regulations would be allowed to pay a fixed penalty. In addition, inspections can be carried out by the relevant council personnel if 24 hours’ notice is given to the occupier.

In response to these clauses, South Belfast MLA Anna Lo stated: “I have dealt with cases where local and foreign students have been treated unfairly, with unfair deductions being made from their deposit. Some of them had to go to England or other places to take up employment, and others had to return to their country of origin because their visa had run out at the end of their degree course. They could not wait to see the outcome of negotiations with landlords, so they lost out on retrieving their deposit. Not only is that unfair, it gives us a bad name when students go back to Malaysia, China or wherever saying that they have been badly treated by landlords here.”

Information on anti-social behaviour orders, orders for possession and injunctions can be passed on to landlords in order to help them decide whether to allow the tenant to rent or whether a tenant is entitled to buy the house. The Housing Executive and housing associations are also entitled to this information to enable them to decide whether an applicant is eligible for accommodation or homelessness assistance.

The Housing Executive’s duty to a homeless person will come to an end if the applicant ceases to be eligible for assistance.

The DUP MLA Jonathan Craig said: “It is understood that the migrants in question can come from the A8 countries. The committee received evidence from the Welcome Organisation that, in some cases, it was forced to use its funds to help small numbers of homeless people who were ineligible for assistance. Given the potentially tragic consequences of withdrawing support from homeless people, the committee will want clarification on the treatment of those homeless and ineligible migrants in this and neighbouring jurisdictions to be sure that what is proposed is fair and consistent.”

To tackle fuel poverty, the Bill allows for the Housing Executive to make arrangements with energy providers for the supply of electricity, gas or oil to its tenants. In addition, district councils are given powers to promote energy efficiency in residential accommodation within their own districts.

The Bill is currently at committee stage and the committee plans to agree a report by 14 January 2011.

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