The Executive has been asked to bring forward a limited Bill to improve protections for private renters.
Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey has stated that the Bill is not as “far reaching” as she would like but said that the Bill “needs to be achievable in the 11 months left in the mandate”.
Hargey is preparing to ask the Executive to bring legislation to the Assembly following publication of the Department’s response to a consultation carried out in 2017 on proposals for change to the private rented sector.
The Department has yet to indicate whether the Minister will seek accelerated passage of the Bill, which enables a Bill to pass all scrutiny stages (skipping committee stage) in as little as 10 days.
However, it is understood that the scope of the Bill will exclude a number of key reforms previously indicated by the Minister as desirable, including changes to Letting Agent Regulation and the introduction of Grounds for Eviction and Fitness Standards.
Northern Ireland’s private rented sector has grown significantly in recent years and is now similar in size to its social housing sector. Twice as many families with children live in private rentals in comparison to social housing and it is estimated that some 40 per cent of all housing benefit paid out goes directly to private landlords. In 2019/20, over £270 million was paid out in housing benefit and Universal Credit costs to the private rented sector.
The sector and the vulnerabilities of those within the sector were recognised from the outset of the pandemic. Legislation in the form of the Private Tenancies (Coronavirus Modifications) Act extended the notice to quit period to 12 weeks. The Act was put in place in April 2020 and has been extended several times throughout the pandemic.
In November 2020, then interim Communities Minister Carál Ní Chuilín outlined to the Assembly the intention to introduce sweeping changes across the housing sector, including in relation to private rentals.
Minister Hargey has now begun progressing those plans and, in early May 2021 set out the main contents of the Bill set to be brought forward. One of the main components of the Bill will be a move to permanently extend the notice to quit period, however, the length of the extension remains unclear. The Department has previously consulted on an extension from the existing four weeks to eight weeks but speaking recently to agendaNi, Minister Hargey stated her opinion that this needed to be longer and pointed to six months as a potential timeframe. The Minister said that she has asked her officials to “explore what is possible”.
Other elements of the Bill include:
- ensuring all private tenants are issued with a written agreement of tenancy terms;
- restrictions on rent increases to once in a 12-month period;
- a mandatory requirement for private landlords to provide smoke and carbon monoxide alarms and to carry out periodic electrical checks; and
- the introduction of enabling power in primary legislation which will make provision for the introduction and enforcement of minimum standards of energy efficiency in the sector.
Acknowledging that reform of the private rented sector, accompanied by primary legislation is challenging, Hargey says: “It is clear reform is urgently needed to improve protections in the private rented sector particularly for the most vulnerable in our communities. The initial Bill is only the start. In the longer-term, I will also address issues such as letting agent regulation, the introduction of grounds for eviction and fitness standards. These improvements have been a long time coming and will enhance conditions for tenants living in the sector.”