IF you’re among the growing number of Scots renting your home from a private landlord, you need to know that change is coming. If this is the first you’re hearing about it there’s no need to panic, but it’s time to get up to speed on the new private residential tenancy (PRT).
Starting five weeks today on December 1, every new tenancy in Scotland will be a PRT. If you currently have one of the old types – assured or short assured – this will continue until either you or the landlord end it, and you don’t need to act. But once it’s ended, that’s it.
Don’t be fooled by the language of “assurance” – the outgoing system is, in fact, characterised by a lack of assurances for tenants. Short assured tenancies were never intended or expected to become the norm, and landlords using them don’t need to give a reason when they ask tenants to leave at the end of a fixed term. They are also free to set whatever level of rent they wish. These two factors combine to create insecurity, putting obstacles in the way of those seeking to establish a home in a rented property.
The new PRT has no fixed term, but runs until such a time as a tenant wishes to move out or a landlord issues a “notice to leave”, an action that cannot be taken on a whim. Where the PRT has made headlines – mostly in industry publications rather than the mainstream media – this has been described as “an end to no-fault evictions”, which certainly sounds much fairer than the status quo.
Responsible landlords and responsible tenants share a lot of the same priorities, such as maintaining a clean, safe and secure property
However, it’s worth having a look at the small print when assessing what the changes will mean for tenants and landlords, whose interests are often misleadingly portrayed as being entirely at odds. In fact, responsible landlords and responsible tenants share a lot of the same priorities, such as maintaining a clean, safe and secure property, and plenty of landlords are tenants too. So-called “accidental landlords” include those who have bought a property then moved somewhere bigger, or somewhere closer to a new job, and simply wish to cover mortgage and maintenance costs. They may be hanging on to their previous home for sentimental reasons, or pragmatic ones, or a combination of the two.
The difficulty of legislating to improve tenants’ rights is that creating more restrictive conditions for landlords may inspire them to sell up and get out of the game altogether, Fine, you might think: good riddance to them. But these might not be the landlords we’d like to see the back of, and there’s a danger that those who are determined to carry on raking in rent while mistreating tenants will not only find ways around any new rules, but snap up more properties for their portfolios too.
There’s a danger that those who are determined to carry on raking in rent while mistreating tenants will find ways around any new rules
The phrase “no-fault eviction” might give the false assurance that if a tenant follows the rules, maintains a property well and pays the rent, he or she cannot be asked to leave. But such a situation would be very difficult to enshrine in law because landlords need to be free to sell or renovate properties when they wish, and lenders need to be free to repossess them. It’s not a tenant’s fault if any of these situations arise, but they make up the first three of 18 grounds for eviction applicable to PRTs.
Ground nine, which states that tenants may be evicted if a member of the landlord’s family intends to live in the property, seems broad enough to be exploited: “family members” is very broadly defined and a first-tier tribunal need only be satisfied that such a person plans to live in the property for three months. Ground 13 asserts that letting someone antisocial into the property on just two occasions could be sufficient for an eviction order to be granted.
Let’s assume landlords are primarily concerned with collecting rent, and won’t seek to bend the rules to get rid of tenants they just don’t like. The new rules for PRTs state that the rent for a property cannot be increased more than once a year, and that tenants must be given three months’ notice of any rise. Furthermore, if tenants consider a rent rise unfair they can contact a rent officer for a second opinion.
It remains to be seen whether tenants will have the confidence to assert their rights
There are two potential difficulties with this. One, the rent officer may decide that the rent should in fact be higher than proposed, and two, most tenants don’t want to aggravate their landlords, whether it’s by pushing for repairs or requesting documents (such as written terms and conditions). While in theory “no-fault” eviction should alleviate their concerns, it remains to be seen whether tenants will have the confidence to assert their rights. That’s before consideration is given to councils using their new power to designate “rent pressure zones” and cap rises in a given area. If property sale prices are dictated by the free market, is it really legally possible for local authorities to interfere by capping rents?
When the bill proposing all these changes was first unveiled in 2015, Shelter Scotland described it as “the biggest move forward in private tenancy law in the last quarter of a century”. Here’s hoping positive change will result – but careful scrutiny will be required to ensure landlords’ behaviour reflects the spirit as well as the letter of the new law.
A version of this article first appeared in The National.