Blog: Private rented sector has vital role in addressing shortage of housing

Susan Aktmel
Susan Aktmel

As the population lives longer and the percentage of Scots living in accommodation social rent falls, a professional and responsible private rented sector can help fill the void, writes Susan Aktemel.

With so many tumultuous political events on the news agenda right now, we can lose sight of the more mundane issues that can have such a huge impact on our day-to-day lives. That includes where we live and having somewhere to call home.

There’s little doubt that Scotland needs more homes. People are living longer while changes to traditional family structures mean our population is spread across more and smaller households. There are currently more than 150,000 Scots on council housing waiting lists and more than 2,500 Scottish families living in temporary accommodation.

At the same time, the tenure of housing we live in is changing. At around 60%, the percentage of Scots who are owner occupiers has remained constant over the past 15 years – but the proportion who own their house outright has gone up while the proportion of mortgage-paying home-owners has declined.

Meanwhile, the percentage of Scots living in housing for social rent has dropped from 31% to 23%. By comparison, there are now 14% of Scottish households living in private rented accommodation, compared to just 5% at the turn of the millennium. In parts of Glasgow, the percentage of households private renting is as high in some areas as 40%.

Some have argued that these changes point to a narrowing of housing options and a deterioration in the quality of housing available. The private rented sector has been singled out for particular criticism. Horror stories abound of reluctant and absentee landlords who exploit their tenants, charging exorbitant rents and neglecting the proper repair and maintenance of their properties.

On the other side of the equation, landlords will be able to recount many stories of entrusting their property to a letting agent only to be subjected to shoddy service and a complete lack of care.

As with any sector experiencing rapid growth, there have been new entrants to the private rented market seeking to exploit what they see as an opportunity to make quick and easy money at the expense of others. Over recent years, the majority of long-standing and responsible operators within the private rented sector have had to contend with the unethical – and sometimes outright illegal – behaviour of this irresponsible minority.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Resolving Scotland’s housing shortage will take time and determination. In the meantime, the reality is that we can expect the number of Scots living in private rented accommodation to continue to grow. Faced with that reality, our focus should be on ensuring that private renting offers a positive housing solution and is an equally positive experience for tenants and landlords alike.

Exactly one year from now, letting agents operating in Scotland will have to start complying with a new compulsory code of practice. Over time, the aim is to drive up standards of service and professionalism in Scotland’s private rented sector. For the responsible majority working in private rented property, this is not something to be feared but to be embraced. It sets our sector on a path towards high standards of quality and service as an industry norm, while driving out poor practice and those who currently give the industry such a poor reputation.

New and innovative business models can also help to drive up standards as well as ensuring everyone is properly prepared for letting agent regulation. For its part, Homes for Good operates as a social enterprise letting agent and this week moves to new offices in the Bridgeton area of Glasgow which will include a dedicated support and information hub for tenants and landlords in the private rented sector – the first of its kind in Scotland.

By introducing a new compulsory code of practice for letting agents from the 31st January 2018, the Scottish Government is showing a determination to make private renting a positive choice that meets the needs and aspirations of tenants and landlords – rather than an option of last resort, as is too often the case today.

The private letting industry is rightly being challenged to raise its game. Our focus now must be on careful preparation for the introduction of the new code of practice and an ongoing commitment to outstanding service and an ethical approach. That way, the private renting sector has the potential to transform itself from being seen as a problem to becoming part of a sustainable solution to Scotland’s housing needs.

  • Susan Aktemel is executive director of Homes for Good (Scotland) CIC
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