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Letting Agents, Let's Not...

Monday 27-07-2015 - 16:00
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Students are well-versed in the so-called rites of passage when they enter university.

It’s character-building to get by on next-to-no money. It’s part of the experience to live in a hovel of a flat alongside a menagerie of vermin. It’s par for the course to have a landlords or letting agencies who are quick to send the bill, but oh-so slow at sorting out your damp problem.

This folklore is one that’s been very much accepted by many in politics, whose days at university are often a more distant memory. But it’s not something that we should accept now.

Wales is making slow progress towards addressing the chronic problem of poor housing standards for students.

The Housing (Wales) Act passed last year intends to require licences for landlords and set fit-and-proper person standards to root out those who don’t fulfil what is expected of them. Such a move - which we will be rigorously monitoring to make sure it happens - would have a positive effect on the experiences of many students who may otherwise have little protection against exploitation from rogue landlords.

But that law is just one step in the process to offering greater protections for students. Politicians are in the middle of taking the next step now - but are at risk from tripping up.

A report from the Communities, Equality and Local Government (CELG) committee looks into a proposed law to simplify renting a home in the private sector in Wales.

The Renting Homes (Wales) Bill makes promising noises in making the experience of renting a flat or shared house easier for tenants. It will see the complicated array of contracts slashed to two types - one for social housing and one for private homes - which will make monitoring of standards in the sector far easier.

With an increasing number of counties in Wales now containing more private tenancies than social housing, simplifying the law and offering greater protections for students - who are primary users of the tenancies - is crucial to protecting them from exploitation.

NUS Wales has therefore been supportive of the proposals since they were unveiled - but we think it must and could go further, and fell short in areas which are vital in protecting the student interest.

The CELG committee examining the proposals have responded to our suggestions that protections should be introduced for contracts including 16 and 17-year-olds and a  recommendation for arrangements to be put in place for those in joint contracts, like students in a house share, to have access to their deposits if they leave the home. If accepted, these would improve the deal for students in the private sector.

But the committee and the Bill misses an opportunity to improve the sector in one crucial way - by including letting agents in the regulations.

Letting agents are almost completely unregulated in the private sector. With students a disproportionately high portion of private sector tenancies, they are most vulnerable to agents using aggressive marketing tactics to push students into renting too early and pressuring them to enter contracts that don’t suit their needs.

As I pointed out to the committee, most students rent through letting agents. The Bill offers a massive opportunity not just to ensure protection from poor practice from landlords, but from agents as well.

So far, the government and committee has passed up an opportunity to extend the Bill to include agents - something which is profoundly disappointing for NUS Wales which has been pushing for greater clarity for the many students entering contracts with them. While the morass of agreements with landlords can be confusing for tenants, this is is only made worse when letting agents act as an intermediary.

Given that students are regularly charged upwards of £1,000 to secure a property, once deposits, fees and rent in advance are taken into account, to fail to act now would represent a huge opportunity missed and a continuation of a situation which drastically fails to offer students value for money or a guarantee of quality their investment deserves.

I will continue to call for the Welsh Government and AMs to push for the explicit inclusion of letting agencies in this law which could have a profound impact on students’ experiences at university and push for regulation of letting agency fees and behaviour to be hauled up to the same standards as landlords themselves.

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