Renting a flat in Edinburgh can be a stressful and expensive experience. Despite this, the number of private sector tenancies has doubled in a little over a decade and 22 per cent of homes in Edinburgh are rented from a landlord or letting agent.
As mortgages and social housing become harder to obtain, private renting is no longer just a temporary stopgap, but has become a long-term necessity for thousands of people like me.
The increase in demand for rented homes means that buy-to-let properties can be a lucrative investment for landlords, but tenants often feel that they are being short-changed, especially as rents continue to rise above the rate of inflation. Repairs are a frequent source of friction, with tenants having to fight for essential maintenance. I’ve met tenants who have lived for months with mouldy walls, leaky windows or broken boilers because the landlord didn’t think the repairs were a priority.
Rented homes are also less likely to be energy efficient than properties in other sectors so cost more to heat, leaving tenants in fuel poverty. Complaining to the landlord is always risky because tenants can face harassment or retaliatory eviction. Under the most common tenancy type, the short assured tenancy, tenants can be forced to leave at 40 days’ notice without any right to appeal, even if they have done nothing wrong.
The usual advice given to tenants who experience problems with their landlord is to move out, but this is a flawed solution. Moving on might give an individual household the chance to look for better accommodation – although there is no guarantee that their new home will be an improvement – but the substandard flat will soon be rented out to someone else. The demand for rented housing is so high that tenants can’t all just avoid the worst landlords because there aren’t enough good quality properties to go round. Some tenants aren’t in a position to shop around, and those who are on a tight budget or tight deadline might discover that none of their available options are particularly good.
As tenants, we can’t force landlords to improve standards on our own. Local authorities have the power to fine or ban landlords who don’t meet their legal obligations, but Edinburgh City Council prefers to use the “light touch” approach of sending letters to rogue landlords asking them to improve. If landlords who break the law don’t face financial penalties then it provides little incentive for them to play by the rules. The council has been letting landlords get away with disgraceful behaviour for years, and it’s time they put a stop to it.
• Alyson Macdonald is treasurer of Edinburgh Private Tenants Action Group