Marco Biagi: Housing rental bubble real concerned

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A new survey published by Shelter confirms that just one in six people who rent their homes genuinely want to do so.

Some 39 per cent of my constituents now put a roof over their head by a monthly rental payment to a private landlord, the highest concentration in Scotland – and a rate that has doubled in a decade.

Private renting, long the choice of students or those in transient jobs, is now the only option for too many people. Over the same two decades Right to Buy sell-offs caused council house numbers to plummet while house prices soared. Those who owned homes benefited while a younger generation were priced out. Margaret Thatcher’s dream of home ownership gave way to a housing crisis hangover, and home ownership falling for the first time in living memory.

This has changed our city centre communities, making them more temporary, and causing often painful changes to services long cherished by long-term residents as families with children have given way to Houses of Multiple Occupation (HMOs). Cities change, living patterns change; they always have, they always will. What matters is how we adapt and manage.

In this market failure, where supply is fixed but demand ever increasing, and where budgets to provide social housing alternatives are hammered by UK government austerity, steps must be taken to reduce the unfairness that this imbalance will cause. Scotland now has landlord registration; tenancy deposit protection and tenancy information packs; and the illegal premiums formerly being charged by 59 out of 60 Edinburgh letting agents surveyed – charges to even get on a waiting list or even be considered for a flat – have been ended.

The Housing Bill, which has just passed its first Holyrood vote, creates a specialist tribunal to speed up adjudication and divert housing cases from the Sheriff Court. Councils will be able to inspect and report substandard rented properties rather than depending on tenants being willing to risk their tenancy by complaining. Letting agents will be actively regulated, with a legally underpinned Code of Practice.

Implemented well and the Code will leave lawyers unoccupied and disputes avoided. Indeed, for this and other reasons the Housing Bill has been welcomed by representatives of reputable landlords and letting agents, as well as tenants’ rights groups like Shelter.

Shelter has also challenged MSPs to reform tenancy entirely. There is a growing case for more open-ended tenancies with longer residence. If a tenant feels they are living in someone else’s asset rather than what is their own home, how can they have a feeling of permanence? So I ask – is a future where renting has doubled again one where equality is lower or higher; where communities are more cohesive or more atomised; and above all one with an Edinburgh that we ourselves would still want to live in?

Marco Biagi is SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central