How we’re preparing for the Renters Reform Bill at Stonewater

Sue Shirt, 04 October 2023

For me, commenting on the Renters Reform Bill feels a bit like being asked to mark a classmate’s homework. It’s tempting to pick holes, especially as the social housing and private rental sectors are often seen through the lens of ‘us and them’. But, we must remember, this is about the 8.5 million people who rely on renting because, for different reasons, they aren’t in a position to buy a home.  

Any legislation that brings more parity to private renters has to be a positive step, and overall at Stonewater, we really welcome the Bill. That isn’t to say there aren’t areas that cause us some concern, so we need to influence, understand and prepare for the implications going forward.

How are we preparing for the Renters Reform Bill at Stonewater?

A key example of an issue we need to prepare for is Rent to Buy. Currently, the proposals will mean that if a customer is unable or unwilling to purchase their home at the end of term, the only option would be to regain possession and sell on the open market. This may not be the best financial outcome for us, or the customer, and feels completely contrary to the spirit that Rent to Buy is based on. We believe it’s really important that these homes remain a social asset, and at Stonewater we’re already looking at alternatives, including the option of shared ownership purchase, continued Rent to Buy discount in the short term and even a market rent option.

Another aspect of the Bill we are preparing for is the proposed mandatory grounds for repeated rent arrears. While this may protect smaller, private landlords who rely on the timeliness of payments, as social landlords our emphasis should always be on supporting customers to sustain their tenancy - which means we must work to understand the challenges and complexities they face, especially in these difficult times. Data from CACI on the impact of the cost of living crisis on Stonewater customers shows a 20% increase in the numbers claiming income related support since last year. And of those, 60% have a tenancy of over five years and there’s been a disproportionate impact on younger families. Knowing customers is far more powerful in sustaining tenancies than legal powers.

One thing we are pleased to see is the proposed end to fixed term/starter tenancies. Currently, these are used mainly as a deterrent to poor conduct and enable us to deal quickly with any early issues. But if we’re really honest, is it fair to start every customer out offering less security on the basis that a minority may cause problems? Where there are issues, we already have tools to deal with them. We shouldn’t really need the starter tenancy fallback and I hope this challenges us to think more broadly about how we offer, manage and sustain successful tenancies. We know that the main challenge facing new customers is the cost of moving home and its consequence on early rent debt. Over 40% go into debt in the first six months, so by focusing on early tenancy advice and practical support – including from our charity partner Longleigh – we’re making positive inroads here. Removing insecurity of tenure from the mix of stresses facing new customers is a step forward.

Finally, as a life-long dog-lover, I’ve been surprised by the Bill’s approach to pets. Pets can have a really positive impact on people’s lives and, at Stonewater we changed our policy back in 2021 so that permission isn’t unreasonably withheld across any of our homes. It’s been a popular move. As the Bill will embed this for private landlords, why not our sector as well? Not to do so will disadvantage customers and prospective social housing pets too.

What’s next?

Overall, we’re already well prepared for the Bill. However in some areas, like the maturing of rent to buy and getting smarter with data and insight to truly understand customers, there’s still much to do. While there will always be some fundamental differences between private and social landlords, I really hope the Bill will help us take the best of both worlds, and learn from each other, for the benefit of everyone. After all, being adaptable is a value our sector is built on.