Letting agents can play an important role in helping vulnerable people to stay in their homes, says Gavin Corbett

Across Europe private renting has been on the increase. However, the overall size of the sectors varies hugely, as does the quality of homes and how well they are managed.

Here in Scotland, the number of private tenancies has grown dramatically in the last twenty years. Most of that growth has been in landlords holding one or two properties which inevitably leads to big differences in how well they are managed, from the highly professional to chaotic amateurism.

Letting agents have a key role in that very fragmented landscape. It is very difficult to improve standards across the board through regulation of landlords alone, given the sheer number of them.  By contracting a letting agent to manage properties then landlords can, potentially, pool expertise and meet expected standards.  That is why Shelter Scotland has supported registration of letting agents which kicked off in 2018 and requires agents to stick to a statutory Code of Practice.

In reality, however, letting agent practice is driven by what staff face day to day as well as the big picture requirements of national codes. So, at the same time as backing mandatory registration, Shelter Scotland was keen to work with a group of letting agents to better understand the ins and outs of the way they worked. That led to our Letting Agent Plus (LAP) project, running from early 2017 to late 2018 and managed by Natasha Miller, as LAP Development Officer.

The particular focus of Letting Agent Plus – the “plus” bit – was how agents worked with people on lower incomes or who may be at more risk of tenancies getting into difficulty: generally people who 20-30 years ago would have been living in social housing. As private renting numbers have grown the range of circumstances faced by tenants has become more wide-ranging.  However, it seemed that there was a lag in the extent to which letting agent staff felt confident and skilled in dealing with issues like multiple debt, benefit complexity and some types of health issues – all of which come up more regularly for social housing managers.

So the project engaged a group of 12 letting agents with whom to work over a period of almost two years, involving referral, advice line, training and good practice sharing: all designed to increase capacity and confidence in helping tenants who got into or were at risk of getting into difficulty.  Ultimately, the aim is to help more tenants stay in tenancies where possible and to prevent homelessness. From a letting agent business point of view, reduced turnover and heading off management or arrears problems at an early stage makes a lot of sense.

The pilot, funded by the Oak Foundation, has now come to an end. However, an independent evaluation of the work concluded that there were many merits in the Letting Agent Plus approach which deserved a wider airing among the 900 or so letting agents in Scotland.  So we have distilled the main lessons of the project into a brief guide How to help tenants struggling to manage their tenancy.  Many of the pointers are simply good management practice and easily absorbed within day to day agent business and include:

  • Early communication of tenancy expectations at sign-up stage
  • Regular and appropriate contact and being easy to get hold of.
  • Basic affordability checks.
  • Good understanding of other services available: benefits help; debt advice, housing support, for example.

The guide goes through common scenarios such as rent arrears, repairs disputes and anti-social behaviour. It includes sample forms for referral, affordability checking and a mandate form to take action on behalf of the tenant.

As letting agent registration matures and the commitment to professional standards spreads, we believe that the simple advice coming from the LAP project can become the norm for the benefit of tenants, agents and landlords alike.

Gavin Corbett is a Policy Projects Adviser at Shelter Scotland.  The “How to Guide” was written by Natasha Miller, formerly of Shelter Scotland.