Belfast council is pressing Stormont for rent controls protecting tenants from private landlords.
The local authority, currently the largest functioning democratic body in Northern Ireland, has agreed a Green Party proposal to press Stormont for rent controls on landlords following reports of spiralling property costs across the city.
At the recent full meeting of Belfast City Council, Green Party Councillor Mal O’Hara made a successful amendment to a council decision to accept powers for councils resulting from the Stormont Department for Communities Private Tenancies Act, 2022.
The amendment was to add in the council response to the permanent secretary at the Department for Communities that Belfast Council officially supported rent control, and would ask the department for further policy and legislative work “to fairly regulate the private rented sector, which the Minister committed to in the previous mandate”.
Councillor O’Hara told the chamber: “I have just read an article on Belfast perhaps becoming the epicentre of the next rent crisis. We know we are in a housing crisis after decades of inaction and failure to build social or affordable housing in the North has led us to this point.
“I am sure many members will be able to tell anecdotal stories about hugely escalating rents in their areas. About tenancies being ended and the same house going back on the private rental market for hundreds of pounds more.
“Couple that with the cost of living crisis, the real terms freeze or decrease in pay, and the challenges people are facing are part of that perfect storm.”
He added: “I do welcome some of these changes, however I think we are all quite clear it is not as far as we want it to go. This council supported a Green Party motion 18 months ago, that policy is in support of rent controls. That was passed with a significant majority.
“Rent controls are not all of the solution, but part of the blend of solutions. And we welcome the work that was done in the last mandate, in light touch regulation of the private rented sector.
“But the Minister herself did say there was much more work to be done, and that she looked forward to carrying out that work in the next term."
Last month councillors were asked to note new legislation, which introduces 11 new clauses to the 2006 act. They also agreed to set a fixed penalty level of £500. If landlords fail to pay the fixed penalty they will be prosecuted at court, where penalties for the same offence can be up to £2,500.
The new act makes the failure to protect a tenancy deposit a continuing offence and removes the six month time limit on prosecutions. The result of this is that there will be no time barrier on prosecuting a landlord who fails to comply with the requirements.
Depending on the length of the tenancy, the landlord must now give their tenant a minimum notice-to-quit period. For tenancies lasting up to 12 months there must be a order to quit of no less than 4 weeks' written notice, for tenancies of 12 months to ten years there must be a order to quit of no less than 8 weeks' written notice, and tenancies above ten years must receive no less than 12 weeks written notice.
Landlords will be obliged to give renters tenancy information notices - legal documents including information on rights and responsibilities, with information on deposits, rent payments, repairs etc.
It is also a requirement for a landlord to provide a written receipt for any payment made in cash in relation to a tenancy. If the landlord or their representative/agent commits an offence by failing to provide the receipt for cash payments, the council may issue a £500 fine.
Under the new act if a landlord has unlawfully requested or retained a tenancy deposit of more than one month’s rent, they are guilty of an offence. A council can again issue a £500 fine for this offence.
If a landlord or agent fails to protect the deposit or notify a tenant of the deposit information, then they will be guilty of an offence.
The Council may issue a fixed penalty three times the value of the deposit taken if not returned to the tenant. If convicted of this offence, the landlord is liable for a fine up to £20,000.