From March 2020, there is a promising new development on the horizon for tenants living in poor housing conditions. The Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 is already in force for most new tenancies that began on or after March 2019. However, from 20 March 2020 this Act will apply to all existing statutory or contractual periodic tenancies. For those living in poor housing conditions this Act could bring significant changes.
The Act implies a term into residential tenancies that the landlord will ensure that the dwelling is fit for human habitation at the beginning of a tenancy and for the duration of the tenancy.
Fitness for Human Habitation
The Act does not specify exactly what ‘fitness for human habitation’ means and has been kept deliberately broad. This will give tenants wide scope to bring claims against their landlords for poor housing conditions and it will be for the courts to decide on a case by case basis what constitutes ‘unfit for human habitation’.
To decide whether a dwelling is unfit for human habitation the legislation requires that certain features be taken into account:
- freedom from damp
- internal arrangement
- natural lighting
- water supply
- drainage and sanitary conveniences
- facilities for the preparation and cooking of food and disposal of waste water
The court will also have to take into consideration the 29 hazard categories detailed in the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS) which include hazards such as damp and mould growth; excess cold; excess heat; crowding and space; noise; domestic hygiene, pests and refuse amongst other matters.
Until the advent of this Act tenants have largely been limited to bringing claims for disrepair, to address their landlords’ failure to carry out repairs. Tenants were entitled to seek repairs, but specifically not improvements. Faced with poor conditions that were not classed as disrepair, such as condensation induced mould growth or coldness from single glazed original sash windows, there was little if any scope for forcing landlords to make improvements.
The new Act means that landlords will have a continuous obligation to ensure that the conditions of their dwellings are adequate and do not pose a risk to tenants’ health. Landlords will be obliged to make improvements to tenants’ homes to put their properties into a state where they are fit for habitation. That said, there is a specific exclusion where unfitness is caused by the tenant, such as failure to keep to their own responsibilities or treat the property in a tenant-like manner. Housing lawyers expect landlords will seek to argue this exemption regularly, such as blaming condensation on tenants drying clothes on radiators, which landlords frequently raise in their defence.
This is a new Act which could bring fundamental and positive change for tenants. How things play out in the courts is yet to be seen, but certainly there is significantly more scope to bring claims under this Act. There is no set basis for calculating damages (compensation) but it is expected that it will be along the lines of damages for disrepair. The Act does not apply retrospectively so tenants will likely want to combine a claim under the Act with a disrepair claim if available, in order to seek historic damages within the disrepair claim.
What does this mean for tenants?
The impact of this legislation is quite significant with much more scope to bring claims to improve housing conditions, as well as to seek compensation. This Act puts into law the right for tenants to live in a safe environment where their health, safety and wellbeing is not at risk.