Rogue landlords are raking in £5.6billion a year for unsafe homes that fail to meet legal standards, a report by Citizens Advice claims.
The study says that 740,000 households in England live in privately rented homes that present a severe threat to tenants' health.
The report, A Nation of Renters, says these properties have category 1 hazards – the most serious of problems. These can include a host of dangers, such as: severe damp, rat infestations and risk of explosions.
The charity says that latest available data shows these properties contain 510,000 children and 180,000 have a disabled person. It also says that landlords are receiving £5.6bn a year on rent for homes with category 1 hazards, which includes £1.3bn of housing benefit.
Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “Rogue landlords are putting profits before safety. With a growing private rental sector, increasing numbers of people – including more than 500,000 children – are falling prey to landlords who fail to meet decent standards.
“The Government has rightly said it wants to tackle the country’s housing crisis – it must make targeting dodgy landlords, giving tenants better rights and driving up standards a major part of that effort."
Citizens Advice says private renters are woefully under-protected and have to navigate through numerous pieces of complex legislation to seek legal redress from landlords.
It says that taking court action against a landlord can be long, complicated and expensive. This is compounded by the fact many complaints have to be made to local authorities, which often do not have the capacity to act quickly.
Responding to the report, the Residential Landlords Association (RLA) said better enforcement is needed of laws and regulations to protect tenants in private rented housing.
Figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies show that during the last Parliament, the budgets of local authority enforcement departments were cut by over 37% per head of population in England.
Recent research conducted by the Local Government Information Unit and Management Journal has also found that 54% of local authorities believe that they are in danger of being unable to fund their statutory services which include Environmental Health Services.
The RLA claimed that with landlord investment running at £50 billion a year, the standard of private rented housing has improved by 36% between 2006 and 2013.
Chairman of the RLA Alan Ward said: “No tenant should ever have to put up with unsafe housing, and those landlords that wilfully provide such accommodation have no place in the market.
“Today’s report highlights the growing need for better enforcement of the wide range of powers already available to local authorities. The hazards identified by CAB are already illegal and calls into question the use of housing benefit for unfit properties.
“With council enforcement departments under serious pressure we are calling on the Government to review the capacity and resources available so that we can crack down on the small minority of criminal landlords that are causing misery for their tenants.”