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The Rent Trap: Britain’s Broken Housing Market

Rachel Morris delves into one of the major causes of poverty, inequality and insecurity in modern Britain

Churchill Gardens housing estate in Pimlico, Westminster, London. Photo: Nine Elms Regeneration/Alamy

The Rent TrapBritain’s Broken Housing Market

Rachel Morris delves into one of the major causes of poverty, inequality and insecurity in modern Britain

“I love them, I do, but they were going to be here for a month, tops, and it’s getting on for a year”.

Annie has shared her two-bedroom home in south-west England with her daughter and two grandchildren since they were forced to leave their rented home through a ‘no fault’ eviction.

The landlord claimed that he needed to move back in, but Annie claims that a couple with no kids live there now, paying more rent. Annie’s daughter is desperate to move, but can’t compete for a suitable property.

The website makes transactions in the private rented sector (PRS) appear clear-cut. As a tenant, you have rights such as knowing who your landlord is; living undisturbed in a property that’s safe, energy-efficient, and in a good state of repair; seeing your deposit returned fairly when you move on. In return, you must allow your landlord reasonable access to the property, take good care of it, and pay your rent on time.

The reality for many, however, is more complex and unpleasant.

Housing support organisations say that the Coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing issues. Given that people were confined at home for long periods, systemic housing problems were thrown into stark relief.

The Thatcher Government’s ‘Right to Buy’ sale of public housing stock is said to have shifted 100,000 properties from public to private ownership. Successive governments since have implemented measures to increase home ownership. Yet, the PRS has doubled in size over the past 30 years – now accommodating more than 11 million people, including around a quarter of families with children.

Despite the claims of Kirstie Allsopp, people are private tenants for many reasons: because they can’t get into social housing due to its scarcity or not meeting its conditions, because they don’t want to buy a property, or aren’t financially able to. Many are locked out of buying despite good incomes because they have no family support, can’t save a deposit, are single, or don’t have a great credit score.

Ruth Ehrlich, policy manager of leading renters’ rights campaigns at the housing charity Shelter, notes that 60% of PRS tenants have no savings to speak of.

Moreover, barriers to ownership exist simply because people rent. Private tenants pay an average of 40% of net pay in rent, compared to 19% for mortgagees. Yet, renters are glibly told to shop at value supermarkets, buy fewer or cheaper clothes and devices, take no holidays, and make their own coffee at home, to save for deposits. They are told to throw pebbles at a tidal wave.

The reality often goes something like this:

Bank: We have no way of knowing whether you can keep up mortgage payments of £650 a month.

Buyer: But I’ve been paying my landlord £950 a month for three years.

Bank: Save up and pay us a £30,000 deposit, so we know you’re good for the £650.

Buyer: I can’t, because I’m paying my landlord £950 a month.

It is common to see ‘inspirational’ stories of people in their 20s becoming homeowners, only for it to be revealed that they lived at home rent-free while saving, and/or received a substantial boost from the bank of mum and dad.

As a result, also thanks to Government policies, the situation continues to worsen. According to Halifax, in 2021 house prices rose at the fastest rate since 2004, up by 9.8%. Indeed, sales soared during the pandemic, due in part to a stamp duty holiday from July 2020 to September 2021.

Doris and Pierce sold their house in the south-east of England during that period, and moved into rented property while they bought their next home.

“You have a better chance if you can pay upfront, so you bank proceeds, then you pounce when you see a house you can afford,” says Doris.

Indeed, the rental market is bloated by landlords – second home owners, holiday property investors, and professional home owners – increasing demand and reducing supply.

Buy-to-let doesn’t meet rental needs, it creates them. In November 2021, property market website Home said that the rental supply crunch had worsened in every region of England, 46% down on the previous year – and down by 70% in some places.

London Zoopla listings doubled during COVID restrictions, but have now halved. This engenders rent rises, so finding ‘affordable’ rents – defined as not more than 30% of income – is challenging. People able to work remotely have also escaped to less expensive cities, pushing rents up elsewhere.

Moreover, application processes can be stringent and intrusive. Dan Wilson Craw, deputy director of the campaign organisation Generation Rent, describes the credit scoring system as “bafflingly opaque, a ‘computer says no’ situation”. Freelancers, people on zero hours contracts, and those claiming state benefits may face extra barriers.

Discriminating against benefits claimants is unlawful for landlords, but it remains an issue.

Setting an income multiplier, asking for six months of rent up front, or conducting the sort of bidding wars seen in house sales – such tactics are used by some landlords to rule out would-be tenants. Meanwhile, women are 1.5 times more likely to be on Universal Credit, while disabled people are three times more likely.

In short, millions of people pay more in rent than they would on a mortgage – to live less securely in smaller properties, too often in unsafe conditions.

They are vulnerable to deposit theft, may not be allowed to have pets, may face intrusive and controlling landlord behaviour with a low tolerance for the smallest misstep. Section 21 possession notices allow most landlords to recover a property quickly without formalities, as happened to Annie’s daughter.

A Ladder to Nowhere

Yet these aren’t just arbitrary facts – they fundamentally affect life prospects. The 2010 Marmot Review noted that housing is a “social determinant of health” that shapes health inequalities throughout our lifetimes.

One estimate puts the cost of poor housing to the NHS at £1.4 billion annually in England alone. The 2019 English Housing Survey stated that PRS homes were more likely to have at least one ‘category 1’ hazard under the Housing Health and Safety Rating System, and that 23% of PRS homes didn’t meet the ‘decent home standard’, compared with 12% of social housing and 18% of owner-occupied homes.

In a renters’ market, you can shop around for more satisfactory accommodation. But, when supply is down, urgency and competition can lead you to lower your standards and to take whatever you can get.

115 MPs across all parties, including 90 Conservative MPs (a quarter of their number), were landlords as of July 2021, according to openDemocracy. The property sector made 20% of all donations to the Conservative Party in the decade to March 2020.

The 2019 Conservative Manifesto pledged a ‘Better Deal for Renters’, proposing the welcome abolition of section 21 no fault evictions and other strategies for a fairer market, while a Renters’ Reform Bill has since been promised. However, perhaps not coincidentally, the white paper has repeatedly been delayed, said to be due to the pandemic, and its publication is now promised for sometime this year.

So, still, renters are cash cows, in a for-profit sector that has somehow become the last line of defence against homelessness.

As Chloe Timperley says in her book Generation Rent: “Payment is obligatory, but service is optional.” Buy-to-let landlords don’t need licenses, qualifications, or references. They may be absent from the area, even from the country. There are arguably lower consumer protections for privately rented housing than for a pair of trainers.

With the pandemic ongoing, the impacts of Brexit yet to fully kick in, climate change, and domestic and global insecurity abounding, the future of the PRS is hard to predict.

A freeze on local housing allowance from the beginning of austerity in 2011 until it was lifted for the pandemic, notes Shelter’s Ruth Ehrlich, meant that it was no longer pegged to rent rates. And now, with the Government’s generosity waning, it is once again, says Ehrlich, “frozen in cash terms, so we’re going to see that gulf starting to increase again, which is just unsustainable for people”.

And while people criticise older generations for having pulled the ladder up behind them, unknown numbers of people like Annie have taken in their children and grandchildren, to prevent yet more cases of homelessness due to unavailable or unaffordable homes.

Renting used to be a rung on the property ladder. Now it’s a wobbly ladder of its own, propped against a crumbling wall, leading to nowhere.

Shelter offers free expert advice on this issue. Join its campaign for better renting here

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