Homelessness and expense: The reality of the private rented sector

On Wednesday 28th June, the BBC aired the first programme in a series aimed at focusing on the issues of private tenancy and the growing dichotomy between the haves and have-nots. Both the launch and content of the ‘life-swap’ series is seemingly contemporaneous with the Grenfell Fire disaster, where the topic of tenant welfare has dominated the political agenda. Indeed the tragic Grenfell disaster has concentrated both institutional and national attention on the plight of council tenants, let down by a string of professional errors.

Unlike the Grenfell tragedy, ‘The Week the Landlords Moved In’ explores and will continue to explore the growing issues surrounding the world of private tenancy. In the programme, we first meet private tenant, Linda. The father-and-son landlords Peter and Mark moved into her property and were soon complaining of the pungent smell of mould and damp that pervaded the airspace. Soon it transpired that Linda aged 66, has to hold down three jobs and yet cannot afford to heat more than one room. Viewers were then introduced to Hayley, an occupant of one of many houses of multiple occupations that Paul Preston owns. Unfortunately, Mr Preston seemed to epitomise the arrogance prevalent in many private landlords, remarking rather nervously when viewing footage of rats in the garden: “rats are quite common in built-up areas”.

While, of course, the series undoubtedly explores areas such as unaffordability and sub-standard living conditions, we must remember that it acts only as a microcosm of society, by exploring the conditions of only a handful of private tenants. Indeed, the fact of the matter is that the impacts of the Private Rented Sector are becoming more profound and widespread than ever before.

According to statistics derived from Shelter, the housing charity; private rents in 55% of local authorities in England are unaffordable. Furthermore, rents in these areas cost over 35% above the average local take-home pay. But if this wasn’t chilling enough, the charity underlined its findings by stating that 38% of families with children have had to cut back on food purchases just to keep up with rent payments.

So what does this tell us about the Private Rented Sector (PRS)? From initial readings, the reality is nothing short of repugnant. Because of the prevalent lack of affordability, the loss of private tenancy remains the largest cause of homelessness in the UK, with over 18,500 households now homeless as a result of eviction from a privately rented home in 2016. Private rental in the true sense of the word is, in itself not a negative force. According to Grant Shapps, former Housing Minster, the Government recognised the importance of private landlords in providing affordable homes.

Part of the Government’s recognition was a removal of the red tap on the (PRS). The Minister also stated that the Government needed to play a more active role in house building. Indeed, this is a practice that has fallen to its lowest levels since the 1920s. While not all landlords are unscrupulous, the surge in private rents is because private landlords are being increasingly relied upon by the government to provide housing, offering these individuals a very remunerative opportunity to increase profits. With a rising population, a lack of available, affordable housing and first-time buyers having no choice but to rent, private landlords have found themselves in a very favourable position.

But can we blame the owners? Humans are competitive beings, who by nature will seize the most lucrative opportunities. And, considering the twenty-four year low in the construction of affordable housing, with only 32,000 being built to the year of March 2016, private landlords are somewhat easing the strain. The issue, therefore, is not about the existence of private landlords, but the way that they operate. Indeed, while the Private Rented Sector is thriving, with a sharp increase in private landlords, it is clear that for tenants, renting in this sector is simply not sustainable.

Being able to have safe, affordable and secure tenancy is vital for anyone who finds themselves renting. But for those on a low income, private rental, as has been highlighted, can have significant impacts on one’s life. Indeed, over a fifth of the poorest 10% of households rent privately. And, in England, households living in the private rented sector spend on average more of their monthly income on housing.

If private rental is to be affordable and indeed sustainable then landlords, along with the government need to do more to ensure that those on low to medium incomes can afford their monthly payments, without having to squeeze spending on other vital areas of living. But most importantly, while regulations can be imposed, the need for the government to step up and fulfil the needs of its citizens by building more affordable homes is greater now than ever before.