The great British tenant squeeze

Tenants and advocates look to renters’ reforms to level the playing field

Kate Hughes
Money Editor
Wednesday 29 September 2021 07:00
<p>Average rents outside London have increased an eye-watering £456 per annum since the same time last year </p>

Average rents outside London have increased an eye-watering £456 per annum since the same time last year

If you’re sitting in a rented home right now, the numbers won’t make for reassuring reading.

We already know that homeowners come out of the great property game far better off than renters in the long run. But even short term, the latest flurry of figures shows just how precarious tenants’ immediate financial circumstances are compared with their homeowning peers.

Just one in five private renters believes their finances are in good shape. Twice as many people with a mortgage think the same thing.

A third of renters wouldn’t last a month on whatever savings they have, compared with only one in six mortgage holders and just one in 20 of those who own their home outright.

But don’t dismiss this “resilience gap” as something that affects only the young and underpaid.

This is an issue that grows over time, culminating in the greatest discrepancy among the over-65s, according to new data that throws light on the stark long-term reality of being a renter – lifelong or otherwise – in a nation obsessed with and still entirely geared towards ownership.

“Generation rent is being wrung dry, and the spending squeeze is making it worse. Their finances are on a knife edge, so even the smallest surprise runs the risk of causing financial chaos,” says Sarah Coles, personal finance analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown.

Renters have to work much harder to build their resilience because they’re hamstrung by the fact they spend far more of their income on rent than owners spend on the mortgage.

“On average, almost 30 per cent of their income goes on rent, compared with less than 20 per cent for those with a mortgage. It means there’s far less in the budget to save for emergencies,” notes Coles.

“Working people should have 3-6 months’ worth of essential expenses in an easy access account just in case of nasty surprises, and retirees should have 1-3 years’ worth, which can seem like a mountain to climb when you’re only just making ends meet.

“The spending squeeze has made everything harder, with the cost of everything from petrol to energy bills and food going through the roof.”

Basic costs are also rising, with the latest rental market survey reporting a decade-high growth in rents.

Increasing by more than five per cent year on year for properties outside London, the average cost now comes in at £790 per calendar month, an extra £456 per annum since this time last year.

Gráinne Gilmore, head of research for Zoopla, which released the figures earlier this month, says: “As ever, much will be dependent on the extent to which the current rules around Covid continue as they are. But given no deviation from the current landscape, the demand for rental property, coupled with lower levels of supply, will continue to put upward pressure on rents.”

Against this affordability backdrop comes the Renters’ Reform Bill – the next step in the snail’s paced process of enshrining greater protections for renters in law.

Promised back in 2019 before becoming one of many administrative Covid casualties, the bill is back on the agenda for this autumn with the consultation response rumoured to cover tenancy rights, deposits, standards of accommodation and social housing.

With the emergency measures around evictions and six-month notice periods still fresh in renters’ minds, the changes are set to strengthen protection for tenants include banning ‘no fault’ evictions, the introduction of lifetime tenancy deposits, crackdowns on criminal landlords and implementing the charter for social housing residents.

A new poll of renters’ needs and wants by flatshare site SpareRoom shows the greatest focus is on abusive landlords, with calls to finally release information about rogue landlords to tenants.

Introduced in April 2018, the database of rogue landlords and property agents targets what the government describes as “only the most serious and prolific criminals who are convicted of the limited range of banning order offences”.

Back in October 2018 the prime minister promised to widen access to information on the database to tenants.

Elsewhere, tenants are calling for the introduction of a national landlord register, open-ended tenancies to become the norm, making it easier to rent with pets and, crucially, making it easier to rent if they receive housing benefit.

Designed to help pay your rent if you are unemployed, on a low income or receiving certain other benefits, many private landlords have long excluded recipients of housing benefit for a variety of reasons, including concerns that the benefit is paid in arrears, and after being prompted to do so by their agent.

In July last year a county court judge in York ruled that blanket bans on renting properties to those on the benefit was indirectly discriminatory and therefore unlawful under the Equality Act of 2010. But little appears to have really changed for those trying to rent a home with financial support from the state.

Meanwhile, plans for lifetime deposits, where a rental deposit is passed from one tenancy to the next, should help alleviate the stress of having to put down the next deposit – often thousands of pounds – before the last one has been returned.

“The government has promised reform of the rental market, with lifetime deposits one of their stated intentions. That will definitely make a material difference to renters, but it’s clear from our research that landlord regulation is top of the list in terms of what renters really want to see from government,” says Matt Hutchinson, communications director at SpareRoom.

“It’s great that renters’ rights are back on the agenda but, as always, cracking down on the worst offenders has to be a priority for the sector as a whole to benefit.”

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