Homelessness and expense: The reality of the private rented sector

In the summer of 2017 the BBC aired ‘The Week the Landlords Moved In’? Indeed, The launch of the life-swap series was ironically contemporaneous with the Grenfell Tower tragedy, a disaster that continues to dominate the political agenda. The show focussed on exposing the problems with the private rented sector. 

In episode 1 when we meet Linda, the dichotomy between the ‘have’s’ and the ‘have-nots’ becomes clear, and we begin to understand the extent of the sector’s principal failings- affordability. Even holding down three jobs, this private tenant struggled to heat more than one room whilst facing a serious, yet regular shortfall in rent.

Despite narrowing the wider issue in its documentary form, the programme does highlight some harsh realities of the private rented sector. In exploring areas such as affordability and abject living conditions, ‘The Week the Landlords Moved In’ encapsulates all that is wrong with the current state of the sector. As time has progressed, its impacts have become increasingly more profound and widespread. Indeed, due to the lack of affordability, the loss of private tenancy remains the largest cause of homelessness in the UK, with over 18,500 households facing eviction from a privately rented home in 2016.

According to statistics derived from Shelter, the housing charity; private rents in 55% of local authorities in England are unaffordable. 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. Surely, it is morally objectionable that a choice between food or shelter still remains in 21st century Britain?

Undoubtedly the situation is dire. However, the private rented sector can serve a purpose. In the view of the former Housing Minister Grant Shapps, private landlords play an essential part in the provision of affordable housing, so much so that the government removed much of the regulatory red tape surrounding the sector. The former Minister also stated that the Government needed to play a more active role in house building. This has fallen to its lowest levels since the 1920s, meaning the dependency on private landlords is greater than ever. Indeed, with an increasing population, a lack of readily available social sector housing private landlords have found themselves in a highly favourable position. 

However, it is not only landlords that are to blame. The government has also failed in its role. We are currently experiencing a twenty-four year low in government house building (only 32,000 were built to the year of March 2016). Clearly then, the issue is not about the existence of private landlords, but the way in which they are allowed to operate. Indeed, for whilst the PRS is thriving, many tenants renting in this sector view it as simply unsustainable.

Having access to safe, affordable housing is fundamental, especially those who find themselves in the rental market. It is unsurprising then that such a right is recognised in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as part of the foundation. Yet, it is becoming clear that there is still much to be worked upon if private renting is to remain sustainable. Indeed, according to the English Housing Survey, private rents consume 35% of household income; the highest of any bracket.

With these facts being recognised, it is important to more rigorously regulate the private rented sector. Indeed, efforts could be made to introduce a national body in which all private landlords are subject to. But perhaps most important of all is the need for the government to meet the demand of housing. The state must start building affordable homes once again or the problem will only worsen. 

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