Happy Valentine’s Day, renters! Your housing rights suck

Oh, god. Image: Getty.

The chief executive of Shelter on the charity’s latest research.

For many millennials there are few things less romantic to consider on Valentine’s Day than a lifetime of expensive renting. 

 It shouldn’t be this way, of course – but for far too many people, our private rented sector represents an unstable, insecure and expensive way to live. 

Our research out today shows that 39 per cent of millennial private renters (aged 25 – 34) are putting off having a child or growing their family because they are currently renting.   

That is a genuinely heart-breaking figure, because for many couples they have no choice. Home ownership is fast-becoming a pipe dream for most young people. House prices are as sky high. Even for those lucky enough to have saved a deposit, many can't even get on the housing ladder with Help to Buy.  

This wouldn’t be a problem if our private rented sector were fit for families to live in, as it is across much of Europe today. But renting in England is just not up to scratch. 

We have some of the shortest, least secure contracts. We found that private tenants have stronger legal power to choose whether to stay or leave their home in the majority of the European countries we studied in 2016. 

This situation leaves some private renters with little security to plan ahead in life. If you’re a young couple thinking about having kids, it’s understandable that you’d put this massive life decision off if you didn’t know how much you’d be paying in rent nine months from now.  

Beyond this chronic lack of stability, private renters often just don’t have they rights they need stick up for themselves if they are having problems with their landlord and feel they are being treated unfairly. This should really be a bare minimum in this country: the right to feel safe and secure in your home shouldn’t be seen as some kind of luxury.  

Lastly, but most importantly, renting is just far too expensive for many people. Renters spend more on average than home owners on their housing cost.  

In London, on average renters spend more than half of their income on rent. 


For some people this means they can’t save for a deposit to buy a home and escape this situation. But for those at the very sharp end of the situation, it can mean homelessness as they find themselves squeezed out of their rented home and with nowhere else to go.  In fact, losing your tenancy and not being able to find a new one is the main driver of homelessness in the UK.  

With all of these serious issues piling up, it’s not hard to see why renters often don’t feel the government are on their side. We have to get on and fix this. After all, the number of renters is rising so the government can’t shy away from the problem. The ban on letting fees was very welcome – but that has to be the first of a series of fixes to our renting crisis, not the last.  

Here’s what we need to do. Firstly, we need to give private renters much stronger rights so they can feel empowered to fight their landlord if they have to.  

Secondly, renters should be given the option of longer tenancies as a norm so they don’t have to hop between homes, incurring the costs as they go. Instead, they can feel assured that their rented home is theirs for years, not months.    

And we need to build tens of thousands more genuinely affordable homes to rent. Our housebuilding system has been stuck in second gear for decades now – and has focused on delivering more expensive homes rather than the genuinely affordable ones we really need.  

If we’re going to give people somewhere to live and make renting fit for families, these ideas really have to become a reality soon.

Polly Neate is chief executive of Shelter.

 
 
 
 

A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.


Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.