Inflexible, insecure, and losing them money: what the “tenancy trap” means for Britain’s renters

Oh god. Image: Getty.

All across the UK, renting is the new normal. The proportion of UK renters has doubled in the last twenty years. Yet when you think of the word “renting”, what springs to mind? The chances are that you’ll still think of students, flat-shares, arguments over milk. Alternatively, dodgy estate agents, sky-high deposits, and a tenancy agreement you need a law degree to read.

This isn’t an attempt to demonise renting – I’m a renter myself. And as both a renter and the CEO of a housing association I think that the rental offer needs to change. Gone are the days when you got the keys to your first home at 30 – middle-aged renters are one of the fastest-growing demographics. More people than ever will be renting into retirement. And the crisis of rental affordability certainly isn’t limited to London – recently Your Housing Group revealed that in the North West, average rents eat up nearly a third (26.7 per cent) of average incomes. With more people than ever renting privately for longer it’s high time that policy-makers thought long and hard about how to make renting better. Renting could and should be an attractive offer in and of itself – not something you’re strong-armed into because you can’t afford to get on the ladder.

It was with this in mind that I commissioned research about the state of renting in my home patch, the North West of England. I wanted to explore the experiences of renters – private and social – of all ages in order to understand their wants and needs, and how the sector could better work for them. There are 1,143,438 people renting in the North West – how do they feel about homes they live in?

Disappointingly, one in six respondents – equivalent to 205,818 households across the North-West – believe that they get a “poor level” of service from their landlord. This wasn’t hugely surprising – new data from MHCLG shows that hobbyist landlords dominate the market. Some 45 per cent of landlords just own one property, and only a meagre 4 per cent of private landlords are in the sector as a full-time job or business.

I know from experience that the upkeep and maintenance of tenants’ homes really is a full-time job – which begs the question of why professional landlords such as housing associations aren’t given a more substantial role in housing Britain’s growing population of renters.

Another issue that really struck me was how many renters feel fundamentally insecure in their own homes – the place they should feel safest. Around 47 per cent of those living in the North West disclosed to our pollsters that they wanted a longer-term tenancy – that’s equivalent to 537,415 households. What’s more, 83 per cent of respondents explicitly said that this was because they wanted greater “security”. Frankly, I don’t blame them – tenancies ended by landlords accounted for 28 per cent of all local authority homelessness acceptances in 2017, and Citizen’s Advice research revealed that renters who complain about problems with their homes are 46 per cent more likely to be evicted.

Precarious tenancies are clearly a really big issue for renters. However, inflexibility – and the imbalance of contractual power between renter and landlord – is also a big problem. Around 15 per cent of North-Western renters revealed that they had been forced to turn down a job opportunity because of the terms of their tenancy. That’s 171,515 people in the North-West turning down jobs.

We hired a former Bank of England economist to crunch the numbers and ascertain the lost income of those tenants having to turn down new roles. His calculations showed that the average tenant is losing out on the new job bump of £1,012 per year because of this “tenancy trap”.

Looking at these figures, it becomes clearer why tenants are turning down opportunities. Fear of excessive costs is clearly a factor. Whilst it’s excellent news that the Tenancy Fees Act will reduce the considerable costs private tenants face when moving, tenants can still be liable for “reasonable costs” for “loss suffered” if they wish to terminate a tenancy early. What’s more, stumping up the cost of a new deposit – even without the additional tenancy fees – can still be costly. For the average earner, after tax that additional £1012 per year will come to about £800. The typical deposit required by a private landlord is 4-6 weeks’ rent, and based on average rental prices in the North West, that could come to between £524-£786. This could all but wipe out that post-tax new job bonus.


As both a tenant and a housing association landlord, these findings really hammered home the need for a new rental offer to me. It’s encouraging that the government is making legislative changes – from exploring scrapping ‘no-fault’ Section 21 evictions to getting rid of tenancy fees – but piecemeal change won’t be enough to deliver the homes and tenancies renters urgently need.

Successive governments’ failure to build enough homes has meant that a housing shortage has entrenched unaffordability in both the purchase and rental market. Only building more homes will turn this sorry state of affairs around. What’s more, it’s time for a serious conversation about what a decent tenancy looks like. At Your Housing Group we’ve been thinking hard about how a life-long “passporting” tenancy could allow our tenants to move with ease from property to property, upgrading and downsizing as their needs change; from the city to the suburbs to a shared community development in old age. We’d like to see more people given the option to enjoy a housing offer that meets their needs, not those of their landlord.

In order to deliver the homes – and tenancies – Britain’s renters need, housing associations must be given a more prominent role in providing homes to Britain’s renters – of every financial and social background. Housing associations are raring to build, and at Your Housing Group we’re working on a number of proposals that could see sustainable sources of finance such as pension funds investing in delivering homes all over the country.

Unless Britain gets building we’ll never tackle the housing crisis in the UK. We need more homes and a radically improved tenancy offer that meets renters’ needs. It’s high time the government ended our country’s reliance on volume builders and private landlords for housing delivery, and let housing associations take the reins.

We build quality, affordable rental and purchase homes, where they’re needed. Tenants are at the absolute heart of our vision. We know what renters want – and with the right money and powers, we can deliver it.

Brian Cronin is the chief executive of Your Housing Group, a housing association with more than 28,000 homes in the midlands and the north.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.