Middle aged renters are struggling with dodgy landlords too – and their numbers are growing

Home sweet home. Image: Getty.

There are now more than 4.5m households living in the private rented sector across the UK – that’s more than doubled since the previous decade. The challenges of navigating this expensive and insecure housing market have fallen mainly on young people. In 2017, 35 per cent of renters in the private sector were aged between 25 and 34.

Much attention has been given to the plight of millennials – aka “generation rent” – who research indicates are much less likely to own their own home than previous generations. Yet the number of older renters is also increasing – and much less is known about their experiences.

That’s why, as part of recent research for the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence, my colleagues and I investigated the experiences of older private renters – aged 35 to 54 years – from different parts of the UK, as they aim to find a decent home.

Shared experiences

Many of our research participants recounted their experiences of shared accommodation, forced moves, poor landlord practices and periods of homelessness. Many of their stories echoed those of “generation rent”; from reports of unaffordable rents, insecurity and poor quality housing, to difficulties in putting down roots and making a home.

Our research emphasised that these experiences are not restricted to young people. In fact, they are more common among low-income renters than any particular age group.

Even in middle-age, some of the tenants we spoke to still relied on the “bank of mum and dad”. Family support was vital in allowing them to pay their rent or save for a mortgage deposit. Some needed a relative to act as a guarantor on their rental contract. But not everyone has this resource to draw on, nor do they always want to ask their family for help.

Young people experiencing difficult living conditions often think that things will get better. By contrast, our research found that middle-aged renters had much less hope for the future. Some felt embarrassed and experienced a sense of “failure” because they could not realise their dream of home ownership.

Others had now aged themselves out of a mortgage. Lenders can be reluctant to approve loans that extend beyond retirement age when incomes drop. This is challenging for low-income households in particular, who - without the cushion of a private pension – may be unable to cover the repayments once retired.

Like younger renters in previous studies, the middle-aged renters we spoke to were frustrated at paying “someone else’s mortgage” – not least because it limited their ability to transform their own situation.

For some, the only way they could manage their budgets was to choose less desirable properties (often in poorer condition), which had lower rents, or to share with others. As other research has noted, such financial pressure can have negative effects on people’s mental health and well-being.


A different story

Older renters also face some different issues to their younger counterparts. Parents worried about how forced and unplanned moves would disrupt their children’s friendships and schooling. Being able to personalise a property and keep pets are also vital to making children feel settled and secure, yet not all landlords allow this.

Indeed, some landlords would not even allow children to live at their properties. Other parents (typically divorced dads) found themselves in shared accommodation that was not always appropriate for children to visit or stay in.

The practice of house sharing and renting a single room in a property is becoming more widespread. While for younger adults it has often been understood as a lifestyle choice, for the older renters in our study it was driven by economic constraint: they simply could not afford to live on their own.

Older age can also bring poor health, which may not be as prevalent among younger people. Yet the sector is not geared up to deal with the extra needs of ageing bodies. One participant who had a long-term health issue, described the challenges of sharing when mobility aids are needed and flatmates are not always understanding.

While there may be an opportunity for more socially minded private landlords to provide the support these tenants need, research suggests they are few and far between.

A deepening crisis?

The UK’s growing population of older private renters face distinct challenges, which could worsen the nation’s housing crisis. Accessing social housing remains challenging, while home ownership remains out of reach for many. Welfare reform, such as the housing benefit freeze, has excluded low-income renters from all but the cheapest properties.

Tenants of all ages want safe, secure and affordable homes. But without government action, that aspiration will remain unfulfilled. Reform of the private rented sector is important and is beginning to happen in different ways, in different parts of the UK. But legislation can only go so far.

Tenants must be made aware of their rights through public education campaigns. The government must fund local authorities to adequately resource enforcement action and tackle rogue landlords.

But above all else, the private rented sector must not be seen in isolation. To fix the broken housing market, there must be continued investment in affordable housing, and this must be matched by a political will to tackle the wider inequalities that are the root cause of poor housing.

The Conversation

Kim McKee, Senior Lecturer, Social Policy and Housing, University of Stirling.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.