The private rental sector: misery, stress and poverty

Renting is the new normal, but for many it means no security and a constant risk of exploitation.

Much of the coverage regarding Britain's housing crisis has concentrated on the misery our over reliance on the private rental sector has inflicted on young people seeking to buy their first house. It's valid, but the sector takes a greater toll on those families who end up in its clutches.

For an illustration of this, listen to Paul Smith's story. He's 44, and he works in IT. Back in 2006 Paul was living in Malta with his wife and two children, then aged eight and six. They owned a house on the island, and decided it was time to move back to England. They put their house on the market; due to the discrepancy in property value, it only raised them about £30,000.

The family had no prior banking history in the UK, so they struggled to secure a mortgage. They put up a £7,000 deposit to rent a house in Bracknell. The house was fine, but Paul wanted more security for his family – he wanted them to go some way to having assured tenancy. Upon moving, the owners of the house, a private rental firm, hit Paul and his family with a bill for £1,500 due to alleged damage to the furniture.

(Your correspondent has actually been done over by a similar scheme when renting many years back – the owners of the house I was renting had called in a dodgy survey company to inspect the house at the start and end of my tenancy; being young and naive I'd not had a survey of my own done, so it seemed better to reach a settlement rather than fight it in the small claims court, much as I wanted to.)

The family moved to a run-down cottage in Ironbridge. After two years there, they were told the landlord wanted the place back. The landlord, who was registered through the local council, hit them with a bill for £600, despite the fact that the local council's environmental health team had helped them move (the place even had damp rot around the electrical sockets). The council claimed Paul would be able to get the £600 back: in fact, he was awarded £70 in compensation. For the third time in two years, the family moved – this time to a much more pleasant house in Telford. It was far better, but at the start of 2008 the family were offered a place with the housing association in Ludlow. They snapped it up, despite the fact that Paul had now lost his job in the financial crisis and work would be harder to find there.

The trouble was that the stress of constantly moving, coupled with the ebbing away of their financial situation (their savings were gradually eaten away by the costs of high rents and constant moves) had taken an unbearable toll on Paul's marriage. He and his wife split up last September.

"It was worse for the children," he tells me. "Every move involved finding them a new school, but they struggled to make friends before being dragged away to a new place. They never felt stable. It had a profound effect on my family."

Renting is the new normal. Over the last fifteen years, the number of people who rent their home from a landlord has almost doubled to 8.5 million people, and nearly a third of renters are members of families with children. Typically, these people are on contracts of 12 months or fewer. Paul's family were among the 67 per cent of families in the private rental sector who moved house in the last three years. Last year 310,000 out of 1,017,000 families with children in the sector moved: a shocking 30 per cent of all families. In comparison, 122,000 out of 3,863,000 families with children who own their home moved house last year: just three per cent.

Paul's situation was hardly unusual: as the charity Shelter has revealed, almost half of people who are renting privately say that housing costs are causing stress and depression in their family – a higher rate than any other group. The children of these families are not just suffering because of the constant upheaval - they're suffering because of the effect of parents who are poorer (the charity has also shown showed that 38 per cent of families with children who are renting privately have cut down on buying food to pay their rent), and more prone to arguing.

There are two reasons those in the private rental sector don't feel as if their accommodation is stable – the possibility of eviction with just two months' notice, and constant worries about when rent rises will hit. It's why Shelter is calling for a Stable Rental Contract, which it claims would offer the stability of five year tenancies.

The problem isn't necessarily due to the oft-imagined stereotype of cruel, Rachmanite landlords. In fact, it's often due to the fact that they are reliant on letting agents because they don't feel confident enough to rent the properties themselves – and the agents "add value" by encouraging short-term tenancies. Shelter has cited research by Jones Lang LaSalle, a real estate services firm, which shows that not only would it provide more security for tenants - it makes business sense for landlords, with a steadier, long-term income rising more gently with inflation that could increase their returns.

"I'm now an avid campaigner for affordable house building," Paul tells me. "It's a mystery to me why the Government is looking at spending money on things like HS2 when a comprehensive programme of affordable houses would put people in work and improve the lives of thousands. I wouldn't wish what I've been through on anybody."


Nearly a third of renters are members of families with children. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood