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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.