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Patrick Mooney looks at data that suggests significant changes in private renters are taking place

It’s a commonly held view that one of the main drivers for growth in the private rental market over the past decade has been a huge rise in the number of young adults forced into becoming tenants because they are unable to buy their own home.

Mortgages have been scaled back to no more than 75 per cent of the typical purchase price and 25 per cent deposits are simply unaffordable for most, unless the lucky person is well off or has generous parents. As a result the private rented sector has doubled in size since 2007/08.

This perception of who private tenants are may have been accurate, at one point, but several recently published studies and surveys have shown that demographics are changing quickly in the privately rented sector. Our social, care and housing policies need to catch up with quickly or we risk making an already difficult set of circumstances even worse.

Unless we work on sustainable solutions, vulnerable older people will continue to live in substandard accommodation.

Patrick Mooney Patrick Mooney Editor of Housing Management & Maintenance

A different clientele

At present households comprising people aged over 65 account for less than 10 per cent of all those living in the private rented sector, but their numbers are reportedly rising very fast.

A recent survey by the National Landlords Association found the number of retired people in the UK moving into the private rented sector increased by more than 200,000 over the last four years and it is on a sharp upward curve.

Meanwhile a cross party parliamentary group specialising in ageing and older people has just completed an inquiry into their housing and concluded that the number of older people renting in the private sector will soar in coming years. Sadly it also concludes that many of them will be living in properties that do not meet their needs.

“Many older people are already living in unsafe, unsuitable and unhealthy accommodation with little hope of being able to move somewhere better or improve their homes,” said Rachael Maskell MP, who chairs the group.

“Unless we work to find tangible solutions, older people and some of the most vulnerable in society will continue to live in substandard and unsuitable accommodation, the implications of which could be devastating to their physical, mental and social wellbeing.”

Costly poor conditions

The cross-party group found that substandard housing is costing the NHS some £1.4bn every year with cold, damp and other hazards causing falls and exacerbating conditions such as heart disease, strokes, respiratory illnesses and arthritis as well as contributing to poor mental health among older people.

The group do not blame the private rented sector for being the sole source of poor property conditions, many of the worst conditions are in fact to be found in pensioners’ privately owned homes, due to years of under-investment.

But the English Housing Survey has repeatedly found property conditions to be worst on average in the private rented sector. About a quarter (27 per cent) of private rented homes failed to meet the Decent Homes Standard in 2016/17. The comparative figure for the social rented sector was just 13 per cent.

Another cause for concern is that the energy efficiency and property insulation of PRS homes is much lower, making them more difficult and more expensive to keep warm. In the most recently published results, the average SAP rating among private rented homes was 60, compared to 67 for social rented housing.

Much of the difference is explained by the private rented sector consisting of 'older' housing, which is generally less well insulated. This gap is narrowing slowly as a result of recently completed ‘build to rent’ housing schemes and the large stock of buy to let properties benefitting from double or triple glazing and higher levels of insulation.

Future needs

The cross party group of MPs and Lords recommended a national housing strategy to help to improve housing standards for this and future generations of older people. The group controls no budgets and relies on its powers of persuasion to change minds and behaviours in an industry that is often characterised as conservative and slow to react.

Lady Greengross, a cross-bench peer said: “Unless we work on sustainable solutions, vulnerable older people will continue to live in substandard accommodation, the implications of which could be devastating to their physical, mental and social wellbeing.”

This raises major issues over the accessibility and affordability of homes for rent, both now and in the future, for current and future generations.

By accessibility we mean the ease with which we can enter and get around the inside of our homes. For an ageing population this is becoming a serious concern, as we do not want to see people trapped inside just one or two rooms of their home.

Improvements are required

In 2016/17, almost a quarter of privately rented households (23 per cent) reported a household member with a long-term illness or disability.

Privately rented homes are also more likely to fail the statutory minimum standard for housing. In 2016, 15 per cent (750,000) of private rented dwellings had at least one Category 1 hazard; this was a higher proportion than owner occupied (13 per cent) and social rented homes (six per cent).

This makes it all the more important for homes to be built or adapted with mobility issues in mind.

For instance how easy is it to get a wheelchair through the doorways and between rooms, are electrical sockets and light switches placed at easy to reach heights, can the toilet and washing facilities be used by people with restricted or limited mobility on their own?

Are adaptations the answer

While grants are available from local authorities to adapt properties for disabled people, these can be difficult to obtain - the budgets are limited and the application process is often described as bureaucratic and slow.

There are usually strict conditions to comply with and major changes, such as through floor lifts or installing wet rooms, can take a long time to organise and fit, while they can also restrict the future uses of a property – unless money is available for reversing the changes. 

Many landlords do not want physical changes made to their properties, particularly if they believe these damage the value of their main assets and reduce the chances of them being sold at a later date.

Rents also need addressing

By affordability we mean the cost of living in a property, such as how much needs to be spent on heating it as well as what is spent on the rent. But it is the rent which remains the biggest and most important outlay for tenants.

On average, private tenants spend 34 per cent of their household income on rent. By comparison, social renters spend an average of 28 per cent on rent, while owner-occupiers spend 18 per cent of their income on mortgage costs.

An increasing number of private tenants, both those in work or who are retired, claim benefits to top-up their incomes. Local Housing Allowance is relied upon by more than 1.2 million households in the private rented sector, but it has been frozen since 2016 and will continue to be frozen until at least 2020.

This is severly curtailing the range of properties available to them and which they can afford. It also means choices are made on what people can afford, rather than what is most suitable for their age and circumstances.

Drastic action required

London Councils, which represents local government in the capital, has said that with private rents continuing to rise, there are large parts of the country which are unaffordable for people who rely on benefits and cases of hardship are increasing rapidly.

While problems in cities like London and Manchester are well documented, campaigners are now citing cases in Swindon and Newbury where only two per cent of one-bedroom flats available on the private rental market are now affordable, and in Northampton just three per cent. Fewer than one in 10 three-bedroom family homes are affordable in Ipswich, Milton Keynes, Rugby, Luton and Cambridge.

All of this adds up to a pretty dire state of affairs particularly for our older generation. If the rising numbers of older, or mature private tenants are to be housed in safe and suitable homes, which meet their needs, then we need to take some fairly drastic actions to increase the supply of affordable and decent rented housing – either through new build or conversions.

Otherwise we run the the risk of older people continuing to live in substandard accommodation, the implications of which Lady Greengross warns us could be devastating to their physical, mental and social wellbeing.

Patrick Mooney is news editor of Housing Management & Maintenance magazine