Are renters really that ‘satisfied’?

Last week when we launched our 9 million renters’ campaign, the Housing Minister said that he understood our concerns. But he also said that 83% of renters are satisfied with their accommodation and so, therefore, these problems can’t be that widespread.

The minister is not the first to quote this figure. I’m often confronted with the “83% of renters are satisfied” stat when I talk about the need to fix private renting. Clearly lots of people are keen to believe that this represents the true picture of renting in England. At Shelter we know for a fact that it doesn’t.

Where does the “83% satisfaction” stat come from?  

The source of this figure is the annual English Housing Survey. As with any survey, the way the question is asked is crucial. Respondents in all tenures are asked how satisfied they are with their accommodation using a sliding scale of very satisfied to very dissatisfied. There are no follow up questions to investigate what the basis of satisfaction actually is. You could imagine that a renter might think that the use of the term ‘accommodation’ means they are being asked to comment on something quite specific like the physical nature of the property, or the location. Problems with insecurity of tenure or their landlord’s behaviour might therefore remain hidden. 

What’s more, such a simple question fails to capture the complexity of people attitudes towards private renting. We have conducted much more detailed research, including our Sustain report (conducted jointly with Crisis), which shows that private renters often have very low expectations. In focus groups, we often ask people what an improved private rented sector would look like. Despite their many complaints about the quality of renting, unprompted responses to this question rarely go further than seeing their current legal rights enforced – suggesting that people aren’t getting the minimum they deserve now, and struggle to imagine anything much better. But when we surveyed renters asking them if they’d like a longer tenancy, for example, only 4% disagreed.

Finally, ‘satisfaction’ itself is a very low bar, and home a very personal thing. So it takes quite a lot to say to a stranger that you are not satisfied with your home. Given this, should the Government really be proud that 1 in 6 renters aren’t satisfied? Is this something we should be settling for?

What other evidence is there?

The Government’s own figures shows that a third of homes are non-decent- a much higher proportion than social rented or owner occupied homes. They also report that almost a fifth contain a Category 1 hazard, which means they pose a serious danger to renters. Hazards could include electrical and gas faults or a serious damp problem. I think most people would agree that living in a non-decent home is unsatisfactory.

At Shelter we spend a lot of time speaking to and surveying renters to find out more about their experiences – good and bad – of living in the private rented sector. Overwhelmingly, renters tell us that the sector urgently needs to improve. We know that too often people end up paying far too much for housing that doesn’t provide any real security and is too often in a poor condition.

What do our stats say?

A survey by Shelter last year showed that just over 1 in 10 renters’ main reason for renting is because it gives them the freedom and flexibility they want. This compares to nearly 6 in 10 renters who say that the main reason for renting is because they have no other choice – because they can’t afford a home of their own or get access to social housing. When we asked renters what their reasons for moving in the last five years had been, of those that had moved, more than 1 in 6 said they had moved because the property was in a poor condition, 1 in 8 said that they wanted to live in a cheaper property and 1 in 20 said they couldn’t afford rent payments.

These figures hardly paint a rosy picture. Families and housing benefit claimants are particularly unhappy with renting – and significantly it is these groups which have grown disproportionally in the last decade. Nearly half the growth in renting in the last two years has come from families with children, who now make up nearly a third of private renting households. Understandably, less than 1 in 10 renting families say they like the freedom and flexibility that private renting gives them, while over 6 in 10 say they have no other option but to rent.

Twenty five per cent of private renters are now in receipt of housing benefit – up from 19% in 2008 – and they are much more likely to be living in poor conditions and far less likely to complain about them. Our research found that 14% of private renters in receipt of housing benefit feared being evicted if they asked for repairs to be carried out or conditions to be improved.

Private renting, as it stands, really doesn’t work for huge groups of people. So maybe it’s time to stop relying on one narrow stat to reject the growing calls to make renting more safe, decent and secure.