Why England can’t just ‘get used to renting’

The proportion of people who own their own home is continuing its rapid decline across England – the new English Housing Survey makes that absolutely clear. But just as home ownership rates have slid there’s been an increasing preponderance of people (normally home owners) to ask why we should be bothered. Isn’t England’s obsession with ownership an unhealthy one, in any case? Shouldn’t renters just pipe down and get used to renting as the new normal? People do it in Europe, after all.

It is very convenient that the unequivocal answer to this question can also be easily found in the English Housing Survey headline report as well – it’s your one-stop-shop on this topic.[1]

Never mind the fact that most people in England want to own the home they live in. Never mind the fact that renters aren’t able to invest for their later life and the substantial implications for wealth distribution. The survey makes absolutely clear that private renters get a raw deal in comparison to owners today. They pay high housing costs and in return live in worse conditions, with more damp, more unsafe hazards, smaller, more overcrowded homes and less security.

But don’t just take my word for it, here are the facts. Let’s start with conditions. In spite of improvements across all tenures, almost 30% of all private rented homes fail the government’s decent homes criteria, compared to only 20% of owner-occupied homes.


This is because 16.5% contain hazards that make them dangerous to live in and 13.4% can’t be heated well. But they’re not just more dangerous and colder, they’re also more likely to be damp:

And smaller:

And more overcrowded:

Still, at least private renters are settled in their home, right? Wrong.

Over a third have been in their home for less than a year and 55% less than two. Only 20% of private renters have been in their home for longer than 5 years compared to 80% of owner occupiers and nearly two thirds of social renters. Sure, there are many reasons that renters might have moved (not least to escape dangerous, damp or overcrowded homes), but this is substantial instability and churn.

Which brings us neatly to rents. Moving more often as a private renter means that you end up paying higher rents:

And as more people move into private renting, rents continue to rise:

We’ll have to wait for the household report of the English Housing Survey to see how much more of their take-home pay renters forked-out in rent than owner occupiers paid in mortgage costs in 2013/14, but with interest rates at rock-bottom and rents continuing to rise, it’s a safe bet that renters are paying well over the third that is normally thought to be affordable.

So all in all, if you are in one of the 480,000 households that started private renting last year, including the 170,000 who used to live in a home they owned, the likelihood is you’re getting a rawer deal than an owner; that seems pretty clear. The question is what to do about it – and the answer is twofold.

We need to build the new homes that ordinary families will be able to afford to buy and social rented homes that those in housing need can rent. But we also need to dramatically improve the deal private renters get now, to improve conditions, give renters better stability and improve affordability. This is because, with levels of building still in the doldrums and house prices cantering out of reach of many families, it’s clear the number of people renting is going to continue to increase. And it’s not good enough to dismiss renter’s worries as an outdated obsession with ownership. Private renters are getting a genuinely bad deal, the response must be genuine improvement.

[1] It’s absolutely vital that government proposals to axe it next year are canned for this reason alone.

One Comment
  1. The mass desire for home ownership was boosted by the 1979 Tory government that created an ideology that if a person did not own their own home, they were somehow not succeeding in life or that they lacked personal ambition.

    Post war social housing provision was not just for those “in housing need” that is those who were unable to buy or those who were unable to afford private rents. Provision was for a cross section of society who did not wish to join the bandwagon of home ownership and private wealth. Society needs to gradually return to a situation whereby social tenanting is a tenure of choice.

    At the same time the Bill that was proposed by Laura Sandys to equalise the physical standards for housing across both renting and social letting would have been a start to ensure betters standards in private renting. The Bill did not receive a second reading on Friday and will effectively fall due to lack of parliamentary time.

    It is unfortunate that Laura Sandys is due to step down at the General Election. She could be replaced by Nigel Farage as member for Thanet South; as a man of the people I wonder if he would be prepared to adopt Sandys Bill?

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