The challenges of the private rented sector for low income tenants


by Joanne Pitt, Principal Advisor Local Government

Recently the Valuation Office Agency (VOA) published the monthly cost of privately rented properties in London.1 Some of the figures are quite eye watering, even for those who do not see themselves as being in a low income bracket. Monthly rents for a three bedroom house in London include £2,308 in Tower Hamlets and £1,383 in Barking and Dagenham, with no prize going for guessing which borough topped the list. And this is before other living expenses.

“On average, those buying their home with a mortgage spent 18% of their household income on mortgage payments whereas rent payments were 28% of household income for social renters and 35% of household income for private renters”, according to the English Housing Survey 2015/16.2

So with CIPFA’s Housing Conference just around the corner, where the central theme is delivering more homes, it is timely to revisit the issues faced by low income tenants in the private rented sector and remind ourselves why getting more social homes built is a good idea.

Having a safe and affordable home is fundamental for people. It is recognised in Maslow’s hierarchy of need as part of the foundation. Without an address, people have difficulty in gaining work, accessing services such as education and health or contributing as part of the community. The challenges of the housing market in the UK are well rehearsed and the options open to people wanting homes are often limited, so the private rented sector, which accounts for 4.5 million or 20% of the households, is frequently used. 

While many are very satisfied with the private rented sector, there are a number of tenants, especially households on low incomes, who experience difficulties such as the following:

  • Affordability – One of the key issues facing low income households is finding accommodation that they can afford on a basic income. Shortfall in rent is a common problem; growing arrears and financial worries can be a constant burden for many tenants. Financial support, in the form of benefit, has mitigated some of the worst excesses, but the constant tension between housing benefit expenditure and long term housing provision has not been resolved. Plus as eligibility for benefits is restricted, those on a borderline income often experience greatest hardship.   
  • Choice – The choice of private rented accommodation is not just restricted by the level of rent, but can also be restricted by landlords who exclude those in receipt of benefits. This practice was highlighted by MPs in a recent debate3 where the subject of universal credit and the resultant delays was discussed. The commercial risk in accepting those in receipt of benefit can be seen as too great for some landlords, especially where demand for their properties exceeds supply.
  • Mobility – Low income tenants' restrictions on the availability of accommodation are compounded by the need for deposits and upfront fees often associated with changing tenancies and moving properties. Even if a more suitable property becomes available the tenant is often unable to take advantage due to cost implications of moving.
  • Security – Private rented accommodation is dominated by the lack of long term security with short tenancy agreements and little protection against rent rises. This impacts on the tenants' ability to take up job offers or retain work and has a fundamental effect if it impacts on children’s schooling. 
  • Condition – The condition of some private rented sector accommodation can be of a lower standard than in the social rented sector. The English Housing Survey found that when considering the condition of the properties the private rented sector had the highest proportion of non-decent homes (28%) while the social rented sector had the lowest (13%). 

With these difficulties being recognised it is not surprising that CIPFA’s Housing Conference is looking at how the public sector and its housing association partners can build more properties. The sector is motivated and eager to move forward to meet the challenge and over the next year we will be following the impact of the policies announced in the autumn Budget and working with stakeholders and colleagues to maximise current opportunities.

Explore more

  • Find out more about the issues discussed here by attending CIPFA’s Housing Conference on 25 January 2018 in London.
  • Footnotes

    1. Valuation Office Agency: Private rental market in London: January 2017 to December 2017 
    2. English Housing Survey Headline Report, 2015/16
    3. Westminster hall debate 9 January 2018 on universal credit.

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