“The crumbling state of the English rental market demonstrates a dire need for reform, leaving tenants precariously perched on the edge of a collapsing system.”
Moving House: The Permanence of Renting in England
Pack up your life into a pile of cardboard boxes, and move on. Unpack it all, dare to relax and buy a few houseplants, and before long you’ll probably only have to pack it up all over again. Moving house is famously up there with divorce and childbirth among life’s most stressful events, but for renters in some English property hotspots it’s now almost a permanent way of life.
New research from the property tax consultancy Cornerstone Tax finds that a staggering 19% of renters have had to move at least five times in five years through no fault of their own, because of rising rents or landlords selling up. You can pay your rent religiously on time, turn a blind eye to all the repairs the landlord hasn’t got around to making, keep the music down and nag the kids about not playing noisily enough to disturb the neighbors. But if the landlord reckons they can make more money on Airbnb, you can still get kicked out with two months’ notice when the contract ends under a so-called section 21 no-fault eviction order. And while the young and insecure are obviously vulnerable – a quarter of gen Zs and millennials have already moved more than 10 times since leaving their family home, according to research for the flat-sharing website SpareRoom last year – so are those still renting as they near retirement. One in four renters over 55 surveyed by Shelter said that worrying about potentially being evicted had negatively affected their mental health.
It was years of stories like this that finally helped convince Theresa May to scrap section 21 orders, back in April 2019. Three more prime ministers, four years, thousands of evictions and a manifesto promise later, it still hasn’t actually happened, and last week Michael Gove – once the great hope of a battered housing sector – became the latest secretary of state to backtrack. Facing a concerted revolt among Tory MPs – some of them landlords themselves – Gove announced that the ban on no-fault evictions would be delayed pending changes to the court process. Yet still landlords are threatening to pull out of the market, with Cornerstone Tax finding that 15% are considering selling up, mainly for financial reasons – soaring mortgage rates, plus the withdrawal of tax relief and the costs of insulating draughty, older houses mean many such properties aren’t turning a profit.
Few tears will be shed for the death of buy-to-let, to put it mildly. But while landlords selling up should be good news for first-time buyers – or at least the ones whose finances haven’t also been turned upside down by rising mortgage rates – it isn’t going to be a silver lining for everyone. If houses previously shared by multiple renters are bought up by developers and turned into cozy nests for two, then the pool of properties available for rent could shrink faster than the pool of people still chasing them. Grotesquely, some councils meanwhile report unscrupulous private landlords opting to kick their tenants out, then offer the property to the council for more money, as temporary accommodation for much the same kind of people they’ve just made homeless. The entire housing market seems to be falling into a kind of doom loop, where each problem feeds the next and cheap short-term fixes only make the long-term picture worse.
At the bottom of the market, conditions are desperate. Housing allowance has remained frozen for three years even as rents have shot up, meaning that by summer only 5% of private rentals on the property website Zoopla were affordable on housing benefit or universal credit; the entirely predictable result is ever more people who can’t find anywhere affordable to rent falling back on council housing services, to the point that some councils are now warning that they risk going bust.
But even at the top there’s frustration, with comfortably off homeowners watching in dismay as their student offspring scrabble for somewhere to live at university. There is no answer to all this that doesn’t involve building more homes for social and private rent, plus restoring the value of housing allowances. Yet instead, senior Tories are talking up a manifesto pledge to cut stamp duty that is likely to achieve nothing but a pointless short-term surge in house prices.
What’s left is a housing market that doesn’t work either for renters or, increasingly, for landlords, with consequences rippling beyond both. Long after the current prime minister has packed up and moved on, the country is going to be laboring to put this one right.