Is the government doing enough to ensure safe and affordable rented housing in a post-pandemic world?
When Rishi Sunak announced the budget last week, he made it clear that the government is putting its focus on turning ‘Generation Rent’ into ‘Generation Buy’. But, despite the fact that millions of people are still going to be stuck in the renting market, private renters were ignored in the chancellor’s plans.
Even before we’d heard the word ‘coronavirus’, private renting was a minefield. Renters were on average spending 40% of their income on rent (the affordability benchmark is 30%). And, according to the Office for National Statistics, just under two-thirds (64%) of private renters don’t have any savings or money invested to help buy a property.
Things have, unsurprisingly, only become harder for many renters in the pandemic. In December, research conducted by The Body Shop found that 43% of surveyed young renters were two paychecks away from being homeless. And according to the National Residential Landlords Association, around 840,000 renters are already in arrears because of the pandemic.
That’s why the “government guarantee” on 5% deposits and an extension on the stamp duty cut – both of which Sunak included in the budget – are being criticised for ignoring the needs of renters.
Housing charity Shelter reports that a 5% deposit on the average house price (£269,200) would be £11,200 and typically require a household income of £59,300. Polly Neate, the charity’s chief executive, described the mortgage guarantee as “pure window dressing” and said the government “should be looking at meaning solutions to the housing crisis” instead of “reaching for political soundbites”.
Caitlin Wilkinson from the Generation Rent campaigning group echoed this, telling Stylist: “Rather than offering 95% mortgages that will help only a few and push house prices up even further, the chancellor should use the budget to end the rent debt crisis that has built up due to coronavirus.”
There are some emergency legislations in place to help renters: evictions are paused until 31 March (but notices can still be given); a landlord needs to give six months’ notice; and there is welfare support to help people with rent payments and council tax bills.
But Wilkinson says this is not enough, adding: “Generation Rent is calling on Rishi Sunak to introduce a Covid Rent Debt Fund, which would support renters in debt, and raise Universal Credit to ensure it covers the cost of average rents.”
SpareRoom director Matt Hutchinson asserts another vital perspective: “A good supply of quality, affordable rented housing across the UK is vital to getting the economy back up and running post-Covid. Jobs are the main reason people move house, so a workforce with the flexibility to live where they need to, with affordable rents, is crucial.”
So what exactly is being done to help renters in the pandemic and beyond?
Stylist understands that Sunak admits there is “so much more work to do” on the renters reform bill. It has been delayed until later in the year because of Covid but he will focus on it “once we get through the crisis and are done with the pandemic”.
The bill, which first featured in the Conservatives’ 2019 general election manifesto, includes measures to abolish Section 21 – which allows landlords to evict tenants without having to give a reason. It will also see the introduction of so-called lifelong deposits which can switch from one property to another, preventing the need for tenants to raise new deposits each time they move home.
Ultimately, however, Sunak says he wants to make homeownership “more than just a pipedream”. But perhaps there needs to be just as much focus on ensuring renting is safe and affordable while so many of us slowly work towards making that dream a reality.