Dr Kim McKee, Senior Lecturer, Social Policy and Housing, University of Stirling
This week, research led by the University of Stirling on behalf of the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE), reported that the UK’s growing number of older private renters face distinct challenges which could worsen the nation’s housing crisis. Here, co-author Dr Kim McKee, discusses the report’s key findings, together with implications for policy.
The phrase ‘Generation Rent’ is seldom out of the headlines, as commentators and policymakers grapple with the issue of a growing group of younger people trapped in the private rented sector (PRS) due to challenges in accessing other housing tenures.
Much less is known about the experiences of older renters. Through a series of qualitative telephone interviews with older, middle-aged private renters, our study sought to find out more about the experience of private renters aged 35-54 years old. Interviews were conducted with 17 renters living in Scotland or England who were not in full-time education.
Our discussions revealed considerable similarities in the experiences of our older renters and young people interviewed in previous CaCHE research on ‘Generation Rent’. Except for two, all aspired to home ownership or social housing, yet there was a clear expectation gap between where they wanted to live in ideal terms, and their more realistic assessment of what was likely to happen. For most, the private rented sector was not where they wanted to be in the long term. The majority had already been renting for between 10 and 25 years.
For some, renting in older age was a source of embarrassment, whilst a few were more positive about the flexibility and lack of responsibility it offered. The challenges of being able to save enough to exit the sector, or indeed, even to move to a different PRS property, were evident. This was compounded by low wages, insecure and/or part-time work and the impact of welfare reform. To make renting affordable some households had to compromise on the type of property they lived in (for example quality or location), or had to share with others.
Despite their age, the continuing role of family support in helping meet both rental costs and providing help with a mortgage deposit was noted. Issues of affordability, poor quality and tenure insecurity were confronted by our older renters just as with the younger group. Many had experienced forced moves, periods of homelessness, discrimination, and poor and illegal practice. These are not experiences restricted to the young.
However, whilst there were common experiences between older and younger renters, the financial stress of renting and the challenges of making a rental house a ‘home’ were exacerbated for families with children. The parents in our sample worried about the impact of renting on their children – their schooling, friendship groups and overall wellbeing. Some separated parents could not afford to rent properties where their children could stay with them overnight. Yet the realisation they had aged themselves out of a mortgage, and the affordability of private renting in older age, was something few reflected upon.
Although shared living has been on the rise in the UK and internationally, it poses particular challenges for older renters. It not only constrains their ability to socialise, and their desire for privacy and family life, but may take on a wholly different dimension when health and mobility needs mean that adaptations and modifications are required. Landlords and letting agents with a more social dimension to their business are well placed to help these older tenants in need of more support. Whilst discrimination against low-income and/or housing benefit recipients has been under focus in recent years, the parents in our sample noted additional discrimination against families with children. This suggests low-income parents may face a double disadvantage.
Our findings also suggest that geography matters, with geographical differences in tenancy rights and regulation of the sector providing an interesting point of discussion. Whilst renters based in England expressed their appreciation of the recent Scottish reforms around the Private Residential Tenancy (PRT), Scottish participants were themselves more ambivalent. Few had the new tenancy, and some longer-term renters expressed a reluctance to ask their landlord for it; they were concerned it may lead to a rent increase and not necessarily offer more in the way of security. Whilst it was recognised as a positive step in the right direction, tenants still had appetite for further reform. Some were also unclear about how their new rights worked in practice.
Tenants were sensitive to the complex and messy entanglements between housing, labour markets and the social security system. They wanted to see more truly affordable housing that allowed people a real choice between owning and renting; they wanted more protection for renters, including enforcement action and efforts to tackle discrimination; and they wanted to see more government intervention to tackle broader income inequalities.
Based on these findings, our recommendations suggest top line considerations for policymakers to improve the experience of older renters.
Key policy recommendations
- There is a need for action to tackle the unaffordability of renting in the private rented sector
- There is a need for more affordable housing to rent and buy, including traditional social renting
- More education about tenants’ rights is necessary, along with greater enforcement of existing landlord responsibilities
- Greater support should be available for private rented sector landlords and letting agents who wish to adopt a more social role
The study also highlighted areas where further research would be beneficial. The impact of new Private Residential Tenancy agreements in Scotland should be evaluated to understand the impact of these new reforms on the experience of older renters. A greater understanding of the diversity of tenants’ experiences within different segments of the private rented sector would also be beneficial. Housing, health and social care needs of an ageing population in the PRS should be evaluated, along with consideration of the long-term consequences of the growth in the private rented sector.
Beyond Generation Rent: Understanding the aspirations of private renters aged 35-54 was authored Dr Kim McKee (University of Stirling), Dr Adriana Mihaela Soaita (University of Glasgow) and Professor Moira Munro (University of Glasgow) on behalf of the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE).