How renting in the UK became a living nightmare…

Rising rents, bidding wars and an apathetic government mean it's more difficult than ever to secure housing in the UK and it's putting people's mental health at risk.

When Emma*, 30, began house hunting with friends in 2022 after her landlord abruptly decided to sell their home, she found that the rental landscape in London had completely transformed. “We were moving for the first time in about five years and it felt very different,” she says. “What you can get for your money has definitely worsened. It felt like anything remotely nice was far out of reach.”

Emma, like other tenants we spoke to, asked to remain anonymous for fear of eviction by her current landlord. She was previously paying about £580 for a room – the rent at her new place is now more than £850. And despite paying more rent than ever before, Emma has found that there are significant problems with this house and her lease. For a start, the landlord does not have an HMO (house in multiple occupation) licence, a legal requirement for house shares like the one she is living in. “Our letting agents have been ‘in the process’ of getting an HMO for months, our kitchen doesn’t have a fire door, we have an ever-growing list of issues with the building, and I have no idea where we stand with regard to our rights as tenants,” she says.

Alice, a 27-year-old who works in content creation and shares a flat in east London with two friends, has faced similar issues – and is terrified about what the next few months will hold. In October 2022, her landlord increased her rent by £60 a month – from £850 to £910. This came at the same time as bills increased drastically, and Alice and her flatmates’ average monthly household energy bill rose from £108 to £287. “It’s incredibly anxiety-inducing,” she says. “I can’t afford to live here, but moving out isn’t necessarily an option. Do I stay in a flat that is poorly insulated and has mould because we can’t afford to heat it, or do I go out into the Wild West and risk it being even worse?”

Emma and Alice are not alone in feeling like the UK rental market is a living nightmare. In November 2022, the average monthly rent in London hit a record high of £2,011 – the first time that the average has been above £2,000. Meanwhile, the cost of living has been increasing at its fastest rate in 40 years: inflation hit 11.1 per cent last October. Rising rents coupled with high costs for basic necessities mean that, according to the charity Shelter, the number of renters in the UK who are either behind with or constantly struggling to pay their rent increased by 45 per cent between April and September 2022 to almost 2.5 million. And “no fault” evictions like the one Emma experienced are on the rise.

As a result, finding accommodation is not only more expensive than before, but also extremely competitive – there are simply not enough rentals on the market to meet demand. When Nathan*, a 33-year-old actor now living in London, was trying to move to the capital to further his career, he was surprised by the level of competition to even look around properties. “One that I went to see had a hundred applicants wanting to view it,” he says.

Increased rents also mean that people are more likely to have to compromise by living in shared accommodation or by living further away from their place of work. Nathan, who had been living rent-free with his parents, realised there was no way, even at his age, that he could afford a place to rent on his own due to the extortionate prices for one-bedroom flats.
“All I could find within budget was a parking space
or a garage,” Nathan says. In the end, it took him
four months to find a room to live in, and he now shares his home with four flatmates.

The unprecedented demand for rentals means it is easy for housing standards to slip. Figures from the most recent English Housing Survey show that more than a fifth of privately rented homes in England are in poor condition. In the wet and cool UK, climate dampness is common, but when people can’t pay for fuel – an estimated three million low-income households were not able to afford to heat their homes this winter – mould only gets worse, sometimes causing significant health risks. It has been estimated that dangerous conditions in the private rental sector cost the NHS about £340 million a year.

Tenants can’t even be sure that the price advertised is the price they will be expected to pay per month, as more and more landlords opt to organise blind auctions. “It’s pretty commonplace now in London to have renters bidding for properties,” Emma says. “I’m not sure what the people who outbid us were paying in the end, but I think we tended to offer around £100 over the monthly asking price every time we bid and we never succeeded. On the whole, it’s pretty demoralising and feels like you’re wasting a lot of time.”

It’s not just the London market squeezing renters, as areas that have traditionally been more affordable are also becoming prohibitively expensive. HomeLet, a specialist lettings insurance company, reported that the average UK rent in January 2022 was £1,064, but by November it had risen to £1,175 – a 10 per cent increase in less than a year. It’s possible that this figure could be even higher, due to landlords failing to declare rental increases or avoiding rental insurance. Meanwhile, salaries are not increasing at the same rate as living costs. According to the think-tank Resolution Foundation, the chancellor’s most recent autumn statement will result in extending wage stagnation for Britain’s workers to two decades.

Angie, an IT worker in her forties, started looking for a new apartment in Liverpool city centre when her landlord increased her rent by £100 a month to £950. She knew she had to act fast. “The biggest issue for me was the time scale involved,” she says. “I had a date that I had to be out of my current rental. It was very difficult getting viewings – either places were already taken, the estate agents didn’t have the keys yet or they only offered one date or time to view.” Although she preferred other properties that she had viewed, Angie felt she had to take the first one she was offered due to the stress that flat hunting was causing her, which means she’s now living in a place she didn’t really want to through fear of ending up with nowhere to live. It is a little more affordable than her last home, at just under £850 per month, but the flat came unfurnished, giving Angie the additional stress of budgeting for furniture.

With so many hoops to jump through, it’s little wonder that private renters are twice as likely as homeowners to struggle with their mental health. According to the Anxiety Nation report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, private renters were at least twice as likely as homeowners to report 10 of the 12 symptoms of anxiety, including feeling under strain, worthless and depressed. Renters can be priced out of their homes or told to leave with only two months’ notice – and they have little power to fight against their landlords’ decision.

“Flat hunting caused me a ridiculous amount of stress, not just because it was time limited and the competition was fierce but because it all had to be done during work hours,” says Angie, who is single and was undertaking the whole process alone. Emma’s situation has also had a knock-on effect, as she has had to take on bar work at the weekends to supplement her rent and bills, despite having a full-time job in PR. “[It] is pretty exhausting and means I’m losing out on quality time with family and friends,” she says.

But the current hostile climate for renters has not been an unavoidable disaster. Rather, it is the result of successive governments failing to address the situation – despite the fact that according to a recent study by CIA Landlord Insurance, there is £130 billion worth of properties sitting empty in London alone.

“This crisis was a political choice,” says Siobhan Donnachie of the London Renters Union, which campaigns for tenants’ rights. “Decades of government decision-making have produced legislation that works to boost the profits of landlords and investors by erasing the safety and security of tenants. The Tories promised to change matters with a new deal for renters in 2019. But three years later no changes have come. ‘No-fault’ section 21 evictions are still legal and housing is as unaffordable as ever.”

She continues: “For many people, housing has always been in crisis, with recent rent increases only driving them further into poverty. Those worst affected are still low-income families, disabled people, migrants and precarious workers [those doing insecure work without employment protections]. Yet, increasingly, middle-income earners are struggling to make rental payments, exposed to the cruelty of a housing market designed solely to enable landlords and letting agents to maximise their profit margins, no matter the human cost.”

Living in expensive, poor-quality housing effects every aspect of renters’ lives, trapping them in a vicious cycle that becomes harder and harder to escape. Many renters “have no choice but to cut back on essential spending, turning off the heating in already-mouldy homes or cutting back on meals”, Donnachie notes. Mental health issues caused by substandard housing can become physical and vice versa, impacting on sleep, self-esteem, relationships and employment opportunities.

Landlords argue that they provide an essential service by renting out their properties to people who need them. Due to the current economic climate, buy-to-let landlords are also being affected by increased costs for property maintenance and bills. And following the Bank of England’s decision to increase interest rates to 3.5 per cent, the highest level since the financial crisis of 2008, many landlords are deciding to sell up – currently, one in six homes on the market is a former rental.

Without government intervention the situation will continue to deteriorate – but, with a British prime minister who is twice as rich as the king, for many renters it does not seem like meaningful change will be coming any time soon. “Measures like an end to no-fault evictions and a rent freeze, as is currently in place in Scotland, would immediately take the pressure off millions of renters and bring us closer to a housing system that prioritises human need over the profits of a tiny few,” Donnachie says. Investment in social housing would also reduce the demand for private rentals and provide homes for those in need – but there were less than 7,000 council homes built in 2020. And tightening minimum standards for landlords would be a step towards achieving better accommodation for renters, providing them with protection against poor living conditions.

Housing is a human necessity, but these issues within the UK rental market are making it harder than ever to secure a safe and affordable home, which means more people than before are adding the rental crisis to their ever-growing list of challenges.

WriterAnna Samson