The Child, the Parent and the Perils of the Private Rented House

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I rent. I have never had a mortgage. I earn a salary which I am relieved to say, goes a fair way towards covering  my outgoings. I pay more in rent than many people pay for their mortgages, certainly more than my contemporaries do.  Undoubtedly though, in terms of how others view me, I am somehow ‘second-class’ because of the fact that I don’t have a mortgaged property.
I feel that judgement profoundly, more so for my children than myself. Their friends’ playground discussions include topics such as, how many houses their parents own (when those friends found out we don’t ‘own’ a house they were by all accounts shocked to the core and asked if we lived on ‘Benefits Street’ then). I try to make my children feel less depressed by pointing out the economic truth that having a mortgage doesn’t mean that you ‘own’ the house. In fact many people sadly at this time will find that the money they have paid off to a bank disappears when they default and they will have been renting, albeit from the bank, for all that time just like we rent from our millionaire landlord. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t help. I avoid telling them how many families we know have found themselves horribly trapped in the property market and struggle to make ends meet. On first sight to the child’s mind we are still far far lower in the pecking order.

I try to explain the concept of a mortgage. How, we too could get a mortgage but it would be for a property in an area we would rather not live in and would probably be a bit on the small size for 2 adults and 3 children. I explain how I could have stayed in the UK when I was 22 and not taken the opportunities I did to travel and work in other countries. I could instead have found a steady job and got onto the property  ladder buying a small house for £19,000 in 1991, then we too would now live in a lovely home which would probably be 100% mine. I didn’t do that though.

I didn’t do that. Instead I looked at my situation and noted that I was from pure working-class stock, born and brought up on a council estate, did well at school and so, supported by an ethos which said none with the requisite ability should be denied the opportunity to enter higher education, I got myself one of those degrees. I naively believed that as a result, I would have a slightly more improved economic situation than my parents (as they had to their own parents before them). I think I expected that as a university graduate, part of that economic betterment would mean owning  a home, even if I did decide to leave getting on that hallowed property ladder until later. How very different things turned out to be.

But you know, this property problem is not just about the money; the ability to get a mortgage for a property you want or not. It is more about how the values and social policies I grew up with and which shaped me and allowed me to have experiences my parents would not have considered, have changed so radically. One of those being the policy of allowing the less well-off to have security of tenure and so the opportunity to create a solid home life for their families which I, to my shame, took for granted then. I was prompted to write this blog because just recently we were put in a position where we were made acutely aware that we most certainly do not have that luxury of a home of our own. We had to uproot our children from the home they had known for 5 years. This meant leaving their school, their friends, their football team, their grandparents, their librarians, their doctor, their dentist, their shop assistants in the local supermarket, their athletics group, their neighbours, their well-trodden and well-known routes to key places and their security. I wouldn’t have moved unless I had felt I had no choice. I can’t help feeling that the decision was forced upon me by a society which apparently no longer views having a home which you can call your own as being a priority. It seems the state feels it can farm out the responsibility for providing a place of shelter and nurture and growth to those who, I imagine,  have as their primary motivation in many cases to make money. Where did it all go so wrong?

My experience is mild compared to that of many. The 9 million people who rent privately in the UK are facing enormous challenges and insecurities. In the last year the UK charity Shelter estimates that some  200,000 private tenants have been evicted simply for asking their landlord to make repairs to their properties. Landlords are able to use a Section 21 notice to evict without reason and it appears that some unscrupulous individuals are responding to calls for repairs by employing this http://england.shelter.org.uk/campaigns/fixing_private_renting/9_million_renters?src=homepage-banner

1 million of those who rent privately are families. The effect on children of their parents privately renting has been the focus of recent reports as The Independent’s Emily Dugan notes, in 2012-13 families who rented privately were 9 times more likely to have moved than homeowners http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/longterm-renting-is-damaging-childrens-lives-8598584.html In the Shelter report cited,  short-term contracts and unregulated rent increases were identified as the primary catalysts. Frequent school changes are identified as particularly difficult for young children to manage.http://england.shelter.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/423451/Homes_fit_for_families_FINAL.pdf

There appears to have been some political acknowledgement from the Left of the problems encountered by private renters. Labour’s Policy Review includes a paper on Private Rented Housing: http://www.yourbritain.org.uk/uploads/editor/files/PRIVATE_RENTED_HOUSING.pdf . On first sight though this appears to deal primarily with the issue of letting agents. There is currently no regulatory body overseeing letting agents and this is identified in the policy document as having resulted in some irresponsible operators charging exorbitant and confusing fees and deposits to both landlords and tenants for inadequate services. Whilst Labour have singled out the key issues of concern with relation to private rented housing as being  ‘long-termism and responsibility’ this is not fully developed in their policy document. Instead the primary focus on landlords and tenants being equally poorly treated by letting agencies is disappointing. It appears the party has veered away from standing up firmly for the rights of the tenant primarily- the absence of any policies relating to the regulation of private landlords being noteworthy . If Labour is not willing to offer full protection to the vulnerable in this sector, then who is?

There is no reason why I should hanker after a mortgage to get me a home of my own. With the right policies in place then private renting can constitute an effective and socially responsible solution to the housing crisis. However, the focus needs to move very firmly towards allowing individuals and families to put down roots and make a home-Labour are quite right to identify ‘long-termism’ as being of importance. The opportunity to negotiate longer rental periods should be offered particularly to those with a young family.  Rents and rent increases should be closely and strictly regulated. There should be safe and effective procedures which allow the few ‘bad’ landlords to be dealt with which do not compromise the tenant’s chances of finding accommodation in the future. With predictions of there soon being more people living in the private rented sector than the social rented sector for the first time in 50 years, perhaps this is a good time for a radical rethink of the ways in which such tenants are  supported.