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Can private renting be a solution to homelessness for people living on a low income?

Ruth Jacob, Senior Policy Officer

The private rented sector is playing an increasingly important role in helping to end homelessness and for many it is the only housing option open to them. But, it is far from an ideal solution.

For too many people, the private rented sector is also the reason they’re homeless in the first place. The ending of a private tenancy is the leading cause of homelessness in England.

New research published this week by the Centre for Housing Policy provides a much-needed overview of how the sector is working in England. This provides a vital insight into who’s living in the sector, who’s renting out properties and how this differs across the country. Most importantly, it helps us to understand whether the sector is meeting the needs of vulnerable and low income households.

A significant proportion of private renters are living on a low income – 38% are in the bottom one third of incomes. Almost three quarters of these households are also experiencing two of more circumstances that make them especially vulnerable. This could be because they have dependent children, have recently moved to the UK, or have a long-term illness or disability.

A third of low income private renters experiencing one these vulnerabilities are living in a home in poor condition that fails to meet the Government’s Decent Homes Standard. This compares to only 15% of social renters.

But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the biggest problem for vulnerable, low income private renters is affordability. More than three quarters are left living in poverty after paying their housing costs. This compares to 55% of social renters and 28% of owner occupiers.

Welfare reform has substantially affected tenant’s ability to afford private sector rents, even at the bottom end of the market. Our research with the Chartered Institute of Housing found that the decision to freeze Local Housing Allowance rates until 2020 means very little of the private rented sector is affordable for households living on a low income. Someone needing a one bedroom property will find housing affordable in just 20% of the country.

The private rented sector cannot be a viable solution to homelessness while high rents continue to push people into poverty. Forced to make difficult decisions with a limited income, it’s no wonder people are facing homelessness as they find themselves choosing between paying the rent and putting food on the table.

But this is not inevitable.

Earlier this year we published Everybody In – our plan to end homelessness in Great Britain. This shows that with the right policy choices homelessness can be ended.

We need a cross-government housing-led strategy that tackles the root causes of homelessness. Increasing the availability of decent housing that is affordable to people on low incomes is critical to this.

Increasing the supply of social rented homes is an essential part of this, but the private rented sector can also be an important part of the solution. With the right reform, it can provide a decent, stable and affordable home for people facing homelessness. Making sure the welfare system covers the real cost of renting is critical to this.

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