There is concern that a growing number of people are likely to find themselves living in the private rented sector in their old age. This has been the topic for the latest enquiry undertaken by the APPG on Ageing and Older People. It met on March 20th to discuss what is happening to older people living in the private rented sector and to think about what can be done to help. Christine Whitehead presented to a session chaired by Richard Best. Their Summer 2019 report can be accessed here.
Current evidence shows that number of those in their fifties living in the private rented sector is beginning to rise and we are aware that increasing numbers of middle-aged households are unlikely to be able to buy and are not eligible for social housing – so can expect to remain as private tenants. It also suggests that, although older tenants usually stated they were satisfied with their housing, the actual conditions they face are often quite unsuitable. Older people in other words tend not to complain.
Everyone present at the meeting, including the Resident Landlords Association, health and housing specialists, researchers and politicians felt that the private rented sector as currently organised is unsuitable for older households looking for a stable home. Dr Sue Easton reinforced this view with evidence from Australia where far higher proportions of older people are private tenants and income related support is more limited. This suggested that many such households live in poor and insecure conditions, often find it difficult to pay the rent and suffer stress and sometimes ill-health.
However, there was also concern about how and when people should move – even if it is to significantly better conditions. Many find the process difficult and the outcome problematic particularly because of loss of community and services. Also the supply of purpose built homes for older people is relatively limited and local authorities tend to be indifferent at best to increasing provision.
A big problem arises when private tenants need adaptations to their privately rented home. While there is some help available, landlords do not want either to contribute to the costs or to have their potential rental stream from future tenants adversely affected. At the limit, tenants may be fearful that if they mention it, they will lose their tenancy. More generally there is concern that private tenants may find it harder to access social care.
A number of suggestions were put forward about how conditions could be improved. Within the current system there was agreement that the Homes Fitness for Habitation Act, which came into force last month, could be used to help older people achieve adequate standards. Landlords argued for lifting the Local Housing Allowance freeze for older people so they could better afford adequate housing – something which would put older private tenants at less of a disadvantage as compared to social tenants who are exempt from the bedroom tax and, if eligible, receive full housing benefit. Landlords also wanted benefits to be paid direct to landlords which could help tenants manage their finances easier and reduce the risks to falling into rent arrears. Up to date registers of adapted homes would also help (there is evidence that local authorities often do not know even about their own stock). But most said that easier access to social housing was the obvious, if unrealistic, answer. If the problems are to be addressed within the private rented sector the core requirement is long term security of tenure. In other words what is wrong for older people living in the PRS is generally similar to that for all households looking for a secure home. The government’s announcement – which came a couple of weeks after the session, that they will go out to consultation on longer term and indefinite tenancies – is at least a start!