How the housing crisis is trapping people in dangerous situations

How the housing crisis is trapping people in dangerous situations

part ofAt What Cost?
We meet some of those forced to live in hazardous accommodation or prevented from securing safe homes for themselves and their families by the cost of living crisis.

Kate’s* first foray into the rental market got off to a bad start. After being scammed out of £2000 by a fake listing in 2021, she continued her search and was sent a video of a property in North-West London. After quickly putting down a deposit she moved in two weeks later, but was shocked by what she found.

“The walls were stained, the bed was stained with what I now know to be semen, the toilet and the bathroom were covered in mould. It was just grim. I rang my mum in tears saying I can’t live here.” At first the landlord was reluctant to fix anything but eventually offered to put in a new carpet and paint the walls.

The property Kate now lived in was shared with four other people. Her housemates would often forget to lock the door and one day Kate came back from work and found a man from their building, who had been stalking her at the time, standing in her flat. “I moved in in August and by November I thought I can’t do it anymore.”

Things went from bad to worse when one of Kate’s male housemates sexually harassed her. Then, a new housemate moved in and poisoned her food. “I’ve been poisoned, my landlord wasn’t doing anything, we’ve got a mouldy shared bathroom; this is not a normal thing to be going through at 24.”

While the data across Europe shows a rise in single person households over the past decade, the reality for young people is markedly different. A generation gap is at the heart of this issue. Older individuals have increasingly lived alone over the last two decades, which comes with its own set of challenges including loneliness and risk of poverty, while younger people have been living alone less frequently – not because they don’t want to. Some people love having friends or a partner to chat to in the evening. Others cherish their alone time. Today, however, what was once a personal choice, or even in some cases a necessity, has now been reframed as a luxury; one that many simply can’t afford.

While looking for potential house shares, Kate experienced racism and microaggressions from those she reached out to and so started to look into renting by herself. Despite earning an above average salary, Kate hasn’t been able to find a single property in her budget in the year and a half she has been looking. “If a one bed was affordable I would take a one bed because then it would be my own space and I wouldn’t have to put up with flatmates. But I can’t afford it.”

An ONS analysis on the spending of individuals aged 25 to 64 revealed that those who live alone spend 92% of their disposable income, understandably higher than the average spending of two-adult households (83%). This higher spending is attributed to a larger portion of their disposable income being used for housing-related expenses such as mortgages, rent, council tax, water and energy bills. Then there’s the smaller stuff: streaming subscriptions, toilet paper, bin bags etc. People across the board are penalised for living alone.

Given the dire state of the rental market, it's not really shocking that there's been a 400% increase in the number of people living in shared housing over the past decade. According to Spare Room, which hooks renters up with potential roommates, over half of its users end up going back to shared living after trying to rent a place solo or with their significant other.

What's going on with the London rental market?

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Florence had previously lived in house shares before moving in with her boyfriend at the age of 26. After living together for four years, they split up in April 2022. It took until August 2022 for her to find somewhere to live and move out. “I wanted to live on my own,” explains Florence. “I was 30, had lived with a partner for four years and the idea of going back to house sharing with people I didn't know and losing all that freedom and autonomy... I didn't want to do that.”

The place Florence moved into was right at the top end of her budget, but she was willing to sacrifice most of her disposable income to make it work. However, six weeks ago her landlord increased her rent by £150, stretching it beyond her already stretched budget. “I've been trying to look for a place and have realised I’m not gonna be able to afford to live on my own again,” Florence tells Huck. “I'm gonna have to move in with my parents at the age of 31, even though I have an above average salary, and then try to look again in a few months.”

While for some this is no big deal, for others being forced to share your living space, rather than choosing to do so, can have a big impact on your quality of life. Research by Shelter from 2021 found that one in five renters were experiencing poor health due to housing problems, with 39% feeling stressed and anxious. For others, the impact goes beyond even that.

Samantha, 48, is a single parent with two children who have now left home. She has been in the same private rented accommodation near Manchester for the past 30 years, where she currently pays £650 a month for a two-bedroom property. However, since her landlord passed away six years ago, she is anticipating the moment his family chooses to sell up and she is forced out to grapple with the current rental market. “I’m trying to get ahead of the game a bit by putting feelers out looking for places,” Samantha explains. “I don’t feel like I’m catching a break at all.”

As Samantha’s two children have now left home, she is classed as a single adult. “If I was to be thrown out and not have any luck finding somewhere, if it wasn’t for friends and family, which I’ve had to fall back on numerous times, I would end up in a hostel,” she explains. A 2023 report from the charity Gingerbread, which works with single parent families, found in 2022 each week they were typically spending 87% of their average disposable income, compared with couple parents who were spending 67%. It’s likely this number has only crept up. DWP Local housing allowance rates have been frozen since April 2020 and rising rents mean tenants on housing benefits are struggling to cover the shortfall, with the average being £151 a month.

Despite now being classed as a single adult, for Samantha it is important that she has somewhere her children can call home when they come home. “I’ll live in a box,” she tells Huck. “As long as my children have space that they can call home, and that they can come back to and be comfortable and not have to sleep in a double bed with their mum.”

“I’m at an age where I’m not going to buy my own house. I’m not going to be in a position to get a mortgage,” explains Samantha. “I'm trying to do something positive using this time whilst I have got a roof over my head to try and put the feelers out for what's available.” However, as Samantha has only recently gone full-time at the foodbank she works at, she doesn’t have the necessary payslips to prove she can pay the rent and as a result is being asked in most cases to pay six months in advance. “I feel like I’m trying to be proactive but at every step I’m being knocked back.”

Who's paying for the UK's cost of living crisis?

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Then there are those for whom rising rents have trapped them in potentially life-threatening living situations. Almost all survivors of domestic abuse (96%) responding to a report by Women’s Aid had seen a negative impact on the amount of money available to them as a result of cost of living increases.

Women’s Aid found that almost three quarters of survivors surveyed (73%) said that the cost of living crisis had either prevented them from leaving or made it harder for them to leave.The charity’s head of policy, Lucy Hadley told Huck, “Domestic abuse is by its very nature a housing issue, with perpetrators creating a context of fear and control usually within the home, a place where women and children should feel safe.”

Fran Ferrier, Economic Empowerment and Partnership Manager at Refuge explains how on top of existing barriers to leaving a relationship and dealing with the trauma of domestic abuse, survivors now have a new set of barriers to face when considering whether they can escape abuse.

“On average, survivors of economic abuse are likely to have about £3200 of debt as a consequence of the abusive experience and a quarter of survivors are likely to have that over 5000 pounds,” Ferrier explains. “Which equates to about 14.4 billion pounds worth of UK debt directly attributable to economic abuse.”

Women’s Aid’s Lucy Hadley adds, “We know that lack of access to safe and affordable housing is a fundamental barrier to women’s ability to escape. This is why we continue to urge the government to provide emergency financial support for those experiencing abuse, the need for which is made even clearer given that our emergency fund had to close within a week due to high demand.

Those who are financially vulnerable are often forced to make the best out of a bunch of bad options. Data shows that most sex workers are mothers working to support families and 74% of off-street sex workers “cited the need to pay household expenses and support their children.”

“That figure is as true today as it was then, if not more,” says Niki Adams from the English Collective of Prostitutes, with the cost of living crisis causing a significant rise in the number of women returning to sex work. “If we accept that the majority of sex workers are mothers, then the question automatically arises: why is it that mothers feel that sex work is one of their best options out of a set of bad choices?”

Niki lists common complaints they hear from their community include exorbitant rent rises, eviction threats and abusive landlords. “For sex workers, there’s the added problem that, because sex work is not recognised as work, they don’t have the documentation that is needed to take on a tenancy with a reputable agency.” She adds, “Your landlord can try and take advantage either by putting the rent up or by just generally being abusive or threatening, safe in the knowledge that it's harder for you to complain and harder for you to leave and find alternative housing as a sex worker.” Niki notes that this situation is made worse if the sex worker is a migrant or trans.

Compared to this, a situation where you can choose when you work, what you spend your money on and even where and who you live with is a luxury. Autonomy over your housing situation is now a mark of distinction and success and a dream for many stuck in unsuitable rentals. Liam Miller, a spokesperson for London Renters Union, explains, “Lots of people enjoy the social side of shared living, but others find it claustrophobic. The constant revolving door of housemates and changes of contract can make shared living feel unpredictable and insecure. For some, having no control over who you live with can mean an increased risk of experiencing racism, homophobia, or transphobia.”

As with most things, this is a structural problem rather than personal failure. “The UK’s rental crisis was a political choice. Rather than introducing caps on rents and investing in social housing, the government has presided over a privatised wild west of a housing system where landlords stand to gain from a lack of affordable housing.”

Once the bookmark of freedom, having a space to call one’s own is now a privilege of the financially-stable few while the rest must endure at best low-level tension in shared rentals in the ongoing struggle for domestic bliss.

*Names have been changed for privacy.

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