Key takeaways from the latest English Housing Survey

The English Housing Survey has been running since 1967. It's an ongoing national survey that measures people's housing circumstances and how satisfied they are with them, along with the actual details and quality of the nation's housing. Properties and participants are chosen at random, and the research includes both questionnaires and physical inspections of some of the properties.

The amount of data the survey collects is absolutely vast, so it's divided up into various reports including analyses of the social and private rented sectors, home ownership, home adaptations and safety. 

One of the most interesting reports is the one dealing with the private rented sector. The latest one, released in early July, deals with 2019-20 and includes some of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Private tenants are generally happy with their landlords

As with all statistics, of course, different commentators will focus in on different things. Landlords are keen to point out that 83% of private renters appear satisfied with their current home – a figure that has stayed reasonably consistent for around a decade. 75% of private tenants were also satisfied with their landlord's approach to repairs and maintenance, representing a ten-year high. Both these figures were substantially higher than in the social rented sector. 

Interestingly, tenants tended to be more satisfied with their rental experience if they dealt directly with the landlord (85%) compared to going through a letting agent (79%). Does this mean landlords provide better service when they manage their own properties, or is it that tenants simply prefer the personal connection of working directly with the landlord rather than through an intermediary?

Slightly fewer people are living in private rented accommodation

The latest figures suggest that around 4.4 million households (19%) were living in the private rented sector in England in 2019/20. This is consistent with the previous year but slightly down on 2016/17, when the number was 4.7 million households (20%).

Overcrowding remains an issue

The Covid-19 pandemic seems to have exacerbated problems with overcrowding in the private rented sector. During 2019/20, 7% of private rented households were deemed to be overcrowded (compared to 1% of owner-occupied households). People from ethnic minorities were more likely than white people to live in overcrowded homes (13% compared to 7%), and the problems got worse over the course of the year. By December 2020, 15% of private rented households were classed as overcrowded. These figures are the highest they’ve been since the mid-90s.

Lone adults are most likely to struggle with rent arrears

The households most likely to struggle with rent arrears are those where there's only one adult. The survey suggested this was true of single parents (13% of whom were in arrears compared to 6% of couples with children) and also one-person households (8% of whom owed back-rent compared to 3% of couples without children). 

This is interesting because despite a tendency towards overcrowding in the wider sector, more than a quarter of private rented households are home to just one person. Private renters are also more likely than either social renters or homeowners to be in full-time employment, emphasising the disparity between wages and rent.

The survey found that private renters spent a large proportion of their income on housing costs compared to homeowners (32% compared to 18%), though other recent research has suggested that this may be starting to change – at least in the case of first-time buyers.

Younger people still aren't giving up on homeownership

Speaking of first-time buyers, the rapid rise in house prices in the past year has made it harder than ever for renters to get onto the housing ladder. But the English Housing Survey suggests that hopes remain high – particularly among younger renters. More than three quarters of renters aged 16 to 34 said they expected to buy a home at some point, though this figure began to fall among the older age groups.

Those living in the private rented sector remain a younger group than both homeowners and social renters. Almost a third are aged 25 to 34, while only 8% are over 65.

A vulnerable population?

There's plenty of good news for landlords in this latest report. Numbers are stable and tenant satisfaction is decent.

But as worry mounts about the largely unacknowledged rent arrears crisis, the demographic makeup of the private rented sector is telling. With a large proportion of younger people (who appear to have been hit harder in economic terms by the pandemic) and single-occupancy households who are statistically more likely to struggle with rent arrears even in ordinary times, private renters do appear to be a financially vulnerable group. Not only that, but the marked increase in overcrowding could suggest that some renters are living in more precarious circumstances than they were a year ago. 

The private rented sector is a key component of the UK's housing market, but it does appear to be lagging behind other sectors in terms of government support. The hope is that the government will step up to tackle this before the situation starts to deteriorate.  

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