What about the older generation rent?

By: Anna Dixon

There is rightly concern about the impact of the economic downturn post-COVID on Generation Rent – the millennials who are still renting in their 30s and can’t afford to get on the housing ladder. Faced with the threat of redundancy, unemployment or insecure work, there is a worry that more people will get into rent arrears and we will see an increase in homelessness. But what about older renters – those who find themselves living in the private rented sector in their 50s, 60s and beyond? While the vast majority of people over 65 live either in social housing (1.1 million in 2017, which equates to 16% of households headed by someone over 65 years old) or are homeowners (5.3 million, or 79%), there is a small and rapidly growing number of older people living in private rented accommodation (380,000 or 6%). The number of private renters 65 years and above is projected to double by 2046, reaching 12% of all households of this age.

At a recent webinar co-hosted by ILC-UK and the Centre for Ageing Better, Die to let? The health impacts of renting while ageing, we discussed the challenges faced by older private renters today as well as the urgent need to make changes to protect the increasing numbers of older private renters in future from poor health, insecurity, and the lack of affordability.

Sue Adams, Chief Executive of Care and Repair England, highlighted the poor condition of housing in the private rented sector, as detailed in a recently published joint report with the Centre for Ageing Better, Home and Dry. The private rented sector had the highest proportion of homes (one in five) that failed to meet the ‘decent homes’ standard – this means it is hazardous to health. As well as physical health problems, the lack of security can cause mental health problems – people aged 50-69 in private rental accommodation are three times more likely to move than those in social housing or owner occupiers.

Drawing on the APPG Inquiry into decent and Accessible Homes for Older People, Lord Best highlighted the issue of affordability both to the individual and to the state. Private rents consume a higher proportion of income. When people retire, income usually falls quite significantly (except for those on the lowest income and reliant on benefits) and rents that were once manageable when working may no longer be affordable. Lord Best called for a huge expansion in social housing to provide more people with the option to shift to socially rented accommodation when they retire, giving them security, affordable rents and better quality homes. There is also a huge cost to the state. Currently 1.25 million people over 65 claim Housing Benefit at a cost of £6 billion. This is projected to rise to £16 billion by 2060 if only 66 per cent of millennials own their own homes.

John Stewart, Deputy Director of Policy and Research for the National Residential Landlords Association recognised that a minority of landlords are providing substandard accommodation to people in receipt of Housing Benefit. The government could start by requiring minimum standards from all landlords in receipt of Housing Benefit. He also agreed there was an opportunity to address some of the issues around lack of thermal comfort and argued investment and grants were needed to support improved energy efficiency as part of the push to be carbon neutral. Homes may also need adapting to make them more accessible for older renters, something good landlords already do. However, he recognised that the older housing stock was often hard to adapt and refurbish.

We debated some of the existing legislation and regulations and what more was needed. While local authorities have powers to make private landlords address disrepair, there is a lack of capacity within local housing authorities to undertake such enforcement. This will require the government to increase local authority funding. New legislation also gives tenants the rights to take their landlord to court if the property they rent is unfit for human habitation. However, the lack of housing information, advice and support and fear of eviction mean these new powers are only likely to be exercised in rare cases.

While it was recognised that there are more high quality build to rent schemes and that institutional investors could play a role in creating more attractive products for older renters, on the whole it was felt that for the majority of those who are renting in later life (the vast majority of whom are on low incomes) would be better off in social housing. There was also a real worry that the rush to convert retail and commercial property to residential would result in more low-quality housing unless permitted development rules are changed.

Let’s not forget about the older Generation Rent. National and local government, social housing providers, developers and landlords must act to address the looming health and economic problems if we fail to reform the private rented sector. Older renters have just as much right to expect a warm, accessible home that they can afford as everyone else.

Anna Dixon

Chief Executive, Centre for Ageing Better

Anna Dixon is Chief Executive of the Centre for Ageing Better, an independent charity that brings about lasting changes in society so more people can enjoy later life. With an endowment from The National Lottery Community Fund and part of What Works Network, Ageing Better is focused on bringing about impact informed by evidence across four priorities: fulfilling work, healthy ageing, safe and accessible housing and connected communities.

Previous roles include Director of Strategy and Chief Analyst at Department of Health, Director of Policy at The King’s Fund, Lecturer in European Health Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, policy analyst at Department of Health Strategy Unit.