For Renters, Coronavirus Has Exposed The Instability Of The Place They Call Home

Photo by Clare Seal @myfrugalyear.
In February of this year, despite having been sent a new 12-month tenancy agreement to sign, we received a call telling us that our landlords were selling our house and we were being served two months’ notice. 
My heart sank. I’m 30 years old and I still don’t have a home to call my own. My husband and I had lived in our rented house with our son for two years, having moved there during the Beast from the East in 2018, and were hoping never to have to move again until we’d managed to save a deposit for a home of our own. That was the dream. 
It was my home – my family’s home – but because we are renters, it could be taken away. Just like that. To rent is to live in the knowledge that, at any time, your landlord could quite literally pull the rug out from under your feet. As a generation, growing numbers of us have been forced to accept this as a fact of life: a study by the Resolution Foundation suggests that half of millennials will be in private rented accommodation into their 40s, with up to a third of us renting for our entire lives and never owning a home.
That rented house – a three-bedroom Georgian terrace – was far from perfect. It needed work. It had glorious bedrooms and a chilly, dated ground floor which really needed modernising. The back garden was sublime, albeit a death trap with sawn-off posts and rotting wood galore. 

A study by the Resolution Foundation suggests that half of millennials will be in private rented accommodation into their 40s, with up to a third of us never owning a home.

But we had grown used to its flaws: how the tiny letterbox meant every card on our mantelpiece was scrunched and dog-eared; how the smoke alarm would blare if you so much as breathed too warmly in the kitchen. 
We had endured weeks with no hot water, a condemned boiler and a rat infestation because of previous poor upkeep, and the layout was far from family-friendly. But it was our home. Secretly we had hoped we might be able to buy it one day. 
Photo by Clare Seal @myfrugalyear.
We complained about the maintenance issues because, when you’re renting, it is the landlord’s responsibility to fix things that break. But as all tenants know, there’s always the risk that you make too much fuss and start being seen as a problem. As things stand, revenge evictions are illegal but, unfortunately, because of something known as Section 21 they still happen, which means tenants are too often afraid to complain or ask for necessary repairs.
In the end, it was insinuated to us that our request for maintenance work was the reason the landlords had decided to sell. It was so infuriating. They knew we wanted to buy the place so we were offered the chance to put in an early offer, but the timing was completely off. I had not long gone self-employed and we were and are in the midst of paying off a significant amount of credit card debt. There was no way we could have come up with the absurd sum needed for the deposit. 
I told the letting agent that we were unfortunately not in a position to offer. "Well, at least the government has banned letting fees, so it won’t cost you anything to move!" she said, brightly. If only. 
The letting fee ban was a huge win for tenants – this would be the first time it wouldn’t set us back hundreds of pounds just to take a property off the market – but our house move still cost us in excess of £1,000, even before you factor in our new, higher rent. 
The only suitable place we could find that was available and close to my son’s school was £100 more expensive per month and came without white goods, a further cost to factor in. We were told that we would need to pay the first month’s rent and deposit right away, over a month before we got the keys, leaving us £2,500 out of pocket. It was only through sheer luck that we had the funds available – I’d recently been paid a couple of big invoices – otherwise I’m not quite sure what we would have done. It scuppered our plans to pay off a big chunk of our outstanding debt, forcing us to re-examine our financial plans, at least in the short term. 
And here’s the thing: it’s not only the financial cost of renting and moving on a loop that causes pain – it’s being unable to save and plan for the future because you don’t know where you’ll be. That’s surely why one in three renters have debt from borrowing just to cover their rent, according to the charity Shelter. It’s a vicious cycle.  
As we sat our 5-year-old son down to tell him that we were moving and watched his little face crumple, I felt guilty and ashamed that we weren’t able to protect him from this pain – that we were being forced to put him through another huge upheaval so soon after starting school, a choice we would never have made ourselves. 

As we sat our 5-year-old son down to tell him that we were moving, and watched his little face crumple, I felt guilty and ashamed that we weren't able to protect him from this pain.

One of the virtues of renting that is often extolled (usually by homeowners) is the wonderful flexibility it gives you. But what if you don’t want flexibility? What if all you want is to put down some roots, to provide a stable home for your family, but you simply can’t afford to save a deposit? Not to mention the fact that flexibility works both ways, and tenants have little protection from their landlord's whims when it comes to avoiding the financial and emotional upheaval of moving. It was difficult, even without knowing what was lurking around the corner as coronavirus silently spread around the globe. 
We moved house two weeks earlier than planned, the morning after lockdown measures were announced in the UK, and everything was fraught with anxiety. Would the movers still come? How would we manage if they didn’t? Would our fridge still be delivered? As it turned out, lockdown measures were not quite as limiting as we feared and we managed it all, but not without cost. I watched as everything familiar disappeared from my son’s life – his school, his friends, his home – and felt that I had let him down somehow. 
Now we find ourselves in the middle of a pandemic and I can’t help but think about all of the homes I’ve loved and lost because a landlord has decided to sell up or increase the rent. What the coronavirus crisis has done is lay bare just how unstable home can be for renters. 
There are thought to be around 20 million people currently renting their home from a private landlord in Britain. They earn less than homeowners, are less likely to have savings than homeowners (63% say they don’t have any savings at all) and more likely to be just one paycheque away from not being able to pay their rent. 
The government has announced some help and support but it won’t go far enough for renters, too many of whom were already in debt and living hand to mouth. It feels like something has to give, at some point. As our generation grows up and starts families, how do we navigate the lack of stability caused by missing the milestone of home ownership?
I’m often challenged as to why I feel the need to buy a house one day and the truth is that if the private rented sector were fit for purpose – if there were longer notice periods or guarantees for tenants, as well as fair rent caps – I might be happy to be a tenant for life. What I can’t live with is the feeling of precarity, the idea that the rug might be pulled from under us again. 
A little while ago, the Resolution Foundation had the idea of giving millennials £10,000 each in cash in order to close the generation gap. It sounds a bit wild but it would certainly help many of us get on the property ladder so that life no longer feels like a game of musical chairs in which landlords control the music. Because of coronavirus, many renters find themselves facing financial hardship. Surely something has to give?

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