The Gender Rent Gap Is Getting Wider

Photographed by Meg O’Donnell.
Thirty-four-year-old Poppy from London is in just under £20,000 worth of debt. How did she get here? It’s not her student loan. It has nothing to do with overspending on clothes, nights out or whatever else initially springs to mind when a young woman reveals that she is experiencing financial difficulties
The debt has amassed because, for much of her 20s and early 30s, Poppy, who works in publishing, has been spending half of her salary after tax on rent. Her annual salary is £34,000 (£2,100 a month) and her room in the two-bedroom flat in east London that she shared until very recently with another person was £1,050 per month. 
Poppy’s story, consisting as it does of high rents and comparably low wages, will be familiar to many. For young women, in particular single mothers, unaffordable housing and extortionate housing costs is a dominant narrative which dictates much of what is and isn’t possible in life.
Broadly speaking, housing is considered to be affordable as long as a person is spending no more than 30% of their income on it each month. In Britain today, however, the sad fact is that many people are being asked to cough up far more than that, which as Poppy’s story demonstrates, can have serious consequences. 
Since the pandemic began, rents have gone up. In many places they have reached historic highs. Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that the cost of renting rose by 2.3% in the year between February 2021 and February 2022. According to the ONS, private rents went up by 2.1% in England, 1.4% in Wales and 2.6% in Scotland. The largest hike of all was in the East Midlands, where private rents went up by 3.8%. However, in reality, rent rises may be higher. This is because no central record is kept of all rents and, based on my own reporting, landlords across the country are demanding much higher rents of their tenants. One young woman from south London told me recently that she has just been hit with a 35.48% rent increase and threatened with eviction if she won’t – or rather, can’t – pay it. 
This is troubling. Right now we are experiencing a social and economic crisis by way of rising interest rates (which makes repaying debt more expensive) as well as the rising cost of essentials such as electricity and food. 

Almost a third (19.5%) of women spend over 50% of their take-home salary on rent, compared to 14.4% of their male counterparts.

Women are likely to be particularly affected by all of this simply because they earn less on average than men. Women’s median annual (this means average but is the most accurate way of calculating it) earnings are 36% lower than men’s. This is known as the gender pay gap. And just as there is a gender pay gap, it follows that there is a gender housing gap
As the Women’s Budget Group has previously told Refinery29, housing is now less affordable than it has ever been for young women due to the pandemic surge in the cost of renting. The flat- and houseshare platform SpareRoom recently added further evidence to this conversation. 
In January 2022 SpareRoom surveyed 11,130 of its users and asked them how much of their income they were spending on rent. The findings were stark and highlight the extent of the widening gender rent gap. 
According to SpareRoom’s data, almost a third (19.5%) of women spend over 50% of their take-home salary on rent, compared to only 14.4% of their male counterparts. Added to that, over 85% of women spend more than 30% of their income on rent, a whole 10% more than men.
Like Poppy, 28-year-old Megan, a mother of two, is struggling. She lives in Hertfordshire and works on the checkout in Sainsbury's. 
"I earn on average £700 every four weeks," she explains. "I live in a two-bedroom, privately rented home with my two boys, which costs £1,050 a month before bills, and our council tax is £100 per month."
Megan will qualify for certain state support but even so, given that Local Housing Allowance (this is how the housing benefit part of Universal Credit is calculated) has been frozen at 2019 levels even though rents have gone up since then, she – like so many people who need help – still finds herself short after her housing costs every month. 
Unsurprisingly, SpareRoom’s research also revealed that just under two thirds of women (62.3%) feel their rent is unaffordable and almost 60% of the women struggling the most are in their 20s.
This final point is crucial. Culturally, we accept that your 20s are a formative time of life. It’s when you become the person you’re supposed to be – you figure out your friendships, your career and your romantic relationships. What happens to your financial wellbeing during these developmental years is just as significant. 
If, like Poppy, you accrue debt, it will impact you into your 30s. If, like Poppy and Megan, you cannot save, it means you have less security as you get older. 
Poppy describes feeling "terrified and overwhelmed". She has recently moved in with her boyfriend but remains around £16,000 in debt. "I thought my life would never be okay again for a moment," she explains. "I’ll be paying it off for at least another three years, which means I can’t save money. Essentially I feel like I’ve ruined my life and any chance of ever coming close to being able to buy a flat or to be financially secure month to month."
Rents are going up. Other essential outgoings are getting more expensive too. So what happens now? Women’s ability to live safely, to bring up children (if they want to have them) in a secure environment and to exist healthily depends on their financial freedom. 

It's horrible not being able to spoil the kids, go on holiday or be able to afford little luxuries as everything goes on bills or rent.

As long as housing costs continue to overshadow people’s earnings, the reality is that getting into debt will be normalised and this will have a knock-on effect on the quality of life that those affected have in the future. There are things that could be done about this. We could introduce rent controls to stop unexpected increases (this is something that the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has repeatedly asked for) and support for those renters who are struggling to make ends meet could be increased (this is something that organisations like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which campaigns for social change, have highlighted). 
In order for these changes to be implemented, the government would have to want to help women like Poppy and Megan. 
"I would love to be able to have a house to call home but that doesn’t happen when you private rent," Megan concludes. "It can all change in a second [because of a rent rise or an eviction] and there is nothing you can do."
"It’s horrible not being able to spoil the kids, go on holiday or be able to afford little luxuries as everything goes on bills or rent," she adds. "It’s depressing and it’s hard when you can’t see an end to it."
Sadly, those in charge seem rather preoccupied right now with the scandal that has erupted after it was revealed that Akshata Murty, the chancellor’s billionaire wife, hasn’t been paying tax in the UK on all of her wealth (this is because she has something known as non-domiciled status). Has there ever been a better representation of the state of inequality in Britain today? Until something is done, the gender rent gap will likely continue to widen and damage the future life chances of those impacted by it.

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