Opinion

Too many elderly renters in England are scared and living in poverty. Here's how we can help them

Renting in later life is not working in England. The Renters (Reform) Bill must be passed in full as soon as possible

Image: Shutterstock

England’s older private renters are in crisis. Facing soaring rents, unsafe housing and the constant fear of eviction, they urgently need greater protections.

Lots of those renting privately in later life are some of the most financially vulnerable. Many are on a low income, with almost two in five (37%) older private renters in relative poverty after housing costs.

Plenty of the problems facing older renters are affecting tenants of all ages. It’s widely acknowledged that we’re in the grip of a housing crisis and that the private rental sector is broken. Renting in this country needs a rethink.  

That’s why our charity, Independent Age, has launched our new report ‘Paving the way: How England can learn from other nations about supporting older private renters’. It examines examples of best practice from across the globe, including some of our closest neighbours – the rest of the UK – to see what can be learnt to make the situation better for people renting privately in later life.

Many of the older renters we speak to say they’re terrified of being asked to leave their home suddenly and with little notice through a Section 21 ‘no-fault’ eviction. A landlord can currently do this after the fixed term period which in England is usually every six or 12 months, or anytime during a rolling tenancy. It’s not right that renters of any age are living with this kind of uncertainty. But having the security to ‘age in place’ can be invaluable especially to older renters and can allow them to stay in the communities they know, where they’ve built connections.

In Germany, where rental contracts are indefinite, with limited reasons for termination, the average tenancy is 11 years long, compared to England’s 2.5 years. This encourages tenants to make their home a bit more their own, and for older people, can mean customising it to fit their tastes, and most importantly, to meet some of their changing health needs. It can also mean they can embed within their local community and access services they are familiar with.

Even closer to home, in Scotland, the government in Holyrood has banned the Section 21 ‘no-fault evictions’ that often leave renters scrambling to find somewhere new to live during the short two-month notice period. By banning Section 21 evictions and extending the period of notice when a tenant can be asked to leave a property to four months in all but the most serious cases, renters of all ages would have much more peace of mind.

Homelessness at any age is a tragedy and sadly, in England in 2022/23 the number of people in England aged over 65 who were homeless or threatened with homelessness was 12,000. But homelessness is not inevitable and we could look to France, where implementing greater protections has been effective in rehousing those at risk of homelessness.

Under the ‘Droit au Logement Opposable’, which translates to the ‘Enforceable Right to Housing’, citizens have a legal right to decent accommodation. Statistics show that the existence of this law has led to more than 100,000 households being rehoused between 2007 and 2016. Having such a rule in the UK would be reassuring for older renters and mean no one, of any age, faces the terrifying threat of homelessness.

Across the UK, rents rose 10.4% in the last year to April 2023 alone. This is especially difficult for those on a low income to absorb and polling by Independent Age had shown that 45% of older private in England feel anxious about being able to afford their rent.

One of our closest neighbours, Ireland, has designated some areas as ‘Rent Pressure Zones’ – where rents are highest and rising. In these 56 areas, rents cannot be increased by more than inflation, or by 2%. Around 71% of private renters aged 45 or over lived in a Rent Pressure Zone, meaning the policy has relieved some of the strain of rent increases for those older people on low, fixed incomes.

Another issue that we know is prominent for older renters are bans from landlords on tenants reliant on housing benefit. Almost half of older private renters in England receive Housing Benefit, and this rises to over three quarters (77%) for those over the age of 70. Yet this practice is still common. In Washington DC, this kind of discrimination has been outlawed. We urgently need the same protections for renters here.  

Although there are numerous problems with the experience of renting in later life, perhaps one of the most important hurdles to get rid of is the pervasive belief that no one in later life rents or lives in financial hardship. This is simply not true and is in part due to a lack of academic study into the topic. New Zealand leads the way in understanding the needs of older renters, with multiple sustained research pieces undertaken by universities, public health bodies and thinktanks. Through this, some housing providers have been able to adopt policies, backed by solid research, that support older renters to live in their accommodation independently for longer.

It is clear that renting in later life is currently not working in this country. Although Independent Age has looked into how other countries are tackling the issue, in fact, perhaps the quickest and most influential change we could make is held up in UK Parliament right now.

Many of the solutions to better protect people renting in later life in England are included in the Renters (Reform) Bill. Issues like protection from unfair eviction, an end to a blanket discrimination against those on income related benefits and redressing the imbalance between tenants and landlords. There’s lots we can learn from the rest of the world about how to improve the experience on renting in later life. What we must see now, in England, is the Renters (Reform) Bill being passed in full as soon as possible. This is the first step in protecting renters of all ages. It’s the least they deserve.

Joanna Elson is chief executive of Independent Age.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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