Opinion

'I sofa surfed for four months': How 'out of control' renting crisis is hurting key workers

Key workers were hailed during the pandemic for keeping the country running – but a report from Generation Rent and UNISON found many are now struggling due to the renting crisis

Unison key workers at a protest

Key workers are facing eviction and homelessness due to the crisis in private renting in the UK. Image: Bob Watt / Flickr

“I’m currently in major debt with my gas and electric because I’m choosing to pay my rent over that.” Rebecca, not her real name, bleakly recounts her current situation. “My mum is feeding me and my son because otherwise, by the time all the other bills are paid, and there’s diesel in the car to get to work, there’s nothing left.”

It’s an unhappy story, but certainly not an isolated one. Rebecca is one of millions of private renters struggling against spiraling rents and stagnating incomes.

Another renter, Eleanor, tells her story: “The last time I moved before I moved to this house, it took me four months to find somewhere to live. I sofa surfed for four months, while working a full-time job.”

The constant fear of eviction hangs over many key workers who are trapped privately renting. These are the nurses in our hospitals, the teachers in our schools, the social care workers in our communities, people who keep our country functioning. We depend on them, yet their stories reveal a horrifying harsh reality: the system for working private renters is utterly broken.

Melinda from Boston said: “I wanted to move and we just couldn’t find anywhere. It was crazy. I would be checking Rightmove every single day and I would ring up estate agents as soon as something came on the market and it would just be gone.”

Julie from near Reading said: “At the moment, I think there are three properties available to rent in the entire village of 3,500 people.”

Renters tell us the same stories again and again – rents are out of control, the cost of living is hammering household budgets, and wages are not keeping pace. UNISON, the public service union, found that in 2023 almost a third (32%) of their private renter members were spending 60% or more of their incomes on rent.

Worse still, the lack of affordable homes for working private renters means that many are being forced to endure poor conditions.

“We had a period where we had no heating and no hot water for almost a month. My housemate got really ill, they were admitted to hospital with a severe chest infection,” said Jake from Coventry.

“It was snowing [and we were] without hot water and heating and lights on the ground floor for two weeks,” said Eleanor from London.

Horror stories, rife with poor and even dangerous conditions and nowhere affordable to go to. This is how the system itself works against us, making it impossible to find a safe and secure home free from the fear of eviction and homelessness.

Julie explains how even when we’re settled, the feeling of insecurity follows us: “I get into September/October, and I start to get this gnawing anxiety, because October is when I find out whether I’ve still got a tenancy or not.”

Landlords in England are able to easily evict their tenants with section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions or through unaffordable rent increases. And, echoing Generation Rent research finding that three in five private renters were given a rent increase in 2023, Eleanor sums it up: “The longer you rent, the less secure you feel.”

Mel’s story hammers this home. She said: “The reason I had to move out of my old place was because my landlord was going to increase my rent by 15%.” This came as even more of a shock because Mel didn’t realise they could raise it by that much in one go.

No renter should be denied a safe and secure home and certainly not the hard-working people we need to keep the basic functioning of society and communities running.

How can this be right? A constant fear of being unfairly evicted and facing homelessness, huge proportions of wages going towards the rent, poor and dangerous conditions, and terrible treatment from people shirking their responsibilities as landlords and letting agents.

Our private rental system is broken, but it is not beyond mending. Workers demand bolder solutions to the rental crisis. Our report outlines how to fix this: a system built on decency and true affordability for everyone. An increase in social homes alongside improved rights and protections for renters and effective regulation to get rid of exploitative and criminal landlords and agents.

Now is the time to listen to renters and fight for a system that prioritises security and comfort in our own homes that they deserve. A new government brings with it an opportunity to make this a reality, ensuring lasting change for the millions of people who deserve a decent, stable and affordable place to call home.

The participants quoted in this story were taken from roundtables conducted by Generation Rent and UNISON with their membership in England in 2024. All names have been changed to protect the participants’ identities. Read the full report of the findings here.

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