Disabled people are often forced into private rented property due to economic and practical circumstances says Ruth Patrick. In the first of a short series on housing she argues that this means, as in other areas of life, choice is restricted.
Oxford Professor Danny Dorling recently argued that ‘Housing has become the defining economic issue of our times.’ It is certainly the case that why we live where we do, and how much choice and control we have over that place called ‘home’ can have a considerable impact on our quality of life and well-being.
I’m currently packing my bags in preparations to lug myself, my partner and our two young children into our first ‘owned’ home. So, after 14 years of private renting, many thousands of pounds spent in rent, too many inspections from nosey landlords, and legal battles over unreturned deposits, I’m moving on. But – for so many – private renting is increasingly becoming the only long term housing option, and that is particularly the case for disabled people. Latest figures show that 1 in 4 disabled people live in private rented housing, while 4.2 million households across Britain (both disabled and non-disabled) are living in this sector.
Unfortunately, though, while it’s a housing type on the increase, this seems to more be a case of necessity than of active choice. Speaking to some disabled people living in private renting reminded me of the many shortcomings with the sector, and left me feeling angry that more isn’t done to protect the rights of people paying their weekly rent to a private landlord. The issues are numerous, and include such basic realities as the frequent shortfall between an individual’s rent and the amount provided by the government in Local Housing Allowance (LHA). Kaliya felt she had no choice but to accept a rent above the LHA rate. “When I moved, I knew that I’d have to pay above the LHA rate to get what I needed as ground floor flats tend to be more expensive. I’m now in a flat that meets my needs, but I’m having to meet the gap between my rent and my LHA myself which isn’t easy.”
Those who were happy with their private landlord frequently spoke about ‘luck’ in finding someone who they felt they could trust, and who tried to accommodate their needs for various adaptations. ‘No DSS’ signs, and an unwillingness to rent to particular groups, unfortunately endures, meaning that it’s often a struggle to even find a landlord willing to rent to a disabled person. Kaytold me: “I have encountered a lot of people who have been denied a tenancy by a private landlord on the basis of a visible disability as the landlord does not feel their income is secure.”
There is a shortage of adapted properties suitable for disabled people, and there can often be a struggle to persuade landlords to make changes to their properties. Kaliya explains “While support is sometimes available to make adaptations, through the Disabled Facilities Grant, the conditions of the Grant – including that you should expect to be in the property for a minimum of five years – clash with the nature of private renting, with short-term tenancies the norm.
The uncertainty that comes with a private tenancy that only lasts six to twelve months can make life difficult to plan, and is often unsettling and a cause of worry. This was Helen’s experience: “We’re short-term assured tenants and quite frankly it feels like there’s a sword of Damocles over our head at times. The private rental market right now is a mess; landlords have no incentive to lower rent; in fact they tend to set them at least to the maximum LHA, if not higher.”
So, what can and should be done about it all? Well – as always – a good first step would be for the government to actually take the time to consult with, and listen to, disabled people’s own experiences and concerns around private renting. They would learn a lot, and get some practical proposals for reform. Helen calls for rent caps, and longer-term tenancies; options which might be unpopular with the current Coalition but could be on the policy options menu for an incoming Labour administration. Kay wants better education and access to information for estate agents, landlords and – perhaps most importantly – young people about to embark on their personal housing journeys: “Young people ought to be taught in college how to protect themselves in the market; what you should expect (and demand) from a landlord, what legislation says, and what is your responsibility.” I’d certainly have benefited from such education in the past.
More ambitiously, more should be done so that disabled people’s housing aspirations for the future can be met, wherever and however they want to live.