‘Can that be legal?’ UK tenants forced from their homes by soaring rents | Renting property

Margaret Perry wants to buy a house one day. But the increases in her energy, water and council tax bills over the past few weeks have dented her ability to save. Then, on Easter Monday, her landlord called to say the monthly rent on her shared house was going up by £500.

Instead of £675 a month, plus bills, for her room in Haringey, north London, her rent would rise to £825 – a 22% increase. “That’s just not an option,” said Perry, who earns about £30,000 a year and lives with two friends. “It’s hard enough as it is.”

The 31-year-old screenwriter is one of a growing number of tenants being priced out by rising rents.

Over the past month, online searches for “rent increase” and “landlord put rent up” reached an all-time high in the UK, according to Google trends data – and average private rents have surged nationally compared with pre-pandemic levels.

“More people have had their rent increased over the past month or so than we’d normally see,” said Anny Cullum, policy officer at renters’ union Acorn. “That may be landlords worried about the cost of living and passing that on to their tenants. Food prices are going up, fuel’s going up, energy’s going up and people are really feeling the squeeze.”

Government guidance says that for existing tenants, rent rises must be “fair and realistic”, in line with “average local rents” – but there is no cap on how much they can charge.

Proposed changes can be challenged at a rent tribunal. But for many, like Perry, “the stress of that doesn’t feel worth it”. Between January 2019 and August 2021, just 341 rent tribunal cases were heard nationally, according to the campaign group Generation Rent. And even if tenants win, they can still be kicked out if the landlord serves a ‘section 21 notice’, initiating a no-fault eviction.

Perry and her housemates tried to challenge the rent rise directly with the landlord, offering to pay £70 extra on top of their current monthly rent of £2,350: “We wrote a strongly worded email saying: ‘We’re not paying this.’ But he replied: ‘I’ll evict you’.”

The three friends cannot afford the extra £500, so they face being uprooted. “It’s exhausting and stressful. It feels like, neither renters, we’re 100% disposable. You see somewhere as your home and you sleep in, and then one phone call can take that away.”

App developer Phillip Caudell, who is having to leave his flat in Bermondsey after a monthly rental increase of £650. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

In 2020 and early 2021, demand for city center properties – particularly in London – plummeted as pandemic restrictions bit. But now the cost of renting privately is climbing in the capital and nationally, with prices in every region above what they were pre-Covid, according to the property website Zoopla.

In February, the average monthly rent was £984, up 8.8% versus March 2020 – with the steepest increase in the south west, which has seen a rise of 15%.

Chestertons, a London letting agency serving some of the capital’s most sought-after areas, said the average monthly rent for its properties in 2022 so far was £2,864 – up 22% compared with 2019’s figure of £2,348 a month.

For prospective tenants, it means extra competition for properties. “They can be very creative because obviously they want to stand out,” said Richard Davies, head of lettings. “We’ve seen examples where people put together a presentation or create their own mini webpage, with a profile of their pet and photographs of what food they like cooking. One couple talked about how they met.”

In Manchester, another rental hotspot, graphic design student Chris Coppen has decided to stay put despite a “mad increase” in his rent.

The 29-year-old, who lives with his partner and two housemates in Salford, works in retail and has just seen his pay increase by 6.8% – from £9.18 an hour to £9.80.

But in March, he learned that the rent for the house where he has lived for three years will be rising by a third, increasing his share by £112.50 a month. “I nearly choked on my Cheerios,” he said. “I was like: ‘That can’t be legal, surely?'”

The landlord has also demanded £519 in additional deposit. But they really don’t want to leave – and other properties in the area have also risen in price. “We’ve made a life here,” Coppen said. “So even with the mad increase, to uproot all that would be a lot of mental toil and financial strain that we don’t need while we’re studying.

“If we moved out we’d have to pay the same to get less than we currently have. So we just had to take it, really. I don’t know what we’re going to do, but we’ll make it work.”

Julie Clark, 33, from Lowestoft, Suffolk, meanwhile, received an email recently saying the rent for the terrace house she moved into in June 2020 would be rising by £50 a month, from £600 to £650 – despite rotten floorboards and a broken boiler.

She and her partner, who works in the public sector, successfully negotiated it down to £25. But for Clark, who claims universal credit, even that rise seems unmanageable on top of rising energy costs, food and clothes for her two young children.

“We were already on the verge before any of this happened. All it takes is for anything else to go up and we’ll be really stuck,” she said. “There’s no safety or security.”

A couple walk past an estate agent in London
Estate agents report increased competition among renters in the UK market. Photograph: May James/Reuters

Campaigners say greater protection is needed – including caps on rent increases in line with median wage rises, or a three-year freeze on increases for existing tenants.

Generation Rent is also calling for the closure of a loophole that allows landlords to demand six or 12 months’ rent up front – something policy manager Sophie Delamothe said was becoming more common. “Previously it was happening with international students who might not have a guarantor, but it’s increasingly being used as a security measure,” she said.

Previous attempts at reform have been thwarted. There are plans to ban no-fault evictions as part of the upcoming Renters’ Reform Bill, but in 2018, proposals to give tenants a three-year minimum contract – that would allow them to walk away but prevent them being kicked out at short notice – were abandoned by the government after a backlash from landlords.

The National Residential Landlords Association, which has 90,000 members, said it opposes reforms such as rent controls, which it claims would “deter investment” in the sector.

Meera Chindooroy, head of campaigns at the NRLA, said rent rises were fueled by rising costs for landlords – including inflation, energy prices and costs for materials needed for repairs, as well as supply and demand pressures. Many landlords “won’t look to raise rents” at all because it is “in their interests to keep tenants in the property if they’ve got a good relationship with them”.

That is not a luxury that has been afforded to Phillip Caudell, 30, an app developer from Bermondsey, south-east London.

He found out last week that his rent is being put up by £650 a month – a 25% rise he and his partner, a teacher, cannot absorb. “We’re still in shock,” said Caudell, who has no choice but to leave the two-bedroom flat where he has lived for two years.

He called for reforms to level the playing field for tenants. “At the moment it feels like landlords can say whatever price they want, and we have to pay it,” he said. “I can’t blame our landlord; at the end of the day, he’s just doing what landlords do. But it’s at the expense of people like us.”

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