The number of older renters is booming, but according to leading charities the sector is woefully short of suitable homes. In this article, first published in the RLA’s Residential Property Investor magazine, we explore the challenges and look at what needs to change.
We are an ageing population.
According to the Office for National Statistics life expectancy in the UK has now hit 79 for men and 83 for women.
Already one in 10 of all private rented households are occupied by older people – an estimated half a million people.
And over the next 20 years, it is projected that the number of older households living in private rented accommodation will increase by around two-thirds, from 338,000 to around 549,000.
Debate around the private sector – and housing in general – tends to centre around the younger generations.
But with recent figures from the Resolution Foundation claiming a third of millennials will rent for their entire lives, the issue of older renters is now coming to the fore.
It is a drum charities supporting the elderly have been banging for some time.
They claim the sector is woefully ill-equipped to deal with the sometimes complex needs of older and often vulnerable renters and are frustrated by perceptions that older people all have property and savings behind them.
Reports such as Age UK’s ‘Ageing in squalor and distress’ and ‘Unsuitable, insecure and substandard homes’ from Independent Age, paint a damning picture of life in the PRS for the elderly.
As usual landlords are in the firing line, but not all the issues being faced by older tenants can be laid at the door of those landlords providing them with homes.
In the introduction to the Age UK report charity director Caroline Abrahams said: “The poor practice that older people have told us about is an embarrassment to the many decent private sector landlords and so we hope the private rented sector as a whole will want to work with us, and with Government, to turn this unacceptable situation for older people around.”
There is no doubt that a declining number of social homes, a lack of government funding to provide more and welfare shake ups are combining to create an extremely challenging landscape for older people looking to rent.
Older people need more access to social landlords and the RLA believes part of the problem is that the PRS being asked to step in and do things it was not intended or designed for.
In its Housing White Paper, the Government talked about ‘improving options for older people’, but did not go into any detail about help for elderly renters – or landlords housing them.
Indeed, it was dismissed as a ‘missed opportunity’ by Independent Age.
However, it should be remembered that not all older or elderly people are living in the PRS because they have no choice.
While some may always have rented as they were unable to afford a home of their own there are also those who have made a conscious choice to sell their homes and rent.
Some want to rid themselves of the responsibility of maintaining a home that might well be too big for their needs, others may want to release equity.
Marriage break-ups and divorces also lead to older people entering the PRS, so it is important not to generalise.
Joe Oldman, Policy Advisor for Age UK on housing agrees. He said the umbrella term of ‘older tenants’ covers a huge array of different people, of different age bands and different circumstances.
However, he says there are an array of challenges for older renters – including affordability, suitability and accessibility – with many elderly people undoubtedly affected by a combination of some, or all of them.
He said: “There has been a decline in the social rented sector and the kind of supported housing there used to be there just doesn’t exist anymore.
“Our last report focuses on the worst parts of the PRS, it doesn’t necessarily reflect the majority. However, issues concerning conditions and accessibility, adaptability and security of tenure are there.
“We are currently looking at adaptability. Older people can apply for Disabled Facilities Grants if they are experiencing problems, following an assessment from an occupational therapist.
“However, there are issues for private tenants, as once equipment is installed there is a cost to the landlord to restore the property at the end of the tenancy.”
The situation regarding adaptations is complex.
In later years many older people will experience issues with mobility, suffer chronic illness or become disabled and as a result need adaptations.
Whilst local councils are responsible for funding minor adaptations, it is still down to the discretion of the landlord as to whether permission to complete the modifications is granted.
Although landlords have an obligation under the Equality Act 2010 to make ‘reasonable adjustments’, they are not obliged to make structural changes, or alterations which would ‘substantially and permanently alter’ a buy-to-let home.
For example, there is no mandatory requirement to remove walls, widen doorways or install permanent ramps.
However, landlords could be asked to carry out more minor works such as:
- removing, replacing or providing any furniture, furnishings, materials or equipment – so long as it would not become a permanent fixture when installed
- replacing or providing signs or notices
- replacing taps or door handles
- replacing, providing or adapting the doorbell or door entry system
- changing the colour of any surface – for example, a wall or a door.
According to recent research by Independent Age report just 8% of tenants questioned said their landlord paid for adaptations to their rental home, with 38% paying for the work themselves.
Affordability is also an issue for the elderly. Older people usually have fixed incomes such as a pension meaning they are more vulnerable to rent increases.
And according to the Independent Age report one-in-three older people in the private rented sector are living in poverty once they’ve paid the rent.
This has seen increased calls from charities across the board for welfare reform – and even rent controls.
Both Age UK and Independent Age are looking into rent controls – and calling for reforms to Local Housing Allowance (LHA), with Independent Age asking the Government to increase the LHA for older people and introduce exemptions for those facing particular challenges.
Security of tenure
Security of tenure is another issue on Age UK’s agenda, with the government also keen that private landlords should offer longer tenancies, to help elderly tenants and families.
The RLA believes the government must now do more to help landlords support older renters looking for greater security and has been campaigning for tax incentives for landlords offering longer tenancies – one of the association’s key asks ahead of last year’s autumn budget.
In a recent survey by the RLA of almost 3,000 landlords, 63% reported that they would offer a tenancy of 12 months or longer at the request of the tenant – so the will is there.
However, the association believed the government needs to offer incentives as there is an increased risk to landlords offering these tenancies, as they are the ones who will be left to shoulder the cost if a tenant stops paying rent, due to the prolonged processes needed to regain possession in the fixed term.
There are also issues over mortgage conditions, with some buy-to-let mortgages limiting the length of tenancy landlords can offer.
RLA policy director David Smith said: “With government data showing that rents are increasing by less than inflation and that average weekly rents are lower than weekly mortgage payments, it is not surprising that more older people who are finding it difficult to afford to buy a property are now renting.
“We recognise that older tenants want security in rented housing.
“Although official statistics show that tenants have, on average, lived in their existing rented homes for almost four years, we have called on the government to do more to support the provision of longer tenancies.”
Charities have proposed a range of solutions to help support the elderly, ranging from options of longer tenancies and more stringent enforcement of health and safety legislation, to more dramatic solutions, such as the introduction of rent controls.
They also want the government to encourage institutional investors and housing associations to build deliver higher quality private rented homes suitable for the elderly.
Age UK is also lobbying the government to encourage local authorities to run initiatives to improve adaptations and fast track repairs and home safety measures in PRS homes and wants older tenants and landlords to have better access to home improvement services and DFGs.
How can landlords support older tenants?
Signposting support services: Helping private tenants to access support for maintaining their wellbeing and keeping their home and financial affairs in order has benefits to the landlord as well as tenant, with the property less likely to deteriorate due to neglect.
Both Age UK and Independent Age offer support on a range of issues, from eligibility for benefits to tackling loneliness and support in the home.
Regular checks: Older people are more vulnerable, so it is important to keep an eye on them, particularly in the colder months.
What support is out there for landlords?
Home Improvement Agencies: Home Improvement Agencies are local organisations that help older, disabled and vulnerable people. They offer reliable information and advice and support people to make modifications to their homes as their health and needs change through later years especially.
There are nearly 200 HIAs in England, covering 82% of local authorities. Services differ depending on the authority, but can give advice and information, carry out energy efficiency works and disability modifications and offer advice on benefits.
Disabled Facilities Grants (DFGs): These offer financial help towards the cost of providing adaptations and facilities and can be accessed for work on PRS homes. Grants of up to £30,000 are available in England and £36,000 in Wales.
Funding for energy efficiency work: A variety of grants and loans are available to cover some or all of the costs of making your rental homes more energy efficient. Under ECO funding grants are available to pay for or part fund a range of improvements such as loft insulation, cavity wall insulation, solid wall insulation, double glazing and replacement boilers. Tenants on benefits and low incomes are eligible for Affordable Warmth funding.
Energy company EON has a pot of £1.5m specifically earmarked for RLA members with tenants on benefits, whose properties are falling below the required EPC rating. This funding is available under current ECO scheme due to end next month, September.
Amelia Christie of Independent Age said: “There are lots of things that landlords can do to support older tenants.
“Allowing adaptations is a big thing. If the work costs less than £1,000 there is funding available from local authorities and if they will cost more than that Disabled Facilities Grants are available.
“These are getting more flexible and funding to remove adaptations are available – landlords should be assured they don’t need to be there forever.
“However, things like grab rails can be attractive to future tenants.
“While older tenants are considered a minority group one in 10 renters are now older people, so it is likely landlords will have an elderly tenant at some point.
“This is a very diverse demographic, but generally speaking older tenants are good tenants, who maintain their properties well and are keen to stay in homes long term.
“In terms of support, landlords who rent their homes to older people should make sure they keep repairs up to date.
“Issues such as mould or damp aren’t good for anyone but can have a big impact on people with existing health conditions, such as respiratory problems.
“Very often older tenants are reluctant to report problems or repairs that are needed for fear rents will be raised or they could be evicted, so it is important to make sure the property is up to standard.
“If it is possible to offer longer leases, these offer more security for older people.
“And signposting services if your tenant seems lonely or needs additional support would also be helpful
“I would also suggest landlords keep any property information they have on council databases up to date, with information such as whether adaptations are in place, or would be possible, which will really help older tenants looking for a suitable home.”
- What do you think? Do you rent to elderly tenants, or would you be more likely to if extra support was available? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
If you want more information on support available for elderly tenants, there are a number of agencies which can help: