Why women are at the sharp end of the rental crisis

After 15 years in the same two-bed property, Lucy is being forced to move because her landlord wants to sell.

The business manager, who currently lives in St Albans, has a monthly housing budget of £1,400 and has looked at over 50 rentals in the past few months. (She requests anonymity for fear of stigma; “Lucy” is a pseudonym.) But she cannot find even a one-bedroom property for her and her youngest son, who is currently at university.

She is far from alone. Surging rents and a lack of housing supply have made it difficult for most renters to find affordable housing in the UK. But with lower-than-average incomes and more caregiving responsibilities, women are disproportionately affected by the crisis.

It is now almost impossible for the most vulnerable women to rent in some parts of the country, according to a Financial Times analysis of social survey and rental data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for the year ending March 2023. This has led to higher rates of homelessness and a dramatic decline in the number of single mothers in London.

On the median salary, the average one-bedroom property in England was affordable for a single man but not a single woman, based on the ONS benchmark that housing should cost no more than 30 per cent of a household’s income.

The problem is more acute for single mothers, who account for one in five UK families with dependent children. A one-bedroom property cost more than half their average income in the East, South East and South West. In London, it cost 106 per cent, compared with 64 per cent for the average single father.

These numbers are especially concerning as lone parents with dependent children — 90 per cent of whom are women — are much more likely to be private renters than couples with dependent children.

Lucy, a single mother of two sons, says that she has struggled to find properties in her price range and even when she has, landlords turn her down in favour of people who are “financially stronger”.

“People are offering more money on top of the price, or they offer six months rent in advance,” she adds. “When I did find a place, the landlord wanted a guarantor who earns £50,000 a year and I didn’t have one.”

The lack of access to affordable housing has forced many women into substandard housing, says Thomas Wernham, research economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

“The quality of the properties that remain affordable has gone down rapidly because people who are reliant on housing benefit are looking at the very bottom end of the market,” he says. “If children are living in low-income households, they’re likely to be forced into lower quality housing.”

Poor quality housing is known to have a wide-ranging impact on children’s physical and emotional health, as well as putting them at higher risk of developing educational and behavioural problems.

If Lucy does not find somewhere by the end of this month she will be homeless. But she says the council has told her she is not a priority because she does not have younger children and is not in an abusive relationship. “I just never thought it’s going to be this difficult. For the first time, I am struggling with anxiety,” she says.

‘Cosy box room’

A home in London, the east and south of England is now almost unobtainable for the average single mother. In the capital, they could afford to rent less than 0.1 per cent of one-bedroom lets on the median London salary and no advertised two-bedroom lets between April 2022 and March 2023, according to property consultancy TwentyCi. Of those that were affordable, almost all were in houses with multiple other renters.

Some of the limited options a single mother in London on an average income can afford, according to research by the FT on the largest rental platforms including Rightmove and SpareRoom, are: a room on a boat housing 10 other people; cheap rent in exchange for 15 hours of part-time care each week; or a “cosy box room” with a single bed in a house share.

Such conditions are likely forcing some women to relocate. The number of single mothers with dependent children fell by a quarter in the South East between 2021 and 2022, according to ONS estimates, and by almost a third in London between 2015 and 2022. 

Victoria Benson, chief executive of Gingerbread, a charity supporting single parents, says they often hear from single mothers struggling as a result of the affordability crisis. “We know of single mums who have been forced to move to unsuitable accommodation and others who have had to move away from their support networks and even their children’s schools due to rental costs,” she says. 

The crisis is inevitably taking a toll on mental health: three in five women say they have been anxious as a result of housing problems in the past year, according to a survey by charity Shelter. 

Women are also having to make other difficult decisions to get by, such as cutting back on necessities and staying in unsafe or unhappy relationships. A Gingerbread poll by Savanta of 500 single parents in February found that in order to cope with rising costs of living, half of the single mothers had cut back on food and meals for themselves in the past year, while 3 per cent had stayed in a broken relationship or moved back in with an ex.

Homelessness is also on the rise across England. Rates increased by 15 per cent for single mothers and 12 per cent for single women in the first quarter of 2023 compared with the same period in 2022. In London, they rose by more than a fifth for single mothers.

The risk of becoming homeless has been magnified by cuts to housing benefits, of which single women are the main recipients. Local housing allowance rates have not changed since April 2020 but rents for new lets have risen by almost a third in that time. The average monthly cost of a new rental agreement in London increased from £1,668 to £2,179, according to the HomeLet Rental Index.

Earlier this year, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that the cost of only one in 20 advertised new lets in Great Britain was covered by the local housing allowance in the first quarter of 2023, down from around one in four in April 2020. 

Women are bearing the brunt of the crisis caused by the broken private rental market, says Shelter chief executive Polly Neate. “Decades of failure to build genuinely affordable social homes has meant that competition for rentals is fierce and the barriers to finding and keeping hold of a safe home are higher than ever,” she says.

Restoring living standards

The UK’s housing crisis is high on the political agenda. New legislation to improve security and conditions for private renters is currently being debated in parliament. If implemented, the Renters (Reform) bill will remove the threat of no-fault evictions and allow tenants to appeal “excessively above-market” rents.

Emma Thackray, research and data officer at think-tank the Women’s Budget Group, says this is a “step in the right direction” but more needs to be done to tackle the wider crisis of affordability, such as restoring the link between rents and the local housing allowance.

“Punitive measures” such as the cap on total benefits and limiting tax credits and universal credit to two children are pushing women further into poverty, adds Thackray. “They must be abolished if we want to restore women’s living standards.”

The situation may get worse before it gets better — if it gets better at all. Wernham of the IFS says that affordability has deteriorated much more in the past few years than it did over the entire 2010s and adds that there is more pain to come.

“Even if [rental] prices do not continue to go up really rapidly, the pinch is going to be felt by more and more renters as they move house or as their landlord decides to put up the rent,” he says. “Not all the hardship that we expect to see eventually has been felt yet.”