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Author: Age UK
Published on 27 October 2016 02:30 PM

New Age UK report ‘Ageing in squalor and distress’ reveals plight of vulnerable older people at the bottom of the private rented sector

Experts predict that the numbers of older people renting in the private sector are set to soar in the coming years, but today some older private tenants are living in appalling conditions and not nearly enough is being done to help them, according to a new report published today by Age UK.

In its new ‘Behind the headlines’ report, ‘Ageing in squalor and distress (PDF 666 KB)’, which draws on calls from older people and their families to its telephone advice line, the Charity describes the problems facing vulnerable older people living in awful privately rented accommodation, overseen by landlords and letting agents who are disinterested, negligent or downright bullying towards them.

Currently households aged over 65 account for fewer than one in ten of all those living in the private rented sector, but their numbers are reportedly rising fast: a recent survey by the National Landlords Association (NLA) found that the numbers of retired people in the UK moving into the private rented sector has increased by 200,000 over the last four years[1][1] and one estimate is that a third of over-60s could be living in private rented accommodation by 2040.[2][2]

However, calls to Age UK’s Advice line between 2013 and 2016 uncovered the following experiences among older people who are renting at the bottom end of the market:

  • Repeated failures to carry out timely repairs to essential services such as heating and cookers, with potentially serious implications for those already in poor health
  • Damp, mould and cold going unchecked, causing or exacerbating chronic illnesses
  • Over the top rent rises imposed following necessary improvements – the law allows this to happen within reason but there are concerns this provision is sometimes being unfairly exploited
  • Insecure tenancies and an all too realistic fear of eviction acting as disincentives to challenge poor conditions and services
  • Local environmental health services stripped to the bone and unable or unwilling to intervene to protect vulnerable older tenants
  • Landlords refusing to allow the installation of aids and adaptations that older people need, like ramps or handrails.
  • Older tenants feeling harassed and bullied into leaving because their landlord wants to sell.

Age UK says that problems like these show the need for urgent legal reform in the private rented sector, to strengthen the rights of older tenants and ensure they are treated fairly. They also call for more resources for local environmental health services, so the law is properly enforced; better access to aids and adaptations for older people wherever they live; and more comprehensive and more available local housing advice, so older people understand their options.

Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director of Age UK said: 'Calls to our advice line show that some highly vulnerable older people are enduring grim living conditions in the private rented sector and this is truly shocking. No one should have to put up with such squalor at any age, but the idea that a chronically ill older person could be living on their own for weeks or even months with no proper heating, or cooking facilities or hot water is sickening. The law is far too feeble and the withering away of local environmental health services is making the problem worse. The upshot is that older tenants in the private sector are almost entirely reliant on the decency and professionalism of landlords and letting agents, and sadly this is leaving some at risk of neglect and in the worse cases of bullying and abuse.'

'As it is at the moment, the bottom end of the private rented sector is no place for a vulnerable older person, but if that is what we believe as a society we need to do something about it and create better alternatives. Our first and immediate priority though should be to improve the appalling plight of older tenants like those described in our report.

'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.'

The case studies highlighted in the report paint a stark picture, showing just how bleak life in poor privately rented accommodation can be for older people:

  • Christina is a private tenant who has lived in the same property for 54 years. She has health problems and her daughter Kim says the disrepair is affecting her health. This includes dampness, a broken boiler, a leaking tap that causes occasional flooding, but the landlord has taken no action. Kim is not sure if the agent has explained the full extent of disrepair to the landlord. Kim thinks the landlord and agent are waiting for Christina to die before they will do anything to improve the property.
  • Richard is house-bound and very frail. He rents his house from a private landlord and pays £590 a month. It has an outside toilet and no bathroom. There is only running water in the kitchen. The only heat is an electric radiator. When something breaks the landlord uses the cheapest contractors they can find – so it inevitably breaks down again. He’s had no hot water in the kitchen for 6 weeks because the workmen they sent to fix it were incompetent. They have asked Richard to move out temporarily to do further work. He is completely alone and terrified to leave his home, for fear they won’t let him return.
  • Colin and Jenny’s house is rented from a private landlord in a rural area. They like the house but it’s difficult to heat. They have a wood burner but it only heats one room. Jenny has a terminal illness and it’s vital she keeps warm. Colin is retired and has arthritis. They are confined to one room and cannot afford to heat the whole house.
  • Jim’s wife Rose is 85 years old and has dementia and a heart condition. They were told they would have to leave their rented home of 45 years because they are in arrears. Rose is very upset and afraid something might happen to her if they are forced to move. The council is prepared to offer them a one bedroom flat. That means they would lose most of their belongings and would have to give up their beloved pet. Jim needs help to cope with the situation.
  • Alan rents a property privately through a landlord and his contact is through a managing agent. Last November Alan was told that his gas hob was unsafe because of poor ventilation to the outside of the property. He was left without cooking facilities for several months but then received a two ring electric hob. The hob is faulty with an electric flex which has to stretch over the front of the kitchen unit because the lead is not long enough. Alan is also worried that the windows may fall in because the frames are broken.
  • Ben lives in private rented accommodation with an assured shorthold tenancy which is regularly renewed. The landlord is unhelpful with improvements and because he takes so long to resolve problems, Ben ends up paying for things himself. Ben is aware the landlord can serve notice if he wishes, so ‘doesn't want to rock the boat’. He has terminal cancer and needs a warm house. He could get free loft insulation but the loft has to be cleaned before they will install it. The landlord has refused to do this. Again Ben is considering paying for this himself and wants advice on getting the best deal.

For more information and free factsheets about housing and tenancy rights in the rented housing sector, please visit the Age UK website http://bit.ly/1HXsa7J or call Age UK’s free advice line on 0800 169 2081.

Media contacts: Anne-Marie Doohan and Helen Spinney

Email: anne-marie.doohan@ageuk.org.uk and helen.spinney@ageuk.org.uk

Telephone: 020 3033 1430

Out of hours: 07071 243 243

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[1][1] NLA (2016) Number of retired renters soars by more than 200, 000 in 4 years. Available at: http://www.landlords.org.uk/news-campaigns/news/number-retired-renters-soars-more-200000-in-4-years

[2][2] Centre of Housing Policy at York University

For more information: Contact the Age UK Media team on: 020 3033 1430 (out of hours: 07071 243 243)