Skyrocketing rents, job-style interviews and ‘dangerous’ housing: inside the capital’s renting hell
Last month, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan repeated demands for the Government to freeze private rents and ban evictions, arguing that renters are facing a “triple whammy, with rising rents, bills and the cost of household essentials”. There is a reason that Khan — and others — have made these calls so many times. Renters in the capital are in trouble.
“The cost of London rentals has risen by an average of 16 per cent in the past year — more than anywhere else in the country, says Zoopla, while the London Renters Union found that increases of 30 to 50 per cent are increasingly common, with most renters struggling to pay.
“In part, soaring prices are fuelled by a shortage of supply: the number of tenants outnumber the rental properties available. SpareRoom calculates that there are 106,000 people looking for rooms to rent, against 1,500 available properties. It is no longer uncommon to hear stories of hundreds of people competing for properties, being asked to pay a year’s rent upfront or for prospective tenants to have to undergo elaborate, “undignified” interview processes”.
“It’s a terrible situation,” says Claire Poppleton, a spokesperson for the LRU. “It’s been building for a number of years… and it’s getting worse.” It is creating an “artificial market”, she explains, where landlords are pushing up rents without justification.
“Landlords have this huge, unchecked power, and it’s pushing millions of ordinary people into poverty. What we’re seeing is that the Government has the power and means to tackle this and to help people.”
For tenants, this is driving housing insecurity. Many people are forced to accept worsening — even unsafe — conditions to avoid re-entering the market, and are often afraid to retaliate because of the looming threat of a Section 21 no-fault eviction. These increased by 121 per cent nationally between 2021 and 2022.
Poppleton says the LRU is “inundated” with requests for help. “Black mould, infestations, rodents, cockroaches, Section 21 no-fault evictions, rent rises that are pushing people out. It’s insecure, unpleasant housing. And in some cases it’s downright dangerous.”
What does this look like for renters? Here, three people tell their stories.
“It’s more difficult to get a room than a job. The scarcity is affecting everybody”
Jazmyn Sadri, 28, works as an assistant for a charity
I’ve moved three times since 2020 due to no-fault evictions and rent rises. In July 2022 I found the studio I’m in now, in Bethnal Green — but it’s far from perfect. In fact, there’s regularly no heating or hot water. In November, when it got cold, the agents reimbursed me for an electric heater but didn’t fix the heating. In January, they said the landlord has no obligation to provide me with gas heating. I asked them to check, and they came back with a Section 21 notice, meaning I have to get out by March 31, and I have nowhere to go. I’m looking for another studio, ideally within two miles of where I live now but with a very top budget of £1,200pcm, it’s feeling pretty impossible, I search for properties that are up to £200 more than I pay now (£965pcm) and only parking spaces came up. I set up property alerts on Rightmove and have been going to see rooms in share houses as well.
It feels like the climate of room rentals has completely changed since I started living on my own in 2018. I’ve been to interviews where I was asked about my habits and personality. I had one interview for a run-down house in Green Lanes with five people at once. I was told that, if successful, I would get to go to a second-round interview. They didn’t even tell me if I was successful.
In another, they asked a series of subjective questions, like: ‘On a scale of one to 10, how messy are you? How much do you like to be in the house? How much do you like to be out?’ Eventually, I just said: ‘Why don’t you tell me what you’re looking for, then we can both decide whether this is a good fit.?’ They replied: ‘We can’t give you the answers — that would be unfair to the other applicants.’
It was shocking. It’s more difficult to get a room than it is to get a job. The scarcity is affecting everybody. It’s expensive, exhausting and undignified to repeatedly move and now I have to do the whole thing again. All my stuff will have to go in storage. Even if I found a flat tomorrow, I wouldn’t feel at home. I know the drill — it’s a year, tops, then they’ll ask for more rent.
I think the three things that we really need are caps on the percentage that rents can increase in a given time — I understand that they’ve done that in Scotland; we should do it everywhere. Second, we need an end to no-fault evictions, which is something that the Government promised to ban. Third, councils need to be consistently and properly resourced to actually enforce the few rights that private tenants do have. If there’s no enforcement, no law passed means anything. It’s worse than useless — and landlords know that.
“Who’s going to be left in London?”
Lucia Jones, 35, teaching assistant
My husband and I and our two children [aged two and four] moved into a two-bedroom flat in Muswell Hill in October 2021 and initially it was good.
But then, last September, we noticed a puffy mark on the wall. It was caused by a hot water leak, which was raising our energy bills, and because of it the radiators weren’t working. By November, it was cold and we had no heating, and the patch had spread from a 20cm scratch on the wall to a line around the entire house. You could see where the pipe was, and when you touched the wall it was wet. Eventually, the landlord put us into a hotel — the four of us were in one room. After a week, it was meant to be fixed, we moved home but by Christmas the wall was wet again. This time it was worse: puffy and flaking onto the floor. Black mould was everywhere, behind my kids’ toys and in the bedrooms — it was horrifying.
We’ve been looking for a new house ever since — but the London rental market is so insane. Prices have gone up so much that we basically can’t afford to live in London anymore. The houses that the agents show you are completely unsuitable — even though we are a family, we’ve been shown things like a bedsit in Bounds Green that cost £1,700pcm and looked like it was straight out of Trainspotting.
At one point we put a £500 deposit down for a house and didn’t pass the reference check because we both work in schools and didn’t earn enough money. The agency kept that deposit, so we lost £500. After we weren’t accepted, we were asked if could give 12 months’ rent upfront — if we had that kind of money, we’d have put a deposit down on a house. Then he offered six months upfront, which would have been £14,000 with the deposit. It’s impossible. The whole system seems broken — how can you rent a house for £2,000pcm when you earn £2,500 a month? How are you supposed to survive? What’s it going to be like in London in 10 years’ time? Who is going to work in restaurants, schools, hospitals? Are landlords going to do something? Who is benefiting?
We’re staying in an Airbnb in West Sussex, thanks to my husband’s boss, and are moving to Chichester next month, hopefully long-term. Our landlord has only returned half of our deposit.
We weren’t ready to leave London. Basically overnight, I had to change my son’s school, leave my job, all my friends — everything. These are life changes. Landlords have a lot of power, and the people paying the rent don’t have any.
“I knew how many flats have damp and mould problems, so I stayed put, even though it was affecting my health”
Suzie Houlihan, 40, actor and voiceover artist
I moved into a new-build near Hackney Downs in 2015. It was a beautiful apartment but it was built badly. It’s had a lasting impact on my health.
By September 2018, I constantly felt hungover: tired, with headaches, anxiety and brain fog. I had stomach issues, a swollen tongue, dry skin under my nose, weird rashes, a stuffy nose. The tiredness was the worst part — I didn’t have any energy. Something wasn’t right.
I went to the doctor in November, and they tried to prescribe me anti-depressants. Over the next three years, I went eight or nine times for my symptoms. They kept telling me it was depression.
Eventually, in August 2021, I went private. The doctor told me I had mould toxicity. I was relieved that I wasn’t going crazy; that there was a reason for these symptoms. But I was also angry that it hadn’t been taken seriously.
I didn’t know that there was mould in the flat, but the same week as I got those results, I dropped an earring down the bath and pulled back the panel to get it out. Underneath, there was black mould everywhere. I felt sick when I saw it.
The landlord did do something straight away, but the building was so badly built that the problems continued. There had been two leaks in 2018, which had been repaired. The ventilation system wasn’t working properly, which was intensifying the problem. The landlord said she didn’t have the money to fix that, and suggested I move out.
Because I felt so terrible, I didn’t have the energy to move. Rents are so high, and I knew how many flats in London have damp and mould problems, so I thought staying put would be better than moving somewhere where I’d have the same problem again. I wasn’t fully aware of how bad it was.
I bought a place in Walthamstow and left in December 2022. The mould is still affecting my health now. It is what it is.