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What are charities doing about the rent crisis?

By Andrew Weston 10 September 2015

NPC likes to tackle challenging subjects. We look at some of the most complex problems facing the country and ask what more, if anything, the third sector can do.

So this Tuesday we held an event entitled Have charities neglected the question of rent for too long? which explored how charities are interacting with the growing rental sector to help tackle the housing crisis.

The event was opened by Campbell Robb, Chief Executive of Shelter, who sought to sum-up the current situation. He argued that charities have by no means neglected the issue of rent. Since its foundation, Shelter has worked to improve the lot of tenants—including those in the private sector. However, he concluded that the dire state of the private rental market shows that this hard work has failed to achieve the real impact required.

This was highlighted throughout the event. We were told, for example, that private tenants now spend an average of 47% of their income on rent (in London this figure reaches 72% and for 16-24 year-olds it hits 88%). Yet despite this they suffer from a lack of stability, and are increasingly living in substandard accommodation.

While many of the speakers disagreed with one another on specific issues such as the value of introducing a rent cap, there was consensus the current situation  is down to a systemic crisis, rather than attributing fault specifically to the charity sector. This theme was repeated throughout the event with many of the issues associated with the housing crisis, such as gentrification and rising prices, seen as a symptom of a critical housing shortage.

Organisations like Shelter and Generation Rent are campaigning hard to push for more house building as perhaps the only way to see pressure on tenants and the wider rental market relieved in the long term. This point was developed during the question and answer session as need not only for more homes, but more of the right homes. A shortage of homes suitable for elderly people was held up as a particular example, seen as a failure to free up under-occupied family homes for young families.

The crisis itself may be systemic, but this doesn’t remove the need to try and alleviate the suffering it has generated, as demonstrated by the grassroots efforts of Lift, who were also on the panel. Some other methods discussed included longer tenancies allowing greater security, the abolition of letting fees for tenants, and even the introduction of housing credit unions to help young and homeless people get pay housing deposits.

So what comes next?

There was a spirited call to arms for the third sector. We heard that charities need to be vocal calling for change. They need to campaign and push for the reforms that can cure these systemic failings. It was stated that such action should not be limited to charities dedicated to housing rights, but that all charities whose beneficiaries might be adversely affected by these issues should get involved in the conversation.

Why? The panel cited the housing crisis as one of the biggest issues of our time, with damaging social implications at every level—from poor health to social exclusion, abuse and domestic violence to mental ill-health. It is a problem for the sector as a whole, not just to be tackled by housing and homelessness organisation alone.

Charities also need to innovate. They should come up with new ways to work with tenants and other partners to offer new services which will not only treat the symptoms but aim to help cure the disease.

Keep an eye out for future topical events via our events page.