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Housing worries are making renters sick
photography Norbert Levajsics (Unsplash)

How renting is making people physically and mentally ill

As a new report shows the health impact the current housing crisis has on Generation Rent, we speak to some people suffering from horrific conditions and dodgy landlords

Sometimes you might feel a bit nauseous when emptying your shared fridge and discovering a mouldy broccoli with a whole thriving ecosystem, or a sore head from your reclusive housemates’ thrash metal vibrating your bedframe all night long. But sky-high rents, poor living conditions, and worries about eviction are found to be making millions of renters mentally and physically ill, according to galling new research. It’s estimated that almost half of the UK’s 8.5 million renters have experienced stress or anxiety related to their housing in the past year, and a quarter have become physically unwell as a result of their living situation. 

The recent study, conducted by Shelter, surveyed nearly 4,000 private renters to provide a snapshot of the problems that are affecting people in the sector. It found that 45 per cent of them have experienced stress or anxiety as a direct result of their housing concerns, with nearly a third saying worries about housing had kept them up at night. Around the same number said their housing situation had left them feeling hopeless. 

“Every day at Shelter we see the toll that expensive, unstable or poor-quality private renting can take on people’s lives and their health,” says Andrea Deakin, the charity’s emergency helpline manager.

“We know how easy it can be to lose hope and feel overwhelmed by these worries, but our message is that you do not have to face them alone. People all over the country will be experiencing the same housing heartache, and there’s no shame in asking for help.”

Young renters are often some of the most vulnerable when it comes to housing, with many having to deal with overpriced fees, dodgy landlords, and frankly some pretty unacceptable accomodation. While many baby-boomers could afford to actually buy a property in their early twenties, this simply isn’t an option for most young people now, who have no choice but to rent.

When we spoke to young renters about their living situations, many said they felt they had to put up with substandard accommodation, especially in cities such as London where demand far exceeds supply. A lot of people said their houses were poorly maintained and shabby, and that their landlords were consistently unhelpful when it came to fixing things despite this being their responsibility. 

“My oven has been broken since I moved in, there’s no central heating and the walls in the bathroom are falling off,” says Maddie, 23, living in east London. “The flooring doesn’t even cover the actual floor, and the kitchen is absolutely disgusting. My flatmate’s roof leaks, so every time it rains she gets a stream of water running down her wall. I’m paying £750 a month for rent – it’s a total joke, but I looked for a place for so long and this was literally the best I could get”

There was a running theme of landlords seemingly taking advantage of cash-strapped young people, tying them into contracts they felt they couldn’t get out of. Barely affordable rents leave few people with a safety net, meaning that fears of being evicted was a big worry playing on renters’ minds. Some of those we spoke to had had to put up with run down accommodation that caused huge mental strain, before being kicked out anyway before their contract had ended. 

“I had a leak in the corner of my room which I alerted my landlord to multiple times. He ‘fixed’ it, but then I went away and returned two weeks later to a corner of mould as it had rained loads while I was gone,” says Anthea, 25, living in Manchester. “I felt gross being in my room and was forced out to an air bnb while he fixed it. I returned to a dehumidifier and what appeared to be painted over mould.”

“We were soon told we had to find a new place, with still six months left on our two year contract. Finding a new house was incredibly stressful. Every viewing we went to either had bidding wars which wildly escalated prices, or agents were shifty. The stress of finding a new place plus the mould in our house started to take a toll physically, making me so stressed I started grinding my teeth at night and cracked a tooth. It was fucking horrible.”

“The stress of finding a new place plus the mould in our house started to take a toll physically, making me so stressed I started grinding my teeth at night”

Dani Wijesinghe is a representative of housing union ACORN, which helps private renters take action against unsatisfactory landlords. “Landlords and letting agencies pocket huge proportions of tenants’ wages just for the privilege of a room in often damp-ridden and dilapidated housing,” says Dani. “It is the rule rather than the exception for these tenants to be experiencing illness: most commonly anxiety, depression, and respiratory conditions. These people are trapped: in precarious housing but not able to invest in their own home, experiencing awful conditions but unable to ask for them to be fixed for fear of being evicted, and being ignored or threatened when they do complain.” 

Local ACORN groups help renters put pressure on their landlords and agencies to address these kinds of problems. A lot of renters we spoke to had struggled to pin their landlords down when it came to fixing broken appliances, and felt too nervous to pester them for fear of being kicked out. 

“There are a lot of structural issues with the house I’m renting – damp, broken toilets, boiler issues, and so on – and whenever we ask to get these fixed, the landlord drops subtle hints to my housemates about how much these repairs are costing them,” says Sam, 28, living in south London.

“We don’t want them to kick us out or raise our rent again, so whenever we have a problem now, we have to second guess how serious it is, and ask whether the landlord will be annoyed about it. It's draining. This person is making a passive income hoovering up a third of my earnings every month, I live in shabby conditions – and yet I still have to tiptoe around my landlord's feelings just to be here.”

Some have feared for their own personal safety because of strained relationships with landlords. “It all got a bit too much one time when the landlord came around for the fifth time to fix a leak he refused to get a professional in for,” says Lawrence, 25, in Bristol. “Things got heated because we were so exasperated, and he squared right up to me, shouting violent threats, and he was close enough to be spitting in my face as he spoke. At speed, he grabbed my shoulders roughly and it got quite chaotic – I didn’t want to spark out the guy I’m paying hundreds to every month and who has a huge deposite from our seven-person house. He is refusing to release us from the contract – which is pretty dubious in itself as we did it all via Gumtree, privately, and we fear it isn’t legit – but I can’t be in the house with him anymore when he turns up, I genuinely think if I said one wrong word he’d swing for me.”

Sadly, many people we spoke to had become physically ill as a result of their accommodation, in line with Shelter’s findings. Mould and broken boilers were common problems facing tenants, some of whom found themselves struggling with their health as a result. 

“Our boiler has been broken for two months - it said the pressure was way over the dangerous limit, but the landlord just said nothing was wrong,” says Evie, 23, living in Preston. “I’ve been ill since I moved in here, with a bad cough and swollen eyes. The doctor thinks it’s an allergy to the damp so I’m having to take antihistamines.”

“We’ve been without heating for four days, and neither the letting agency or the landlord will sort it,” says Cameron, 22, living in south west London. “We’ve all been ill because it’s so cold, so we ended up buying heaters to warm the house whilst we wait for it to get fixed. We contacted the letting agency to see if we could get reimbursed but they said there was no point even asking our landlord.”

“I’ve been ill since I moved in here, with a bad cough and swollen eyes. The doctor thinks it’s an allergy to the damp so I’m having to take antihistamines”

Landlords have dismissed the study as “stoking needless fears” amongst renters, and are accusing Shelter of “giving the false impression that landlords spend all their time looking for ways to evict their tenants or increase their rents”. 

“Not all landlords are perfect,” David Smith, director of the Resident Landlords Association, told The Guardian“But the objective assessment is that the overwhelming majority of private sector tenants are satisfied with their accommodation and enjoy a good relationship with their landlord.” He cited government research that suggested 84 per cent of private sector tenants were very or fairly satisfied, but Shelter’s new report paints a very different picture. 

At a time of year that can be bleak for many, especially renters dealing with housing problems and worries about rent, Shelter is urging anyone who is feeling overwhelmed by their living situation to get in touch for free and expert advice by visiting their site.