David Alexander comment: Rental stress affects landlords as well as tenants

An in-depth study into mental health and the rental sector would need to look at both sides of the coin, says David Alexander. Picture: contributed
An in-depth study into mental health and the rental sector would need to look at both sides of the coin, says David Alexander. Picture: contributed
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Despite all the flak thrown at the rental sector at least critics have stopped making unfair generalisations about peeling wallpaper and leaking roofs as if these were typical of the market as a whole.

Well, blow me. Just as I thought the “rising damp” image had passed into history up pops an academic report claiming that renting privately is having a “negative impact” on the mental health of tenants. “The Frustrated Housing Aspirations of Generation Rent” by Dr Kim McKee of the University of Stirling, in collaboration with the University of Glasgow, makes gloomy reading, highlighting issues in the sector which “are having a serious negative impact on the wellbeing of young people, and particularly those on the lowest incomes”. These are said to include problems with insecure, expensive and poor-quality housing, which contribute to feelings of stress, anxiety and depression among young people unable to realise their housing aspirations.

It makes six key housing policy recommendations, including building more affordable housing – both for sale and rent. It also says tenants should be educated about their rights, and landlords and letting agents “required to undertake training on their legal obligations and duties”.

At least Dr McKee and I agree on one thing: the pressing requirement in Scotland for more social housing, which has been brought about, in part, by the right to buy legislation relating to council houses. Let us not forget this was widely supported by the public and across the political spectrum, while the SNP’s ban on the practice came sometime after the horse had bolted.

However, what concerns me is the way the report links, by implication, stress, anxiety and depression to the wider rental market, especially as this qualitative study involved “in-depth interviews with 16 young people (aged 35 and under) living in the private rented sector (PRS) in both England and Scotland”. Yes, you got that right –just 16.

Nevertheless, it alleges that “lack of security of tenure due to the short-term lets typically associated with living in the PRS, was a major source of stress and anxiety” making it difficult for tenants to “feel settled, put down roots, and make a home and life for themselves in their community”.

Yet, a full one year and eight months prior to the report being published, The Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act granted major enhancements to security of tenure which has mostly addressed these concerns. So the author’s point is?

A more in-depth study into stress levels and rented housing would have looked at both sides of the coin. For example, the effect on the health of landlords when a tenant stops paying rent and uses the letter of the law to remain in the property for months, leaving the owner thousands of pounds out of pocket in lost rent and legal costs to secure eviction.

I have seen how the stress of such a situation can affect a landlord’s mental and physical health. And do not forget that these people are, in general, not “fat cats” able to afford to lose a few thousand quid, but ordinary folk whose portfolio acts as a small business or alternative to a pension (understandable, given the current level of interest rates, volatile investment returns and poor annuity rates).

Still, no surprise there, given the report’s advisory group members comprised a collection of fellow academics, representatives from housing charities and someone from a youth organisation. Perhaps input from the professional rented sector might have provided more balance – and a degree of gravitas.

Incidentally, this exercise was part-funded through two public bodies, the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council – in effect, the taxpayer. Last month, a major firm of accountants produced a report claiming that landlords faced an effective tax rate of 66 per cent on buy-to-let income from 2020.

As the Americans say, go figure.

- David Alexander, MD of DJ Alexander