Rent Rises Claire Brennan BBC NEWS

19th April 2023

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Rent Rises Claire Brennan BBC NEWS

By Claire Brennan

BBC News


At 69, Barbara Kennedy had hoped her house-hunting days were behind her.

The auxiliary nurse from Belfast is living in private rental accommodation, but she cannot afford to keep paying the £675 monthly rent for her current property.

She plans to move in January, ahead of her 70th birthday. Spiralling rental costs mean finding another home won't be easy.

"I don't know where I'll be. I can't go out and rent anywhere else," she said.

Ms Kennedy was diagnosed with breast cancer at the start of this year. She has not been back to work since and has now decided to retire from her hospital role.

"I have to move out in the middle of January. I can't afford it. My pay has stopped and I'm living off my pension.

"I've managed to put a month's rent away for now."

'So many people looking'

Ms Kennedy said she had been on the social housing waiting list for seven years.

She hopes the change in her income may improve her eligibility and is awaiting news from the Housing Executive.

"I don't think there's any help for people out there," said Ms Kennedy. "When I was trying to find somewhere to rent it was dreadful.

"Every place I contacted had already gone. There were so many people looking for somewhere."

Almost 44,000 households in Northern Ireland are on the waiting list for social housing.

Catherine Feely, advice services manager at the Housing Rights charity, said this meant the private rental sector was increasingly relied upon by people on low incomes. But huge demand and low supply are fuelling price rises.

The average monthly cost of a private rental in Northern Ireland was £742 by the end of September, a rise of 18% since 2019, according to research by PropertyPal.

"If someone is on a low income job, they can't afford to be paying £700 to £800 a month," said Ms Feely.

"Upfront costs are going up as well, with large deposits. People are struggling."

In Belfast, average rent hit £845 per month at the end of September. Prior to the pandemic, in September 2019, the figure was £700. That's a rise of 21%.

Ards and North Down saw the biggest jump in that period, up 24%.

Jordan Buchanan, chief economist at PropertyPal, said renters were facing a really difficult time.

Analysis for October showed rental prices had risen again, with further jumps expected.

"The underlying picture is incomes haven't risen at the same level," said Mr Buchanan.

While tenants were once spending 35-40% of their income on rent, it's now 45-50%, he added.

What's behind the price hikes?

The reasons behind soaring rental prices are nuanced, but Mr Buchanan said much of it was down to "demand outstripping supply".

"There are less properties coming to the market - there's about half the stock compared to pre-Covid," he said.

"There are 55 to 60 inquiries for every property we advertise. Tenants are actively searching and not hearing back."

Competition for rentals is now so fierce in some areas that prospective tenants are asked to enter a bid of the price they'd be willing to pay to secure a property.

Mr Buchanan said the recent increases to mortgage rates might exacerbate the problem.

"Rising mortgage rates may also force aspiring homebuyers into the rental sector, or keep those already in the sector for a longer period of time.

"Furthermore, approximately half of landlords in Northern Ireland have at least one mortgaged property and they may be forced to pass on higher mortgage repayments through higher rents."

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Byron Campbell, Director at Piney Estate Agency, said he believed the lack of rental stock was linked to fewer people entering the buy-to-let market.

Instead, he said, many landlords were opting for short-term lets.

"As an investor there are a lot of obstacles and costs," he said.

"The HMO (house of multiple occupation) market is very, very regulated, which is a good thing: It means tenants aren't exploited.

"But if you had that same regulation in the short-term market it would be better.

"Investors are seeing great returns in the Airbnb market. But that is catering for tourists rather than professionals or families," he added.

"Make it more feasible for buy-to-let investors to go down the long-term route."

What's the solution?

"There needs to be a loosening of red tape, so new builds can come through quicker and for more investors to enter the market," said Mr Campbell.

"Ultimately it doesn't have much more room for growth. If rents continue to rise, incomes can't support that."

Catherine Feely said the lack of a working government was adding to the sense of hopelessness.

"I don't think things will get better any time soon," she said. "We don't have the politicians in place to help people.

"Social housing is not an option at the moment, especially if you are single or a young person. You'd sit on the waiting list for years."

There are some 130,000 privately rented homes in Northern Ireland, 14% of total stock. Housing Executive properties make up 10% or around 81,000 homes. Rents in that sector have been frozen.

Some private renters are eligible for help through universal credit. But Housing Rights' Catherine Feely said this was not enough to cover costs in most cases.

"We have our housing helpline here and private renting inquiries are the highest demand," added Ms Feely.

"There's a shortfall between income and rent. Not a lot of renters seem to have savings, they don't have money to fall back on."

Ms Feely warned tenants risk falling into arrears or becoming stuck in unsuitable accommodation because they have nowhere else to go.

"These next few months are going to be very tough," she added.

A Housing Executive spokesperson said the demand for social housing was "unprecedented in recent times" but despite investment, supply was not keeping pace with demand.

"This impacts profoundly on the life chances of many households across Northern Ireland," they added.

The spokesperson said it was hoped that the "Draft Housing Supply Strategy" issued by the government last year would provide hope for households whether in the social or private sectors.

Ms Feely said the Private Tenancies Bill, which was passed in 2022, may also help tenants as it includes measures such as a three-month notice period for rent increases.

But Jordan Buchanan said the only "main" solution was an injection of supply into the rental sector.

Barbara Kennedy agrees.

"They need to build more houses," she said. "It's dreadful out there for people."