Hundreds of thousands living in squalid rented homes in England

Estimated 338,000 properties rented by under-35s hazardous and likely to cause harm 80

The kitchen of a rented property in Newham. The door leads to the toilet and shower, also in state of disrepair.

Rented housing so squalid it is likely to leave tenants requiring medical attention is being endured by hundreds of thousands of young adults in England, an analysis of government figures has revealed.

Rats, mouldy walls, exposed electrical wiring, leaking roofs and broken locks are among problems blighting an estimated 338,000 homes rented by people under 35 that have been deemed so hazardous they are likely to cause harm.

It is likely to mean that over half a million people are starting their adult lives in such conditions, amid a worsening housing shortage and rising rents, which are up 15% across the UK in the last seven years.

Visits by the Guardian to properties where tenants are paying private landlords up to £1,100 a month have revealed holes in external walls, insect-infested beds, water pouring through ceilings and mould-covered kitchens.

A 30-year-old mother near Bristol said her home is so damp that her child’s cot rotted. A 34-year-old woman in Luton told of living with no heating and infestations of rats and cockroaches, while a 24-year-old mother from Kent said she lived in a damp flat with no heating and defective wiring for a year before it was condemned.

A photograph taken in a hazardous rented property in Newham.
 A photograph taken in a hazardous property in Newham.

“Young adults have very little option but to rent from a private landlord, so we should at least expect a decent home in return for what we pay,” said Dan Wilson Craw, director of the Generation Rent campaign group. “Relying on cash-strapped councils to enforce our rights means that too many of us are stuck with unsafe housing.”

The extent of the impact on young people emerged as a cross-party bid to give tenants new powers to hit back against rogue landlords gathers strength.

The government has backed a private member’s bill going through parliament that would allow tenants to take direct legal action instead of relying on local authorities to do so.

Research by Shelter published last week found that 48% of families in social housing who reported issues about poor or unsafe conditions felt ignored or were refused help.

The issue has gained greater political impetus in the wake of the fire at Grenfell Tower where tenants had complained publicly about safety conditions but nothing was done before the blaze claimed 71 lives last June.

Seven months before the blaze, Ed Daffern, a member of Grenfell Action Group, warned of “dangerous living conditions” and wrote in a blogpost that “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord”.

Government figures suggest as many as 2.4 million people in England live in rented homes, both in the private and social sectors, with category 1 hazards. That includes 756,000 households living in private rented properties – almost one in five of the whole private rented stock – and 244,000 households in social housing.

The worst affected regions are the east and west Midlands, which features large numbers of Victorian homes, where about a quarter of a million rental properties suffer from category 1 hazards, according to the figures compiled by Labour based on the English Housing Survey. These hazards include exposed wiring or overloaded electrical sockets, dangerous or broken boilers, very cold bedrooms, leaking roofs, mould, vermin and broken stairs.

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“One million homes in this country are currently unfit, putting the health and in some cases safety of tenants at risk,” said Karen Buck, the Labour MP for North Westminster who drafted the fitness for human habitation bill that is going through parliament. “Yet at the moment landlords have no obligation to their tenants to put or keep the property in a condition fit for habitation.”

About half of councils in England have served no or just one enforcement notice under the Housing Act in the last year, Buck said.

The London Borough of Newham estimates 10,000 private rented homes within its boundaries in the category – equivalent to one in four. Its inspectors have photographed rats in larders, baths and beds in kitchens, bedrooms in cupboards and homes with plastic sheets in place of roofs.

A photograph taken in a rented property in Newham.
 A photograph taken in a rented property in Newham that showed category 1 hazards.

“In practice you have fewer rights renting a family home than you do buying a fridge-freezer,” said John Healey MP, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for housing. “Too many people are forced to put up with downright dangerous housing. After the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower, it’s even more important that ministers back Labour’s plan to make all homes fit for human habitation.”

Sajid Javid, the housing secretary, said he was determined “to do everything possible to protect tenants” and pledged government support for new legislation that requires all landlords to ensure properties are safe and give tenants the right to take legal action if landlords fail in their duties.

Since April landlords have faced fines of up to £30,000 and as an alternative to prosecution the government is planning banning orders for the most serious and prolific offenders with a database of convicted rogue landlords and letting agents.

“The Grenfell tragedy exposed the catastrophic consequences of unsafe housing in the most devastating way, and how our laws fail to protect people’s right to a safe and decent home,” said Shelter’s chief executive, Polly Neate. “Too many private and social renters are forced to live in poor and sometimes dangerous conditions, unable to tackle safety concerns or legally challenge their landlord.”

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