Private renting and the suburbanisation of poverty
One of the most marked changes in the UK’s housing system over the last 30 years has been the rise – or rather, the re-growth – of the private rented sector (PRS). Many more low-income households now find homes in this sector. In a new paper, we show how this is leading to the steady exclusion of poorer households from more central locations in our towns and cities, a phenomenon known as the suburbanisation of poverty. For the ten largest cities, we estimate that one-in-nine low-income PRS households was displaced in just eight years as a result – 15,000 households in total. Changes were particularly stark in the largest conurbations but were by no means confined to those cities.
From fewer than one-in-ten households in 1991, the PRS is now home to almost one-in-five. The Government encouraged this re-growth because the sector provides an important source of flexibility for those that need quick access to accommodation without long-term commitments. But few expected the sector to grow as fast as it did.
Even fewer anticipated the extent to which it would become home to increasing numbers of low-income households and, especially, poorer families with children. By 2017/18, one in three children in poverty lived in private renting, three times the level of 20 years earlier. Where previously most low-income families would expect to find secure housing in the social rented sector, now they are faced with raising children while living with the insecurities which go with private renting and all the disruptions to schooling and social life that that entails.
The other consequence of the growing reliance on private renting is how it affects where low-income households can afford to live. Here there are two factors at play: rent levels and subsidy levels from Housing Benefits. On rent levels, PRS housing in more central locations isn’t always more expensive: a lot of cheaper housing can be found close to city centres because it is older, smaller or in worse condition. But in our paper, we show how this housing is becoming less affordable over time with the steady gentrification of these areas. Using the detailed data on private renting from Zoopla plc (available through UBDC’s data collection), we can see that rents are rising everywhere but they are rising faster in more central locations, particularly in the larger cities (Figure 1); London is the exception but rents for the central parts of that city were exceptionally high to start with. In the social rented sector by contrast, rents vary very little across the different locations within a city so central locations remain affordable.
Figure 1: Increase in rents for largest cities, 2012/3-2019/20
Note: ‘Cities’ defined by travel-to-work areas. ‘Inner city’ is the most central fifth. Data is Zoopla Plc, © 2018, processed by UBDC, University of Glasgow
On Housing Benefits, we have seen increasing restrictions on the subsidies available to pay rents at exactly the same time as we have pushed more low-income households into private renting. In the years leading up to the pandemic, increases in Housing benefits were restricted to levels well below rental inflation rates so that poorer households were restricted to smaller and smaller sections of the PRS market. In 2012/13, 20 per cent of listings on Zoopla were affordable for those on Housing Benefit. By 2019/20, this had fallen to just 9 per cent.
The combination of these two factors has meant the steady exclusion of low-income households from the inner-city locations. In Figure 2, we can see that the number of PRS households on Housing Benefit fell in most of the largest cities between 2011 and 2019 but the falls were greater – and sometimes much greater – in the inner-city areas. Here we define ‘inner city’ as the most central fifth of neighbourhoods.
Figure 2: Change in PRS households on Housing Benefit for largest cities, 2011-2019
Note: ‘Cities’ defined by travel-to-work areas. ‘Inner city’ is the most central fifth. Households on Housing Benefit in April each year from StatXplore.
Another way to capture the scale of the change is to ask how many more low-income households would have been in the inner-city areas in 2019 if the change in households on Housing Benefit there had been the same as in the outer areas of each city. In Bristol, for example, there were 6300 PRS households on Housing Benefit in the inner city in 2011 and this had fallen by 2400 by 2019, a reduction of 38%. In the rest of Bristol, however, the fall was just 15%. If that rate had applied in the inner city, the reduction would have been just 900 households. There are therefore 1500 fewer Housing Benefit household in the inner city than there might otherwise have been – equivalent to nearly one-in-four of those present in 2011. Across the ten largest cities, the total number of households affected was 15,000 or one-in-nine of those present in 2011.
Continuing cuts in Housing Benefit levels, combined with the rising costs of inner-city renting, are engineering a fundamental change in the social fabric of our cities. We need to examine the impacts this has on the welfare of poorer households as they are pushed to locations which tend to have worse public transport, and worse access to jobs and vital services. But we also need to be asking whether this is the kind of city we wish to create – one marked by deepening spatial divisions between richer and poorer.
 Bailey, N., Livingston, M., and Chi, B. (2023) Housing and welfare reform, and the suburbanisation of poverty in UK cities 2011-20, Housing Studies. https://doi.org/10.1080/02673037.2023.2266398 [OPEN ACCESS]
 Zhang, M. L. and Pryce, G. (2020) The dynamics of poverty, employment and access to amenities in polycentric cities: Measuring the decentralisation of poverty and its impacts in England and Wales, Urban Studies 57 (10): 2015-30. https://doi.org/10.1177/0042098019860776 [OPEN ACCESS]
Nick Bailey is Director of the Centre. He is a Professor in Urban Studies, based in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow.