New research on the lived reality of energy inefficiency in the private rented sector

Housing tenants in the private rented sector are choosing to live in cold homes out of fear of high heating bills and losing their tenancy, according to new research funded by Eaga Charitable Trust. 

The research, carried out by Sheffield Hallam University, was developed to provide a better understanding of the lived reality of energy inefficiency in private rented sector housing. The private rented sector is the fastest growing tenure in England. It houses a higher proportion of poor and vulnerable households than any other tenure and contains a higher proportion of the least energy-efficient properties.

The research which focused on private rental sector tenants across two areas of England, Hackney and Rotherham, revealed that tenants face considerable barriers to seeking help with cold homes that are unaffordable to heat. Respondents in both locations experienced dangerously cold homes and rationed their heating in winter due to energy inefficient properties and fears over high heating bills.

The stress of maintaining a tenancy – particularly given the high demand for rental properties – meant that few respondents considered how easy the home would be to heat when finding somewhere to live.

The relationship between tenant and landlord was one characterised by fear on the part of tenants that any complaint may be countered by retaliatory action such as rent increases or eviction if they spoke out. Most tenants felt reluctant to make contact with their landlord and instead found ways to work around problems.

Keeping warm by routinely wearing coats inside the home, keeping blankets in living areas and spending extra time in bed or outside of the home were common practice, as was heating the home for very short periods in order to save money, rather than lobbying landlords for improvements.

Issues such as excess cold, condensation, and extensive damp and mould were widely highlighted, along with increased suffering associated with chronic health conditions (e.g. respiratory diseases and arthritis) known to be exacerbated by cold homes, the emotional strain of insecure tenancies, and living in properties they wouldn’t have chosen to live in.

Over half of the participants used pre-payment methods to pay for their heating and therefore paid higher tariffs but, despite this, many valued pre-payment meters as a method of controlling spending on heating and electricity.

Under the Energy Act (2011) tenants are able to request consent from their landlords to carry out energy efficiency improvements to properties. The landlord cannot unreasonably refuse consent. It is, however, the responsibility of the tenants to arrange funding. Although the majority of respondents were supportive of the Act in principle, the majority felt too afraid to approach their landlord about this.

Dr Aimee Ambrose, senior research fellow from Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR), led the project.

Dr Ambrose said “There is a key voice missing from the debate about energy performance in the private rented sector: that of the tenant. Tenants are under-researched and underrepresented, lacking a collective voice due to the absence of organised groups representing them.

“The picture emerging from the accounts of respondents is one characterised by limited housing choice that leads to the acceptance of poor quality properties that would otherwise be unacceptable, to fear of challenging the landlord in case of retaliatory action, to enduring cold conditions and high bills, and to suffering the consequences for health and wellbeing.

“This research represents a decisive step towards a stronger voice for tenants in the debate about energy efficiency in the private rented sector.”

The full report and research summary can be accessed here.