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'Affordable Housing' must be what it says on the tin

by Aoife Deery, Senior policy officer, CAS Social Justice team.

This article was first published in the Herald on 15 August 2022.

The cost of living crisis is at the forefront of everyone’s mind right now. Many people are thinking about their incomes and outgoings, trying to make their money stretch at a time where it seems that every price is going up.

For most people, housing costs are their largest monthly expenditure, especially in the rented sector. At a time where people are feeling the pinch, trying to find more affordable accommodation may be an appealing way to save money. 

However, the most recent statistics from the Scottish CAB network show that advice about rents has increased by nearly a third compared to this time last year, and views of our advice webpage about landlords wanting to raise the rent have gone up by a staggering 159%. Meanwhile recent analysis by Citylets has found that rents rose by 8.6% on average across Scotland compared to last year, with Glasgow’s rents rising by a huge 16%, indicating that renting is becoming less and less affordable.  

Unpicking what affordability actually means and trying to come up with policy solutions to ensure there are enough homes which are affordable for everyone is very difficult. Even before the cost of living crisis began to bite, work was underway across government and the housing sector to try to better understand and define affordability in the Scottish context and what is means to everyday people.

Some believe that market forces determine rents and there is little that anyone can do to intervene on affordability challenges that rising rents are sure to lead to. Others point to the measures in place already, such as the ability to challenge rent rises through Rent Service Scotland. How well this is used however, is not well-known and is tangled up with other issues such as lack of tenants’ awareness and confidence to exercise their rights or fear of reprisal if they did so.  

Of course, there are many excellent landlords in Scotland who wouldn’t dream of engaging in such reprisals and certainly many landlords rarely raise the rent they charge at all. Landlords themselves will be feeling a financial squeeze and indeed the data from Citylets indicates that many are choosing to sell up and leave the market. Landlords do necessary and important work and good landlords should be supported to stay in the sector. 

There are other factors which complicate things when thinking about affordability, such as the fact that affordability is different for economically vulnerable groups, such as students, young families, households on Universal Credit and older renters.

The obvious answer is to ensure that part of the market remains cheap enough for anyone to afford i.e. being priced at Local Housing Allowance levels or even under. But with the cost of goods and services rising, can landlords (both public and private) afford to rent out properties and still carry out a high standard of service, and for public sector landlords, continue building badly needed homes?  

Thinking about affordability asks the bigger question of what housing is worth. To us at CAS, it’s the foundation to everything, and being at risk of losing your home throws everything into turmoil. That’s why we need to get it right and provide truly affordable homes for rent right across Scotland.