Life on a housing treadmill: struggling to make a home on a low income

If you combine a long-running shortage of new low-cost homes with existing housing that’s expensive and often poor quality, you get a system that, for people on low incomes, is more of a housing treadmill than a ladder.

With nearly half of working-age adults in the poorest fifth of the population spending more than a third of their income on housing, it’s clear that something’s wrong with the housing market.

It’s not just housing that’s causing this problem – low pay and unstable work make things difficult for some, and our social security system is failing to keep pace with the cost of renting.

In a new report, we’ve heard that, far from housing acting as a ladder to opportunities, people’s choices and living standards are restricted and restrained by their housing experiences.

Stress and instability

I'm one rent review away, one complaint away from being homeless. It's as simple as that … it's exactly how it feels. It can't be felt any other way; that's the situation and I feel terribly, terribly vulnerable, I really do … Absolutely, the overriding threat that hangs dark over my head; I wake up with it every day, I go to sleep with it every night. There's no getting away from it; I'm that far away from my whole world being turned upside-down.
Nick, single, private rented sector, London

As Nick describes, life for many people on low incomes is dominated by instability. This precarious struggle to meet day-to-day costs can be stressful and exhausting. 

I am managing but if I fell ill I would be in trouble – I can’t afford to fall ill. If somebody gets in my taxi that’s got a cold, I say “Get out!” I can’t afford to be off for two weeks.
Jack, couple, home-owner, Fife

Restricted and restrained

Low-income renters often have little choice over where they live – either the property or the area – and often the poor quality of housing can add further costs.

In the social rented sector particularly, several people spoke about the costs of decorating and cleaning their properties when they first moved in, because the properties were often let in a poor state of decoration, or were dirty. Claudia felt she had no choice but to take the property she was offered:

I was in a hostel with my daughter, and this was the property they offered me. I did refuse it because of the work, it was really, really bad. … but my housing officer said if I didn’t take it I would be in the hostel for another 12 to 18 months, so that’s why I took it.
Claudia, single parent, social rented sector, London

In areas of high demand, people might wait many years to gain access to suitable social housing, and have to live in temporary hostels or unsuitable accommodation while they are waiting.

Then it took us 13 years to get this house. I went through a lot, 13 years of bidding, fighting up against it, letters from everywhere, from the school, my boy's school, doctors, psychiatrists, mental health unit, the hospitals … I didn't really have a choice but to move here. This was it for me. I was told this was it, there was no help going to be given anywhere else.
Melanie, single parent, social rented sector, London

Life events, unstable employment and the way the benefits system works in practice can also constrain people’s opportunities to work.

For example, Maurice had tried to combine working with caring for his disabled daughter. He preferred to work if he could, but irregular and sometimes long hours created real difficulties with claiming Housing Benefit, and delays in payment. Maurice got into arrears with his rent and eventually gave up working, as he was fearful of losing his home.

Budgeting and debt

The study showed how carefully those on low incomes need to manage their budgeting, and the fine line between coping and getting into debt.

Got to be on your toes all the time…your rent is due on the 5th, you get your Housing Benefit on the 10th, you’re five days late with your rent. I can’t afford to be in that situation.
Nick, single, private rented sector, London

I'm always in my overdraft… Pretty much always, yes, unless I get a huge inheritance, well I wouldn't say a huge inheritance, if I got a lump sum of money from somewhere quite unexpectedly that would be nice...
Lily, single parent, home-owner, North Wales

Melanie got into debt after moving from a small one-bedroom social rented sector flat to a two-bedroom property, and cleaning, decorating, and furnishing her new home. She was determined to make a decent home for herself and her son, although she struggled to keep up with the debt repayments:  

I had to use the credit card, I had to buy my boy a bed, bedding, carpet, blinds I had to buy, curtains, it's things that we had to have… I had to buy flooring, and then you have to pay someone to come in and do the flooring. So then I had to take out loans. It just never seemed that we were clear or anything… I'm in debt about £2,500, which is quite a lot. I've never been in that much debt. But, what was I supposed to do? I can't tell my boy he can't have carpet down on his floor, and you can't have a bed to sleep in yet because you've got to wait. You know?
Melanie, single parent, social rented sector, London

What would make a difference?

JRF believes we need a step change in the number of affordable homes being built – at least 30,000 more every year in England. We’re calling on the Government to reduce the cost of housing for low-income families in England in its Social Housing Green Paper.

We’ve also developed four costed solutions for councils and housing associations that could address some of the immediate issues faced by the participants in the study.

Please note: Participants’ names have been changed to protect anonymity.