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The private rental market is home to one fifth of the UK’s population, after rapid growth over the past two decades. Long regarded – and often dismissed – as a tenure for students and young single people, private tenants are now more likely to be aged over 35, and one in three has children.

Two trends have led us to this scenario. First, the lack of social housing for tenants on lower incomes – a result of the failure, by successive Governments, to replace council houses sold off under Right to Buy. And second, house prices rising out of the reach of middle-income households, particularly in London and the South East.

Uniting these factors was the rise of buy-to-let as a popular investment – it led to a large proportion of former Right to Buy homes ending up on the rental market (40% in London), while the spending power of speculators chasing capital gains in the property market priced out people who simply wanted a home.

The collapse in home ownership has animated much of the political response to this trend, with measures such as Help to Buy and the Stamp Duty surcharge on landlords designed to bolster first-time buyers’ position in the market. The number of people buying their first home is now nearly back at the pre-financial crisis level. But millions more, having paid expensive rents for years, have meagre savings as a result, with two thirds of private renters having none, meaning they face many more years in the same expensive tenure. Despite some efforts to address this, the Government still has a long way to go.

As well as being more expensive than other tenures, private rented homes are more likely to be unsafe, with 690,000 containing hazards such as leaks, faulty electrics and mould. While local councils have responsibility for enforcing safety standards, tenants are easily intimidated into not complaining in the first place by the threat of a no-fault eviction or rent hike.

Since 2015, local councils have been able to protect tenants in unsafe homes from retaliatory eviction, but budget cuts have limited their ability to make use of these powers. Generation Rent research estimates that only one in five such tenants get the protection to which they’re entitled.

Recent legislation has also made it easier for local councils to fine, and for tenants to sue and claim rent back from negligent landlords. But until tenants no longer face the threat of losing their home for exercising their right to a decent home, private renting will continue to be a second-class tenure.

Under Section 21 of the 1988 Housing Act, landlords can evict tenants without needing a reason. Not only does this allow the worst landlords to bully their tenants, it enables others to churn their properties to take advantage of rising local rents, and amateurs to sell up with a vacant property and no obligation to help the tenant find a new home.

While the vast majority of landlords value their tenants and want them to stay long term, the lack of legal certainty for the tenant makes private renting fundamentally precarious. Private tenants are more likely to worry they will have to move home in the next year, so it often feels like there is little point in investing time in your home or your community. As a result, private tenants are less likely to feel happy with how their home looks or know many of their neighbours than homeowners and social tenants.

During her time as Prime Minister, Theresa May recognised this and pledged to abolish Section 21 so that landlords must need a valid reason to take their property back. A consultation is under way, and it must remain a priority under Boris Johnson’s administration so that tenants and their children can enjoy a stable life that homeowners often take for granted.

But even with a stronger set of rights, private renters will still face high costs. A previous Conservative Government justified increasing private sector provision of housing by promising that Housing Benefit would “take the strain”. This doctrine was scrapped under austerity and now tenants receiving Housing Benefit find it is no longer covering the rent, being paid late, and is causing them to be rejected when searching for a new home. This is creating more hardship, which is manifesting itself in the courts, health service and the schools system.

The Government must recognise that helping people keep a roof over their head is an investment in society as a whole – stable homes mean stronger communities, personal wellbeing and a safe environment for children to flourish. To ensure that everyone can afford a place to live in, the government must put money towards a functional benefits system, but also – to bring down rents across the board – a programme of housebuilding. This will not only take the pressure off families at the breadline, but also boost the savings power of aspiring homeowners.

Dan Wilson Craw is the Director of Generation Rent. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine On the home front. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.