EYE OPINION: Are Shelter’s headline-grabbing statistics for real?

The mainstream media hangs on every word that comes from the housing charity Shelter and apparently accepts at face value any figures that the organization pumps out as fact.

Take the latest example which grabbed attention this week by stating that, ‘almost a million private renters are under threat of eviction’.

The Shelter press release said that one in twelve private renters in England – equivalent to 941,000 people – are affected. That’s actually closer to ‘almost 950,000’ but let’s not get picky.

It went on to claim that:

‘The charity’s polling, conducted by YouGov and funded by Nationwide Building Society, found that of those at risk of eviction, 504,000 private renters had received or been threatened with an eviction notice in the last month, up 80% on the same period last year , and 482,000 are behind on their rent, putting their home in danger.

‘Record high rents and soaring living costs mean the fear of becoming homeless is looming large over millions of people stuck living in insecure private rentals.’

The research also found:

A quarter of private renters – equivalent to 2.8 million people – are constantly struggling to pay their rent, an increase of 24% compared to the same period last year.

‘More than two thirds (69%) of private renters – equivalent to 7.7 million people – would struggle to find a suitable home this winter if they were evicted.’

As might be expected the ‘million’ figure was picked up and liberally broadcast by the media. For example, last Wednesday the evening ITV News had Paul Shamplina shoving eviction notices through people’s doors and interviewed a suitably distressed tenant to illustrate the ‘facts’.

There is no disputing that the cost-of-living crisis is painfully impacting millions of people and that there is tremendous pressure on tenants who have their incomes squeezed either by inflation or by a lack of government support.

We have not built enough social housing for decades and demand within the PRS is at a very high level. The PRS operates commercially and high demand versus relatively low supply is bound to push rents upwards. Private landlords have seen their costs rising and inevitably some, but certainly not all, have sought to increase rents. Many landlords with stable tenancies choose not to increase rents unless absolutely necessary.

Yes, there are certainly some tenants who are facing evictions. But are a million of them definitely and demonstrably at risk?

In that most recent Shelter press release the Notes to Editors (which almost never get reported and which are probably rarely read) said:

‘About the Research: All data, unless otherwise stated, is from a YouGov survey for Shelter of 2,000 Private Renters in England.

Fieldwork was undertaken between 26 October and 10 November 2022. The survey was carried out Online.

The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults in England (aged 18+).

Population figures have been calculated using English Housing Survey data.’

So, an online survey of 2,000 private renters has been ‘weighted’ so that the headline figure becomes ‘nearly a million’ publicly messaged as a statement of absolute fact.

For the property industry and the PRS the unintended (we hope) effect of such headline-grabbing output is to potentially reinforce misconceptions in the minds of the public and pressure groups resulting in a perception that landlords and letting agents are at the root of the housing crisis. This can lead to consequences.

Take for instance this story on Wednesday in the online publication Inside Croydon

Under a headline of ‘Gouging’ sees private tenants hit by £3,400 rent increases’ The London Renters’ Union said that their members are facing an average rent increase of £3,378 per year – reckoned to be a 20.5 per cent rent rise – and they accuse large estate agencies of encouraging private landlords to make “gouging” rent increases.

The Union, which has nearly 7,000 private tenant members, is apparently working with the Greater Manchester Tenants Union to stage a national day of action on Saturday, December 3, to demand an immediate freeze on private rents.

The story noted that: ‘London’s residential lettings sector, meanwhile, is doing very well, thank you very much. Estate agents Foxtons recently reported a 25 per cent increase in their revenues. The company’s chief executive was paid £1.6million.’

An LRU member was reported as saying: “Estate agents are deliberately causing these rent hikes by encouraging landlords to raise rents and encouraging bidding wars.”

Here at EYE we are not statisticians and if someone suitably qualified can tell us that the statistical evidence in the Shelter survey does actually support the numbers in their claims, we will be pleased to hear from them.

For now, the only fact we can see demonstrated is that you can prove what you like with statistics.

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