Renting in Oxford. How the figures just don’t add up.

Lucy Warin
4 min readJul 16, 2020

Oxford has just been voted the worst place to rent in the UK. How bad actually is it, and how does it relate to the city’s homelessness problem?

Around a third of people living in Oxford rent. These people on average both earn less, and pay more for housing than people living in other tenure types. Nationally, renters spend 1/3 of their income on housing costs on average compared to 17% for mortgage holders. In addition, renters have a median household income of £583 per week compared to £744 for owner occupiers. As a final blow to the resilience of renters, 63% report to have no savings.

Eviction from the private rental market (often via a ‘no fault’ Section 21 eviction) is the single biggest cause of homelessness in Oxford, responsible for over half of cases where a person has been made homeless. Last month, estate agents Barrows and Forrester declared Oxford ‘the worst place to rent in the UK’, beating even London. If we are to address homelessness in Oxford, we must address the private rental sector.

The lack of affordable private rental properties (as well as the lack of social homes) is a significant hurdle for people on their way into or out of homelessness as housing benefit simply is not enough to cover rent in the city. Until 2020 and the Coronavirus pandemic, Local Housing Allowance (LHA) (the amount paid via housing benefit or Universal Credit to cover rent) had been frozen since 2016. During the same period, as the property market has grown, private rents have skyrocketed. The average rent for a 2-bedroom flat in the lowest quartile in Oxford in 2017/18 was £1,050 per month. However the amount paid out in LHA was only £834 leaving a shortfall of £216, a huge monthly outgoing for a household already struggling (ibid). Research in 2019 by Citizens Advice Oxford further explored the impact of the decoupling of local housing allowance from average rents, finding homes in the private rental market almost entirely out-of-reach.

Courtesy of Citizens Advice Oxford

The research by Citizens Advice Oxford also looked at the affordability of properties listed for rent on Rightmove and Zoopla. Of the 726 properties within OX1–4 post codes they looked at over two days, only one was affordable to a household using Local Housing Allowance to pay their rent.

Graphic by Monchu.

Some may be thinking that people in this situation should supplement their rent payments with earned income, but this is very difficult within the current trajectories of the cost of housing in Oxford compared to average incomes. Whilst the cost of housing has gone up dramatically, the amount that people are earning has not kept pace. Between 2001 and 2017, median house prices in Oxford rose by 162% whilst median earnings for full-time employees rose by just 48%.

From 1st April 2020, as part of the response to the Coronavirus, the UK government increased LHA, to effectively catch the payment up from 2016 levels when it had been frozen. Shortly after, the team from Crisis in Scotland repeated a similar exercise to the Citizens Advice Oxford research and a previous investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism done pre-Covid. In the first week of April, the team in Edinburgh found four hundred rental properties affordable to someone in receipt of LHA, up from an average of around thirty.

Increasing LHA and people’s ability to pay rent is no doubt essential but it is no panacea. By only increasing peoples ability to pay rent, we risk rents rising overall and this offers little help for anyone. High rents impact all of us but especially those on low incomes or with smaller support networks, for whom the loss of a home and a potential spell of homelessness could be devastating.

Anecdotally, we’re already hearing that an increased number of people are approaching the Council to seek help for homelessness. In large part, these are people who have been staying with friends and family, on sofas, or relying on the kindness of strangers. The infection risk is enough to make this precarious form of housing even riskier. These people are often referred to as ‘hidden homeless’ but they could just as easily be labelled as tenants of the shadow rental market. Unable to afford the basic security of the formal rental sector, these (often vulnerable) people are trading money, sex, and labour for some of the poorest quality accommodation in our city.

Renting in Oxford just doesn’t add up. If we are to ‘build back better’, collectively tackling the private rental sector must form a part of our efforts.

Read on for five ideas for tackling housing need in Oxford during and beyond the Coronavirus pandemic.

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Lucy Warin

Making cities with the people that live in them. Work Transition by Design, Oxford. Live in Bristol.