Research: Experiences of people in housing debt

By: Rachael Emmett  Published: March 2016


Shelter conducted 19 in-depth qualitative interviews in November 2015 with people who were or had recently been in rent or mortgage arrears. This report summarises the findings of this research.

Summary

Journeys in and out of housing debt

The routes into housing debt are complicated but can be broadly grouped by those who had experienced a change in circumstances, and those who had received an unexpected outgoing. A change in circumstance could have been unemployment; benefit changes; relationship breakdown; death of a partner; a pay freeze; and, illness. Unexpected outgoings included needing a new boiler or car repairs but also included smaller items that people had not accounted for in their day to day budgeting because of already being so financially stretched. Their ability to cope with income drops and shocks was dependent on how well they were managing financially already.

People were often dealing with their housing debt in addition to other debts and other problems in their lives, either related or unrelated to the debt. Redundancy, relationship breakdowns, death of a partner and being demoted at work compounded their inability to pay because not only were they less able to afford their housing costs, they were also struggling emotionally as a result too. Other factors such as poor mental and physical health, domestic violence and weak support networks affected their judgment and ability to prioritise their focus on resolving their debt issues and prioritise their housing costs over other issues and finances.

 

There was an overwhelming preference to attempt to resolve their issues on their own as the problems presented themselves. As well as alerting and trying to negotiate with their landlord or lender, people tried to get their finances under better control by stopping other spending and prioritising their housing costs, using websites to look for deals on financial products and advice. Borrowing money to help with housing costs and arrears was sometimes an option and was effective unless someone was constantly struggling. Only at later stages did they try to get advice from external organisations.

Organisations approached for help were most effective when they were providing support with the court process, in particular, with representation and helping with legal costs. However, they were also supportive for those who needed to access benefits available to them, which helped their ability to afford their housing costs in the long-term.

When arrears could not be settled, people often lost their homes and ended up homeless following eviction by the landlord or lender. The families in these situations that did not find a home in time before being evicted ended up living in temporary accommodation for many months before finding a more permanent home.

However, sometimes people repeatedly got into housing debt after getting out of it. This was most likely to happen when they were continually struggling with their outgoings and living on a financial knife-edge. Any set-backs that occurred, just as easily as they had the first time, would mean they were not able to afford their rent or mortgage and they were once again in arrears.

Impact of being in housing debt

People were very emotionally and mentally affected from being in housing and other types of debt and some felt this had led to physical illness too. The stress from being in housing debt was overwhelmingly mentioned by people and it had the ability to completely consume them with worry. They did not feel at ease until they felt 'safe' from the threat of eviction from being in arrears. Some reported depression, an inability to sleep and panic attacks as a result of the stress and some felt it had led to physical illnesses such as high blood pressure and strokes. When trying to reduce their outgoings, there were some tough decisions made about what they would prioritise and as well as concern about the effect of drastic actions such as to 'heat or eat', denying themselves small pleasures over time may also have an effect on their psyche.

Being in arrears not only put them at risk of losing their current home but also potentially made it more difficult to find a new one. Bad credit ratings were a worry for some, particularly when faced with the possibility of having to find somewhere new to live because of the arrears.

Families with children often tried hard to hide their financial difficulties from them, particularly concerning their homes being at risk because they did not want to worry them and did not see it as something they should get concerned about. However, for children living in temporary accommodation, the reality was soon clear. Living in temporary accommodation had a profound effect on the children who were faced with uncertainty with their schooling, as well as having trouble sleeping with the living arrangements often compromised. Parents were concerned what the psychological effects of not knowing where they would be moved to next were on their children.

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