Making Home Away from Home: Life in the Private Rental Sector as an Eastern European Migrant
By Sylwia Satora, on 3 July 2023
UK immigration from Eastern Europe (EE) increased considerably post the European Union (EU) accession in May 2004 (Parutis, 2015). It permitted free movement across the United Kingdom (UK) and home country, opening the opportunity for employment in Britain, and thus the possibility of ‘a better life’. The EE dream of Britain as the ‘mini-America’ (Judah, 2016) tells the tales of “the glamour of London” (Morrison, 2016) whereby those moving overseas to settle, making Britain their home, can work towards owning something of their own. As such, between May 2004 and December 2008, the UK Worker Registration Scheme (WRS) received over 965,000 applications, of which 66% were Polish, 11% Slovakian and 9% Lithuanian (Parutis, 2015).
Amid the “utopian myths” (Morrison, 2016) of the British dream “as seen from afar” (ibid) are the harsh realities of making home in a new country up close “if you are poor or Other” (Morrison, 2016). It involves navigating a vast array of hurdles including language barriers and thus dependence on co-ethnic social systems for housing, employment, and information; discrimination; limited work opportunities and housing options and as such; a compromise in the quality of life and living standards. Told through the eyes of a Polish mother who immigrated to Britain with her husband and daughter, this essay will seek to explore the journey of making home in the UK within the bounds of the private rental sector as way of opening and closing opportunities for migrants seeking a ‘better life’. It will seek to move beyond the physical structure of a house as four walls and a roof and the statistics used to group and stereotype displaced individuals, but touch upon the “theoretical concept of home […as a] lived experience and identity” (Parutis, 2015).
Whilst there are a multitude of terms to describe someone who has settled away from their country of origin, such as ‘expat’ which is typically associated with successful individuals who bring economic and cultural benefits to the country they move to, use of legal definitions including ‘foreigner’, ‘immigrant worker’ and ‘economic migrant’ paint a picture of ‘otherness’ and are most often used to categorise individuals settling in the UK from EE. For purposes of clarity, this essay will refer to all persons who have “changed their country of usual residence” (Sturge, 2021) as migrants.
Leaving the Homeland
Agnieszka’s story of making home in Britain begins in the years leading up to her arrival to the UK in 2005. The post-communist period in Poland, which began in 1989, brought with it major changes to the country’s political, economic, and social systems (Gardawski, 2002). One of the major challenges faced was high levels of unemployment, which reached peak at 20.7% in 2003 (tradingeconomics.com, n.d.), on account of transition to a market-oriented global economy coupled with a decrease in the demand for Polish products in the former Soviet countries (Britannica, 2019). As such, it created a system of hiring based on personal connections and recommendations with limited possibility of securing stable, non-exploitative employment. “Unless you got lucky, you worked long hours and received little pay” (Agnieszka, 2023). “Despite acquiring a house through inheritance, which provided some sense of security and did not consume the already insufficient household earnings, constrained prospects to improve our quality of life motivated our move overseas” (ibid). Poland’s entry into the EU, coupled with established social networks in Britain as “the land of opportunity” naturally dictated the choice of settlement location (Judah, 2016). According to Parutis (2015), securitisation of accommodation, work, and information for many migrants is often attained through “personal co-ethnic social networks” who have settled in the host country beforehand. Despite learning English in preparation for moving to the UK, the limited ability to communicate increased such reliance on the families’ trusted networks. Surrounded by individuals who share one’s culture and native language, as the “symbolic homeland” (Parutis, 2015), “provided us with a sense of belonging and comfort” (Agnieszka, 2023) in adjusting to the psychological and social challenges of immigration.
The Private Rental Sector
Thatcher government implemented neoliberal policies that promoted a free-market approach resulted in a decline in the availability of social housing and in turn led to a general shift towards the private rental sector (PRS) for the provision of affordable housing. Policies such as the ‘Right to Buy’, accessibility of ‘Buy to Let’ mortgages and mass social housing stock transfer to housing associations crated a “captive market” (Grey et al., 2019) of households with no alternative to private renting. In addition of state failure to replenish the social housing stock, deregulation of the PRS and major shift in policies towards rent subsidies for lower income tenants in the PRS, which directed capital away from public housing into the private market (Grey et al., 2019), has contributed to the stark increase in housing costs in proportion to renters’ income.
(From the perspective of a migrant)
EE migrants arriving in the UK lack an immediate access to welfare rights, and as such, the PRS is the most common viable option for securing housing upon arrival. Implementation of Assured Shorthold Tenancy by the 1988 Housing Act and its standardisation as the “default tenancy type” (Parutis, 2015) by the 1996 Housing Act, prescribed the PRS as the main sector to supply short-term housing, also referred to as the “transitional stage in the [migrant] housing career” (ibid). Arguably offering mobility via relatively easy access and withdrawal, it serves as a useful intermediary stage towards the more desirable housing sectors such as social renting or home ownership. However, in contrast to the attractive portrayal, individuals seeking home security in the PRS are often faced with the cost of “painful compromises” (Grey et al., 2019) that include expensive rent, overcrowded and poor living conditions and threat of eviction. Due to their lower income levels in comparison to the general public, access to accommodation is further restricted placing migrants at a greater disadvantage when competing for housing.
Despite being able to successfully secure a stable job in the construction industry, Agnieszka’s husband’s low wage proved insufficient to cover the cost of renting an entire flat; “we were forced to live in a house share with people we didn’t know. We lived in a three-bed flat on a former social housing estate in Putney Heath, […] it was surprising to see such a clear division between communities and neighbourhoods based on their class and status. The property itself had issues with dampness and poorly insulated single-glazed windows, although this wasn’t the biggest problem for us […] Sharing a home with singles who had different priorities and standards of living made it difficult for our family to achieve the warm and clean space I desired for us. They came from such an assumption that if I wanted to maintain cleanliness, I should do everything myself; this included simple tasks like taking the rubbish out and wiping down surfaces after making food. […] Eventually it led to tensions rising that quickly escalated, making our living situation all the more difficult, especially given that we, as a family of three, had one bedroom at our disposal. […] It felt as though the Polish community living in the UK was caught up in a rat race and I found it difficult to connect with trustworthy individuals on whom I could rely. I felt very isolated” (Agnieszka, 2023).
It is reported that over 800,000 Londoners reside in overcrowded conditions that are primarily associated with the lack of affordable housing. Moreover, difficulties in regulation and management have led to the PRS being ranked lowest with the highest share of “unfit living conditions” (Parutis, 2015) in the hierarchy of tenures. In spite of securing accommodation, the absence of a healthy living environment and dependable social relations, resulted in feelings of “a lack of belonging” (Parutis, 2015) which can also be viewed as an alternative understanding of homelessness (ibid). “We didn’t intend to settle down in England for good, but we were also uncertain of when we would return to Poland. The reality of our living situation felt like someone poured a bucket of cold water over you” (Agnieszka, 2023).
Polish migrants renting in the PRS are found to relocate frequently. “Migrants housing, like migration itself, is a process that changes over time depending on future plans, migration motivation and economic factors” (Parutis, 2015). Housing situations are re-evaluated as personal circumstances change over time. While it may be argued that regular moves may illustrate flexibility in rental agreements, it is a clear indicator of “instability and insecure housing conditions” (Parutis, 2015). This is particularly troublesome to families, as the process involves changing schools, making connections in new communities, switching jobs, or accepting long commutes.
Pursuit Towards Homeownership; What does it mean to become a homeowner?
Agnieszka was able to secure employment, but her limited English skills restricted her to a low-paying position as a caregiver. Despite the fact that both Agnieszka and her husband were earning wages, it was insufficient for the family to rent a home independently. Upon learning that they might qualify for Housing Benefit which would assist in covering housing expenses due to their low income, Agnieszka approached an estate agent to find a suitable two-bed flat. She was met with a “we do not serve such clients here” response – “I felt like a second-class citizen” (Agnieszka, 2023). After facing several challenges, such as securing a guarantor, the family were able to find a new place to call home. However, the desire to free themselves of the dependence on housing assistance, coupled with the dissatisfaction of paying someone else’s mortgage and the threat of rent rises and eviction that came with renting, motivated the pursuit towards homeownership. According to Grey et al. (2019), 36% of renters’ income is consumed by housing costs compared to that of 12% for homeowners with a mortgage. As such, the desire to become a home-owning household is associated with lower expenses, greater security of tenure and thus sense of belonging. Blunt and Dowling (2006) appoint to the distinction made by the English language of ‘homeownership’ as opposed to ‘house-ownership’. Associations made with owning a house are imagined as having greater ability of making home in comparison of those who rent (Parutis, 2015). Moreover, the commodification of housing which puts first asset value over social good is compounded by the fact that housing equity is said to comprise “the main component of UK household wealth” (Nygaard, 2011).
The Cost of Homeownership
According to Grey et al. (2019), “an economic preference becomes effective demand only when it is backed up with money”. This helps explain why minority groups, including migrants with limited financial resources, have lower levels of demand in the housing market. The ease with which a mortgage credit loan can be taken out to secure homeownership, as required by most households in the UK, governs the “purchasing power” (Grey et al., 2019) and thus the “overall level of house and land prices” (ibid). Moreover, cheap ‘Buy to Let’ mortgage loans against projected rental income, as opposed to the existing income of prospective first-time buyers, gave landlords an unequal advantage over lower-priced properties. As such, the various landlord tax breaks, low interest rate credit and deregulated rents permitted the capital value to increase “above the maximum that many first-time buyers could raise” (Grey et al., 2019).
Agnieszka and her husband found themselves in a “vicious cycle” (Agnieszka, 2023) as they tried to save for a housing deposit. Working weekdays and weekends had a negative impact on family life and the increased income resulted in a decrease of housing assistance, cancelling out any gains made towards saving for a deposit. “If you are an individual on a low income and without real qualifications, life is difficult and you need to work relentlessly” (Agnieszka, 2023). As a result, a decision was made to renounce the housing subsidy, work longer hours and return to living in a house-share by subletting one of the bedrooms in their two-bed flat. In the meantime, to broaden her employment prospects, Agnieszka began studying a bookkeeping course and took on training to expand her caregiving qualifications. However, securing a higher paying salary required undertaking an unpaid internship which was unfeasible considering the need to save for a deposit while already being financially stretched.
Un(der)-regulated Rental Sector
During the period of saving up for a property purchase, the family experienced multiple relocations while living in the PRS. The legal system in which they found themselves shifted power in favour of the landlord (Spratt, 2023) permitting unregulated rising rents and threat of eviction upon the landlord deciding to put their property on the market, dismissing any renters’ rights. With the aim of making the PRS more competitive following the free market ideology, Housing Acts of 1980 and 1988 demolished the previous 1915 to 1979 legislative policies which to some extent regulated rents and provided protection to tenants (Grey et al., 2019). Under the Assured Shorthold Tenancy agreement as the most common type of private residential tenancy, the limited six moth fixed-term contract permitted landlords to evict their tenants and take back possession of the property (Grey et al., 2019). Landlords could repossess their properties “without having to establish fault on part of the tenant” (UK Parliament, 2023) under the ‘no fault’ section 21 evictions agreement. Furthermore, as well as receiving major tax breaks, landlords received supplementary advantages such as the ‘wear and tear’ allowance which prescribed them to claim for compensation for the cost of replacing movable assets, that “did not require any proof of investment in the property” (Grey et al., 2019).
As a result of the challenging circumstances, the family was only able to secure a rental property within their limited budget by reaching an agreement with the landlord to renovate the property to a liveable standard at their own expense. Despite their hard work and effort dedicated to improving the property, the family was served an eviction notice shortly after moving in, informing them that the property would be listed for sale. Given the asking price of the property was out of their limited price range, they were given a two-month notice to vacate while the landlord profited from their investment.
Despite time pressures and financial constraints that limited their search to a small portion of available properties, “the estate agents informed us of a property that was set to be put up for sale within our neighbourhood. Knowing that the competition for such properties was extortionate, located in a safe area and reasonably priced compared to what was available on the market, we made an offer right away, proposing our maximum budget without physically viewing the property. By some miracle the sale went through and for the first time since setting foot on British soil I felt that I could breathe […] The property was modest in size and in an inhabitable state, but it was ours […] and in this way, we began to lay our roots in London” (Agnieszka, 2023).
Recounting the experiences of a Polish mother who migrated to Britain following the EU accession, this story begins to shed light on the challenges and reality faced by various minority groups with limited resources when attempting to make home within the constraints of the private rental sector. The housing crisis revealed is a complex issue, that transcends a simple shortage of supply. While migrants face additional challenges in securing housing due to language barriers that limit job prospects and increase reliance on social networks, the general shift towards privatisation and deregulation fuelled by the free-market ideology has resulted in the private rental sector being monopolised by landlords, leading to extortionate costs and inadequate living conditions. As such, these “trends [that] have systematically undermined the vision of a society with equal opportunity” (Grey et al., 2019) help explain the desire to attain homeownership, offering an escape from rent hikes, threat of eviction and intense competition for ‘affordable’ housing in the PRS. A reform in housing policy and regulation provides an opening to address the issue of how land is owned and managed, thereby creating a more equitable distribution of wealth and promoting empowerment and equal access to opportunities.
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This housing story is part of a mini-series revealing the complex ways in which personal and political aspects of shelter provision interweave over time, and impact on multiple aspects of people’s lives. Space for strategic choice is nearly always available to some degree, but the parameters of that choice can be dramatically restricted or enhanced by context. The wide range of experience presented in this collection shines a light on the wealth of knowledge and insights about housing that our students regularly bring to the DPU’s learning processes.