Bristol rental crisis: One family’s struggle to find a home due to a rise in student properties and short-term rents

Sarah-Jane Freni tells us of the realities of trying to find a suitable long-term rental in a precarious housing market that is leaving them in limbo

When we think about the housing and rental crisis sweeping the UK and the lack of housing stock available, we often think about young people unable to find affordable rentals or people unable to make the first move onto the property ladder.

One element that isn’t discussed as often is the lack of affordable long-term lets available for families to rent in places with high rental demand. If a landlord can rent a house to five students paying individually for the rooms, they are likely doing that over renting the same house to one family.

As a result, families such as the Freni family, from BS5, are falling through the cracks.

Sarah-Jane Freni from Belgium and her Dutch husband have been in the UK for 19 years, and have lived in the same home in Bristol for the last ten. Their two daughters, six and eight, are settled in primary school and they have made a strong connection within the community of Whitehall and St. George Park.

Sarah-Jane Freni and family are unable to find a suitable rental home in Bristol.jpg

Unfortunately, after 10 years in their rented home, the landlord needs to sell the property and the family is on the hunt for a new place. “I can’t fault our lovely private landlord at all but, as a result of Covid, they need to sell it,” explains Mrs Freni.

“Family homes are like hen’s teeth! It’s not the same as it was 10 years ago when there were lots of houses to view. What we’ve found is that throughout January, there has been nothing at all. And now that houses are coming up, I’ll be buggered if we can even get a viewing.

“We’ve contacted so many estate agents each day but most of them don’t bother to reply or when they do, they say all the viewing slots have been booked.”

Areas such as St George Park and Whitehall have become increasingly high demand

Due to having been in the same property for so long and having a good relationship with the landlord, the rent hasn’t gone up as much as the market around it.

“Not only is it impossible to see a house before it’s snapped up but we’re also faced with having to absorb a 50% increase on our current rent now, which is a big jump,” says Mrs Freni.

“We’re privileged in that we are two people working so we will take the hit and absorb that rent increase, but finding something is shocking. What we are seeing is that an awful lot of properties around here would be fantastic family homes but they are being rented to students for twice the money or are short-term lets with insane prices.”

Essentially, in a city of incredibly high rental demand, Londoners moving in and a lack of housing stock, long-term lets and family home rentals are increasingly unheard of. This is also made worse by the influx of people moving into Bristol renting while on the lookout for their dream home.

According to research by Hamptons: “The rental market in the country was lively in 2021. Demand was driven up by househunters unsuccessful in the search for their dream rural home. There were double-digit increases in rents between June and November, with the South West leading the UK rental growth league [...] We forecast that the average rent will increase by 3.5% in the South in 2022 and 2.5% in 2023.”

Mrs Freni tells us about the other complicating factors in trying to find a family home, as opposed to a small flat or house share. Naturally, her concerns revolve around giving the children a decent home and not uprooting them from everything they know.

To compound the situation, Mrs Freni doesn’t want her children to have to move schools, especially given the additional special educational needs support she’s fought for one of her children to have at her current school.

She explains how she’s not even that attached to staying in the exact area, and how the children all cycle so they could move out to areas along the Bristol to Bath cycle path. Everywhere she tries however, such as Fishponds or a longer commute, is still flooded with student housing.

The Freni’s won’t be alone in this situation - in fact, she tells me of friends all over the UK facing similar circumstances - and there’s a real feeling that the housing market, particularly the long-term larger rental market, is running away from the majority of the population.

“Ideally, our plan was to buy the house that we are renting,” continues Mrs Freni.

“We looked at it about five years ago and it was valued at roughly £215,000. Because we were both self-employed at the time and I had just had two children, my income had taken enough of a hit that we couldn’t get the mortgage we needed.

“We decided to keep saving, but the same house now is valued at £400,000 so it feels like the goalposts just keep constantly changing.”

The family have turned to Facebook to help their Bristol rental property search

The irony within all this is that Mrs Freni works for a homelessness and mental health charity. In doing so, she has seen the power of social media. With the desperate need to find a new home within a time limit, she has turned to Facebook to see if anyone can help.

“I thought with the borders opening up, people might be moving back elsewhere and putting their homes up for rent,” she says. “Estate agents are not that helpful, because they have their pick, so I thought I might get a bit more luck!”

Despite the dire nature of their own situation, Mrs Freni worries about the implications this all has on those more vulnerable.

Openly admitting that, in many ways, they are incredibly fortunate - they earn good and steady incomes, can afford rent, and have the option to move overseas with EU passports - but that they still can’t find a solution means many more people will be struggling.

“It’s no wonder people are homeless. I’m in such a privileged position and it’s still hard for me, so it’s impossible for some people,” she says. “We still have choices and we will find a way to deal with this, but if you have a more complex situation, I don’t know how you would do it.”