Coronavirus Hit London's Housing Market – But Not in the Way You'd Think

Data from Rightmove and OpenRent show an above-average rise in rental property listings in London and other tourist cities, sometimes by as much as 130 percent.
March 27, 2020, 9:45am
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The number of rental property listings have skyrocketed as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, according to data seen by VICE from housing sites OpenRent, Rightmove and Zoopla.

OpenRent saw an average 112 percent increase in rental listings in London last week compared to the same week in 2019. A spokesperson for OpenRent told VICE that this increase in rental property listings was way above its average 40 percent increase.

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One and two-bed rental properties saw the biggest increase in listings, at 132 percent and 105 percent respectively. Across the UK, OpenRent saw an average 85.5 percent increase in that week compared to the year previously.

Rightmove, the UK’s largest real-estate portal, also saw an increase in new rental listings when comparing the same weeks in March 2019 and 2020. In central London, it recorded a 45 percent increase in listings for rented properties. Listings in London overall increased by six percent.

Zoopla, another real-estate website, saw an above-average rise in rental listings in cities like London and Oxford, which saw a 12.5 percent and 35.4 percent increase respectively. While the rise in London listings was relatively small, the uptick in Oxford is notable, especially considering Oxford has a large number of tourists visiting each year and is one of the most expensive places to live in the UK.

The company also told VICE that three-month short-term lets are being re-priced for the longer-let market, resulting in an average 30 percent cut in rents for tenants on the shorter terms rented properties that are being extended for longer lets.

OpenRent attributes the rise in rental listings to the decline of Airbnb usage in the UK. Tourism has dried up with the spread of coronavirus, and with it the primary target for holiday lets. At the time of the data collected, the UK had already recorded a total of 1,543 coronavirus cases and declared 35 deaths in total.

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“It is possible that the corona-influenced lack of tourism and travel have made it harder for people who let out holiday homes to fill their rooms,” a spokesperson told VICE. “They may now be offering longer-term tenancies. The fact that growth is higher in London than the UK average supports this hypothesis, as London is a hub of short-term holiday lets.”

Coronavirus has also affected the rental listings on flat-sharing site SpareRoom. In early March, the site noted that 18 percent of agents and 11 percent of landlords had reduced their rents. According to SpareRoom's analysis of live room ads between the 3rd and 17th March of 2020, COVID-19 was directly cited as the most common reason for this reduction.

Other cities around the UK have seen an influx in rental property listings – especially those popular with tourists. Rightmove have seen an increase in listings for cities such as Bath (78 percent), Edinburgh (62 percent) and Brighton (55 percent).

Rightmove housing market analyst Miles Shipside told VICE: “There was a notable increase in new rental listings coming onto Rightmove in some of the most popular tourist areas like Bath, Edinburgh, Brighton and areas of central London last week, likely as landlords who normally rent out their properties as holiday homes looked to find another income route by offering it to long term tenants instead.”

OpenRent, which saw the highest increase in rental listings, said this could be down to its platform being most similar to Airbnb: “These landlords are most likely to be using online services like Airbnb and so will feel most comfortable using an online service like OpenRent, rather than a high street agent, to let their homes to long-term tenants.”

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Could this be good news for renters? After all, systematic housing shortages in cities like London have led to sky-high rents. Anna Minton, a reader in architecture at the University of East London and author of Big Capital: Who Owns London?, says the picture is a lot more complicated than that.

“I think the structural picture is much more important rather than minor fluctuations at market levels because we don't know how those are going to pan out,” Minton says over the phone. “We've got to look at the sort of systemic issue, and I suspect that's going to be the case for so many areas of domestic policy impacted by the crisis."

“I think it would probably lead to cheaper rents,” she continues, “but what's the point of cheaper rents if no one's able to move into a new home?”

The changes in the housing market may only be temporary, but it's hard not to see that coronavirus has upended the way we view society. From conversations around rent strikes, Universal Basic Income, and delays on evictions, our entire concept of the housing market could be totally different in the near future.

“I think it's really really hard to know where we're even going to be in a month,” Minton says. “It could be that rents will have collapsed in a few months time. What we need to start doing is looking at housing and renting in a different way if this carries on for much longer. ”

Correction 27/03/2020 : This article originally stated an incorrect percentage increase in rental property listings from OpenRent for one and two bed properties, as well as across the UK and London, the latter of which was due to unclear data from the company. This has now been corrected.