Let’s face it: nobody wants to live in private sector rented accommodation. This is the type of housing which provides the least secure forms of tenure, and where the worst living conditions can be found. If you rent your home from a private landlord, you’re almost certainly not there by choice, but because it is the only option you’ve got. For those of us who don’t qualify for social housing, and don’t have the magic combination of income, savings, and long-term job security needed to buy property, it’s a choice between the private sector or living with your parents indefinitely.
There are now a much greater proportion of households living in privately rented accommodation than there were ten years ago. In Scotland, the percentage of households in private rented accommodation went from 6% in 2000 to 11% in 2010, while in England the figure jumped from 9% in the 2001 census to an estimated 14% today. As their numbers have increased, tenants had to take the blame for the problems this causes – in particular, younger adults living in shared flats, who are accused of pricing families out of the market in some areas – but the real cause of the problem is less commonly discussed: the reason we have more tenants is because we have more landlords. There are only a finite number of homes available at any one time, and if some of those are owned by landlords, it means they’re not available for owner-occupiers. Since we don’t have a surplus of housing, people are going to need to live in them as tenants instead.
Landlords and property developers have created a vicious cycle which benefits nobody but themselves. Demand for housing is high, which pushes up the market value of property. This makes it more difficult for prospective owner-occupiers to get on the property ladder, so they have to continue renting for longer, which in turn more demand for rental properties, allowing landlords to charge higher rents. As rents increase, buy-to-let becomes a more lucrative investment, so more people want to get in on it, increasing the competition for any houses which are for sale, and increasing the market price of houses. Not only have they created this cycle, but landlords have to perpetuate it in order to make a profit from their investment. When house prices stagnate, they stop making money.
We’ve become so used to the existence of private landlords that nobody thinks to question what they are for. A landlord is someone who makes a profit from their tenants’ basic need for shelter; they take their wealth and invest it in a way which forces their less affluent tenants to give them even more money. Most people on the left of the political spectrum are opposed to the privatisation of public services because we don’t think it’s right for companies and shareholders to make money from things like education or healthcare, so why do we accept that landlords should make money from housing? They don’t create houses – they just own them – and it’s not as if the buildings would cease to exist under a different model of ownership.
So why not ban landlords, or, at least discourage them by limiting their ability to profit from owning other people’s homes? Landlords don’t provide any social benefit, and I find it quite difficult to come up with a justification for continuing allow people to invest money in this way. Unfortunately, the coalition government wants to increase the amount of housing owned by private landlords as they run down what remains of social housing provision. Given their attitude towards regulation, it’s unlikely that this will do anything to improve the lives of tenants, who already have to put up with problems like disrepair and intimidation. Speak to anyone in their twenties about landlords and you’ll get a catalogue of horror stories, which will only get worse if more people are forced into the hands of the rentier class.
Our present system for allocating housing is socially damaging and deeply regressive: it concentrates wealth with those who are already rich, compounds inequalities, and brings generations into conflict with one another. As long as we think of houses as a way of making money, rather than things to live in, the system will be skewed towards generating profits instead of providing everyone with a suitable place to live. Yes, we need more houses – and more importantly, we need more decent houses – but in order to find a proper long-term solution, we also need to ask some difficult questions about ownership.
Read Cllr Samir Jeraj’s response to this post, A very British problem, or, how I learned to stop worrying and love renting.