In a recent study, Brookings Institute economist Matthew Rognlie challenged Thomas Piketty’s now well-known assertion that inequality is being driven by the fact that investments in capital produce more money than paying for people to work. Instead, he finds that while investments in technology and other assets generally follow the usual market trends and cycles, it is in fact investments in land and housing that explain rising inequality. The finding has spurred considerable discussion among economists and other social scientists, in part because it suggests that policy solutions to housing problems should focus more on reducing the artificial scarcity produced by housing policy, and less on taxing the wealthy.
What the overall frame for this debate ignores, however, is that land and housing are not simple market commodities, but basic needs that all people have in common. This is why they are so valuable as assets, and so critical a lever in asserting the rights of people over the rights of property. In the end, what Rognlie seems to argue is that inequality is really about enclosure and access, and a conflict between landowner and renters. This dynamic is captured dramatically in the Dogville-inspired short-film Londonville.
Londoners are indeed becoming increasingly aware of this problem. There, as in so many areas, capital flows and income inequality are reshaping the local geography into a dense, high-priced metropolitan core and a distant and dispersed periphery. As the city’s affordable housing crisis attracts more and more attention, people are beginning to organise and resist the forces that are crowding them out of their homes to speculate with their houses.
One example of London’s emerging housing movement is Renters’ Rights London. Intended to provide the tools and knowledge renters need to defend themselves from unfair treatment, as well as campaign for more rights, they have been collaborating with a campaign called Pack Up Move Out, No to produce a number of resources that decode the labyrinthine language—which they’ve dubbed “rentspeak”—that often separates tenants from their rights and disempowers them. For a look inside this process, I recently spoke with the coordinator of Renters’ Rights, Rosie Walker.
Carlos Delclós: Could you tell us a little about yourself? What is your background and how did you become involved with housing issues?
Rosie Walker: After getting a degree in Philosophy and Politics, I worked in journalism and communications for about ten years, with a couple of stints in school teaching in London and Japan. I’ve always been interested in social policy and the thinking (or, sometimes, the lack of thinking) behind it, so a few years ago I did a masters degree in Social Policy Research at LSE. When I had to decide what to do for my dissertation, I was stuck.
By that point I’d been renting homes for more than fifteen years, and I’d experienced the whole gamut of renting disasters: no-fault evictions, bullying from landlords, landlords refusing to fix broken boilers in January, extortion from dodgy letting agents, living with strangers who stole money from me, moving house every year or so, sleeping on friends’ floors between rental contracts and spending most of my earnings to live in damp, cold homes with rats and mould. So I thought ‘why not do a dissertation on that?’. Private renting has been a nightmare in London for ages, of course, but even as recently as 2011 it wasn’t recognised as a problem in the way it is now. I remember telling my supervisor that I wanted to do my dissertation on private renting and she said it wasn’t really a social policy issue.
The great irony is that while I was writing it, I was evicted for politely asking my landlord to replace a small piece of furniture that had been broken since I moved in. I’ve had fifteen landlords in my life and I can say unequivocally that this one was the worst. He refused to accept that he had any legal obligations, let alone have any clue what they were. When he wanted a rent increase, he just turned up on our doorstep shouting that he wanted more money. When I asked the tenancy relations officer at my local council to have a word with him about his legal obligations, he told the council officer I was a ‘problem tenant’ and when the council officer asked why, he said ‘because she’s a woman that answers back.’ Other female tenants before me had moved out of the house because of him.
So I suppose it was really this landlord that drove me to action. One of the council tenancy relations officers I interviewed for my dissertation told me about a woman in my neighbourhood who was looking for others to help set up a local renters’ campaign group, and so a handful of us worked hard to get Hackney Renters going. I moved further out east to Waltham Forest, a neighbouring borough where rents are cheaper, and started a renters’ group there. Renting started to bubble up as a campaign issue, and other groups for private renters started to form in other parts of London. They were grouped around London boroughs because local councils are supposed to be the bodies that intervene when landlords are breaking the rules, but the bigger problem is that councils are desperately underfunded so they don’t do everything they’re meant to do. Most groups were unfunded and self-organised, so a lot of us struggled to fit things around our paid jobs - in London you have to work really long hours just to survive.
CD: How did Renters’ Rights London get its start?
RW: The Camden renters group, which is actually one of the older groups for private renters - it’s been going for about 30 years - realised that not everything can be run on fresh air and goodwill, so they asked Trust For London for funding to set up a London-wide project. Trust For London works on poverty and inequality in London, and they know that housing is one of the biggest drivers of economic inequality in the UK. By this point Generation Rent, the national campaign group for private renters, had started up, and Trust For London saw the value in strengthening the message in London, where renting problems are at their worst. There are two and a half million private renters in London, and they don’t all have the time, energy or inclination to occupy buildings or fight the police - lots would not see that as the route to real change anyway. But, armed with a bit of knowledge, they might challenge harassment from their landlord or refuse to pay an extortionate fee to a letting agent - and it’s this everyday behaviour that is the key.
CD: What activities, strategies and tactics do you all engage in to promote decent rental housing in the city?
RW: We try and talk about renters’ rights a lot - not because renters have tons of them (we don’t) but because we have to try first to introduce lots of renters to the idea that we could have any. A whole generation has grown up thinking that it’s inconceivable for a renter to have rights at all: I often hear people say things like “But it’s my landlord’s house, so he can do what he wants.” So we try to educate people through legal workshops, leaflets, and media work. Also, there isn’t much understanding of what existing powers councils have to enforce these rights so we try and raise awareness about them – we recently launched a Renters’ Index which ranks the councils according to what they are doing to help private renters.
Some councils are really trying, while others still think private renting is something they don’t have to bother with. Hopefully the index will show renters what powers councils have, and show them where they can put the pressure on to force them to do better.
I think part of our role is to help people target their growing anger – lots of people rush into protesting without understanding the complexity of what they’re protesting about, so we help to structure it a bit - explaining what a Section 21 is, what councils can and can’t do, showing them which policies could be changed at local and national level and how. But we’re a very small project, so we can’t do it all.
CD: What is the average situation like, currently, for renters in London?
RW: It’s hellish and it’s getting worse. As a private renter in the UK, you only have a right to a six month tenancy (you might get twelve if you’re lucky) and your landlord can legally evict you without having to give any reason. In practice, this means that if you challenge anything - your landlord’s behaviour, the standard of accommodation, a rent increase, or even if your landlord just decides he doesn’t like you - you can be made homeless with just two months’ notice.
It happens all the time, so as you can imagine, housing standards are appallingly low and rents are appallingly high. Private renting was deregulated in 1989, and since then, two important changes have happened: social housing (owned by local government or housing associations) has been sold off, and house prices have been pushed completely out of reach for ordinary people, making it impossible to buy a home without inherited wealth - even if you earn a decent salary. So both exits from private renting have been blocked, and people are stuck in an almost entirely unregulated market.
At a national level, there’s been one tiny recent change: if a landlord issues a Section 21 (the bit of legislation that allows him to evict for no reason) after you’ve informed your local council about a serious disrepair problem, and if the council has issued a notice telling the landlord the repair must be fixed, you’re protected from eviction for six months. But winning even this tiny change took a huge struggle, and the landlord lobby howled and howled about how unreasonable it was. That shows how bad things are: the landlord lobby was objecting to human beings having a basic right to safety in a home that they pay rent for.
At local level, some councils (local governments) are starting to do things like introduce landlord licensing schemes, which inject a certain level of transparency and accountability for the first time. These schemes are especially needed in London boroughs, but also in other cities in the UK where there is high demand - or in other words, where the jobs are.
Private renters in other parts of the UK are all affected by unfair national legislation, but they don’t all have to pay the insane rents that Londoners do. Instead, they might face different problems: post-industrial towns in the north, for example, have been so run down that private landlords have been able to buy up whole streets for very little money, and they’ve become more powerful than the local council.
CD: Do you think the situation is much different from the situation in other major European cities, or other cities in the UK?
RW: Some of the things that affect London renters affect renters in all major European cities in 2015: the transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top, the precariousness of employment, the privatisation of public housing. But in most European countries, there is more regulation to protect renters’ rights: landlords usually have to give a valid reason to evict, and most have some form of rent control.
Also, private landlords in Europe are often institutions with a professional reputation to protect. But in the UK, the Buy To Let mortgage that was introduced in the 1990s (which allows anyone to get a mortgage for a house based on the house’s potential rental income rather than the buyer’s salary) means that being a private landlord is seen as a ‘get rich quick’ option for individuals who shouldn’t really be in the market at all; people who have no intention to take responsibility for a home or the people they house in it, have no reserves or insurance and just see pound signs in their eyes.
CD: One peculiar manifestation of London's housing situation right now is the rise of property guardianship. Could you tell us a little bit about this practice? How does it compare to the situation of proper renters?
RW: It's one of those things that seems like such a good idea on the surface but underneath is actually a nightmare. Essentially, it's a form of legal squatting, except you have to pay a company quite a lot to do it: about £500 a month. The company manages which 'squatters' (or guardians, as they're called) get put into which empty buildings, and then guardians have to sign away most of their housing rights to be allowed in.
In law, they becomes licensees rather than tenants, so they can be evicted without the two months' notice that tenants get, and managers often let themselves into guardians' private rooms without permission. You're not allowed guests, or to go away for more than a couple of days.
Originally, when they started about ten years ago, these schemes were marketed as a quirky, social enterprise-style solution to the problem of empty buildings and the lack of affordable housing. But now, they're marketed directly at private landlords as a way for them to avoid their legal responsibilities.
Even the rents they charge are not cheap anymore: £500 a month for a cold room in a disused office block is hardly a bargain. So the exception becomes the norm, and our rights become marketised: if you want 'full' rights as a tenant (scant as they are), you have to pay extra to get a 'proper' room with a proper tenancy. And just like any other market, there's a race to the bottom. Not everyone running these schemes is completely evil - some really do have good intentions, but they don't realise how insidious it is.
CD: Is Renters’ Rights London in contact with other platforms or organisations in the struggle for decent housing?
RW: Yes, it’s a very small project, so it can only ever be a tiny part of a big picture. There’s a spectrum of groups and organisations working to make renting fairer. At one end there are organisations like Shelter and Crisis who are ‘inside the tent’, at the other there are self-organised local groups who prefer protest to lobbying, and then there’s a hundred shades in between. Generation Rent, the national campaign group for private renters, does a bit of both. Then there are all the groups working on housing more generally, or focusing on social housing - which has a different set of problems from private renting, but they’re related. Sometimes petty tribalism breaks out between groups, but most people have the intelligence to see that everyone’s on the same side, just fighting in different ways.
Does Renters’ Rights London have any relationship with party politics? Do you think the recent election results will have an impact on the right to decent housing?
RW: Like climate change, housing is one of those problems that can only really be fixed with a considerable amount of heavy lifting from government. You might be able win specific housing campaigns through the media, raising awareness and so on. But a broader improvement in the conditions of private renters and the availability of decent housing is only possible through changing policy, and you can only do that if you engage with politicians, the policy making process and political parties. It can be a desperately dispiriting experience, though.
Which brings me to our new government. A majority Conservative administration was quite easily the worst possible outcome for private renters from last week’s election. One of their last acts as a part of the previous coalition government was to make it impossible for local councils to introduce landlord licensing schemes without getting permission from central government first.
It’s basically a way for the ruling Conservative party to stick two fingers up at Labour-run councils, who they hate. The Conservative Party are completely committed to the (contradictory) ideas of a property owning democracy and housing as an investment like any other. They are, in every sense, the landlord’s party. It will be far harder to reign in buy-to-let mortgages, introduce rent controls and longer tenancies or do anything to change any of the norms around housing.
Private renters simply don’t fit into their world view or their plan for the future – they have a lot staked on ignoring the problem. The one silver lining is that their majority has been reduced from 78 to 12, so it’s all about finding the Tory rebels and working with them.
CD: What makes the struggle for decent housing so important?
RW: It’s your home. If your home isn’t stable then neither are you. It makes almost every aspect of your life harder if you’re no more than two months away from being homeless. The grind of constantly having to pack up and move out again and again destroys communities, families and relationships. As a private renter in the UK you have to virtually beg your landlord for what you’re entitled to as a human being. These kind of things are bearable for a short time when you’re young – but long term, it’s no way to live. You lose your dignity and then your mind.
European cities for the commons is an editorial partnership supported by Radical Democracy: Reclaiming the Commons, a Doc Next Network project.