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We can't let landlords define the narrative on renting

OPINION: Thought landlords were selling up and making it even harder to rent? Think again

Ruby Lott-Lavigna
24 March 2023, 11.02am

Rent signs in Stoke-on-Trent


Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

A terrifying future awaits us. Brace yourself: As tougher regulations are introduced, landlords are fleeing the sector and leaving even fewer houses available for rent. Rents must rise, worse conditions must be tolerated, and new rules must be reconsidered because before you know it, all the landlords will be gone.

Or will they? The narrative that landlords are selling up because of tax changes or the upcoming Renters’ Reform Bill, which will ban “no fault evictions”, has been repeated time and time again recently, from MPs to landlord bodies and even the Bank of England. But after the chief executive of the UK’s biggest landlord lobby admitted he had misrepresented the facts – and that the sector was actually growing slightly – the claim has fallen apart.

This week, it was the government’s turn to change its tune. On Tuesday, I watched new housing minister Rachel Maclean speak during the Renters’ Reform Coalition’s day of action. During the conversation, she admitted the narrative that landlords are leaving the sector and worsening the supply issue is “wrong”.

“If one leaves, I'm almost certain another one will come in. So this idea that our regulation will drive them out in the sector – I don't accept that,” she said.

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The evidence backs this up. While some landlords may be leaving the sector, that does not mean the overall sector has shrunk. Figures from UK Finance show the number of buy-to-let mortgages has grown since 2019, while Census data shows the private rented sector growing from 3.9 million in 2011 to 5 million in 2021.

Unfortunately, this claim about the exodus of landlords need not be proven to cause damage. Profiteering is rife in the industry, even from landlords with no mortgages or increased costs. The narrative that landlords wield an unchallengeable power only makes it harder for tenants to exercise their rights, and harder for MPs to introduce helpful legislation. Profiteering off the back of this myth is already likely to have happened – almost every month since the pandemic, ONS data has shown rents rising at their highest rates, partly the result of this exodus myth bolstering the market.

Society is skewed towards landlords, and despite promises in their 2019 manifesto for a fairer renting sector, the Conservatives have still not delivered on the Renters’ Reform Bill. Landlords who break the law rarely face repercussions. But could the scales be tipping only slightly? This bill, now promised before the end of the parliamentary term, is set to ban viciously unfair no-fault evictions, remove tenancy terms and in theory allow renters to challenge rent increase (though in practice this is unlikely to be easy or effective). The Tenancy Fees Act in 2019 banned estate agents from charging nonsense fees. A likely Labour government has promised more rights in the favour of tenants, such as extending notice periods and potentially devolving the power to introduce rent freezes to local mayors.

What happens when we don’t question the belief that landlords hold all the power? Tenants will, as a result, feel they have no leverage. This is not entirely untrue, but understanding where we do have power is more important than ever, which is why myths like landlords fleeing the sector need to not be blindly accepted. It is crucial to remember that rent increases can be challenged and even rejected. Evictions can be resisted. Often they are not valid, and sometimes they break the law.

There’s no denying we live in a landlord’s world. The UK’s obsession with property ownership, poor renters' rights and the focus on housing as an asset rather than a home makes the life of renters tough. They may want us to think that we can’t live without landlords. But let’s not forget that landlords need us too.

Not to mention, a world without landlords wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

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