In zones one and two of London, the average room rents for around £800 a month. Quality can vary. Sometimes it’s alright: a double bed with enough space around it for a desk and a wardrobe and no damp behind the headboard in the arse end of winter. Sometimes, this money gets you a fucking shithole.
Either way, it’s fucking expensive to rent, and not just in London. People up North are seeing “one beds” (read: one-room spaces) on the market at £897pcm in cities like Manchester. That’s just under £900 to be kipping next to the residue of your own fried kippers and the bins you’ve knocked the bones into. And that’s the lucky people who can afford rent; who aren’t being priced out of the town they grew up in or are so behind on rent that they face eviction.
Given all the above, it’s no surprise that “abolish landlords” has become a bit of a rallying cry for people on parts of the left. On some Reddit forums, the phrase “abolish landlords” is all that needs to be said to gain a few thousand upvotes. On TikTok, the hashtags #abolishlandlords and #abolishlandlordism share over two million views.
It all begs the question: What would actually happen if we abolished landlords altogether? Just like, outright said, it’s illegal to buy a house and to then charge people to live there?
There are a few possible methods for this, but making all housing social housing is the most probable – and least likely to end in bedlam – at least according to the experts who talked to us. This would involve the state buying up properties that are now owned by private landlords and turning them into social properties that are priced fairly.
Richard Murphy, a professor of accounting practice at Sheffield University, doesn’t think this is an impossible feat. “If we change certain tax rules, many landlords will be desperate to sell out at a reasonable price – and to fund buying the houses, we’d simply issue new government bonds to pay for it,” he says.
Letting a house would become much less profitable, with all of the same logistics and management required now. Most people, understandably, wouldn’t want that hassle. Landlords would be dissuaded from owning multiple homes, and might sell them to the government in exchange for the aforementioned bonds, Murphy says. He also suggests there might be “very specific loans for those who are definitely first-time buyers, at very specific price points”, which would help people genuinely looking to buy a home and stop “people with £100,000 putting down deposits on three houses, because they wouldn’t be given the loans to do so”.
Why hasn’t this happened? In essence, the Tories. Houses are as conservative as investments get. Conservatives love to own them – a quarter of all Tory MPs are private landlords, including Boris Johnson – and love to get even more of them by leasing the ones they already own for profit. More importantly, they also love to implement housing policy that benefits people who do the same.
“It’s landlordism that needs abolishing more so than landlords,” says Ben Clay, a lead organiser at Greater Manchester Tenants Union, referring to the term for the economic system where property owners lease housing to others. “Landlordism doesn’t provide good homes at low cost.”
James Fielding, the director of Northamptonshire-based letting agency Fielding Properties. While Fielding is a letting agent and therefore works with landlords, he is critical of landlords “who are unethical and only see pound signs”, believing “these people shouldn't be landlords at all”. He says that “having second homes be picked up by the state is interesting, but there are a few issues” – namely that “the government won’t be able to fulfil housing demand overnight”.
Even if mass social housing eventually became viable, Fielding says that councils – as with any company with a large infrastructure – are often “slower when it comes to repairs, as the issue has to go through a variety of people”. (This hypothetical situation, of course, assumes the existence of a private landlord who cares about the living standards of their tenants.)
Murphy also argues that abolishing landlords would have a detrimental effect on how relatively easy it is to move around for work in the UK. If a homeowner had to up sticks for work or any other reason, they’d have to sell their house, which would make the cost of moving jobs “astronomical”, he says.
“It's hard to say that nobody should let a property, because sometimes people have one property that is temporarily empty, or they need to provide for people,” he adds. “Getting rid of landlords would also immediately remove the number of properties available in the rental market, and therefore massively reduce labour mobility.”
“Crushing labour mobility” – which is generally viewed as being good for the economy and leads to happier workers who can fill jobs where they’re needed – “is a very bad idea”, he says.
On his part, Fielding believes abolishing landlords is pretty impossible (“it would take the government a long time to get enough social housing” – even just giving bonds to landlords in exchange for their property would take time), but he does at least think it’s possible and necessary to make landlords more responsible.
“There’s a central register for landlords in Scotland,” he says. “I do think that it wouldn't be a bad idea to introduce something like that, to at least try to make sure the person is a fit and proper person to be renting out a property.”
For the landlords who let the walls cake with mould and hold deposits because they fancy spending a grand on a tenner’s worth of paint, “there should be action taken against them, and the penalties should be stronger,” he argues. “Decent landlords would welcome it.”
Clay adds that options outside of state-owned property include housing co-ops, where a group of people manage and control the place they live in for the benefit of everyone. There are already networks of UK housing co-ops, like Radical Routes. Another alternative is to abolish the Land Compensation Act, in which people sell land based on its potential rather than just its current value. “[Developers] pay a very, very high price for it,” he explains. “That obviously means there's no money left over to actually build the social housing.”
Perhaps, if we can’t have “no landlords”, we can abolish landlordism. What would happen then? Well, “wealth inequality might reduce itself”, says Murphy.
As of 2018, the average landlord in the UK earns around £15,000 a year from renting property. That might be less than you’d think, but where landlords benefit is the reduced tax rate. “The taxation of rental income is lower than taxation of income from work, because there's no National Insurance involved,” Murphy explains. Don’t forget: At worst they also own or have a mortgage on an actual house, if not multiple, which bumps up their net worth considerably.
All these proposed changes might sound all very pie in the sky, but you can look to Germany for a tangible sense of how housing can work in favour of renters. In Berlin, they’ve also voted to abolish corporate landlords, which would allow the German state to seize private property if it’s in the public interest (i.e. if the landlord is a dickhead).
“The German rental market is bigger and also better than in the UK – they don’t feel the need to own a home as much, rent is cheaper, and living conditions tend to be better,” Fielding notes. Average rent on a one-bed flat in Germany is £605, compared to £916 in the UK – even though salaries there are slightly higher than ours. So here’s always hope – or failing, that, you could always move to Berlin.