I'm sure I don't need to tell you that your own crappy housing situation is part of a bigger picture: over the last decade, property in the UK has gone mad. One million homes occupied by the owner in 2005 are now owned by a landlord and rented out privately. Rents have increased by 2.6 percent since last year (3.9 percent in London) and many 16 to 24 year olds spend an astonishing 81 percent of their income on rent. By 2040 rents could rise by 90 percent above inflation.
There are 11 million private renters in the UK, a disparate of insecure tenants with few legal rights, that can be legally evicted for no reason and often have no idea how to defend themselves. Chances are, you're one of them.
In their new book The Rent Trap, journalists Samir Jeraj and Rosie Walker call this, you guessed it, "The Rent Trap". They say that a private renter "effectively pays not once, but three times: first in rent, second as unpaid caretaker of an inflating asset and third, with the freedoms they forfeit."
I met Rosie in a café near her office in Kentish Town, London. She told me about a series of terrible experiences as a tenant, culminating in a "no fault eviction" after she asked her landlord for a new chest of drawers. A "no fault eviction" uses Section 21 of the 1988 Housing Act. A landlord can evict a tenant "without having to give any grounds once the fixed term [usually 6 to 12 months] has expired".
Landlords don't just have to give 24 hours notice before they visit your home, they have to get your permission to come round.
If you have rented in the UK you might consider a 6 to 12 month contract pretty normal, having experienced nothing different. But tenancy in Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark can be indefinite and in Ireland, Spain, France it is normally three to five years. In my twenties I was part of the 37 percent of private renters who have moved three or more times in the last five years.
"Many renters don't know that tenancy is a form of ownership," Rosie tells me, "it's just a limited period of ownership. Landlords don't just have to give 24 hours notice before they visit your home, they have to get your permission to come round. It's your home and you are the legal owner of the property at the time you are renting it."
The Rent Trap claims that one in 12 private renters "have chosen not to ask their landlords for repairs for fear of being evicted". This is hardly surprising given Rosie's chest of drawers experience. I ask her how we can protect ourselves.
"In some ways renters are right to feel afraid. However, Section 21 was slightly modified last year, after decades-long legal battle. Now you can't be evicted without reason on the following conditions: if there's a 'category one safety hazard' in the home, like severe mould or a broken boiler and the council have seen it, if there is no gas safety certificate for the property, if the landlord hasn't protected your deposit, and if the landlord doesn't have a license [in an area where you need a license]."
The government doesn't even know how many landlords there are in the UK. There is no official landlord register, and estimates vary from 2 million to 2.5 million. What is known is that around 70 percent of landlords only rent one single property out. As such, most private renters are unable to follow the recent heroics of the New Era estate campaign, because they can't collectivise and put pressure on the company who owns multiple properties. It's hard to hold a rent strike of one.
Strangely, Walker says it can be even harder for those in large shared houses to fight back. "You'd think in theory, a joint tenancy would strengthen your bargaining position because you're all on one contract and you can organise a collective defence. But this rarely happens because you are living with people you don't know that well, and often landlords are able to play joint tenants against each other. I had a landlord who pretended to some housemates that others had agreed to a rent increase, when they hadn't, taking advantage of the fact that we didn't all know each other before we moved in."
A lot of us just accept that this is just the way things are. "There's often this fear that another landlord might be worse," Walker adds. "We have a wild-west private renting sector that is unregulated. It's sad that the level of expectation is so low."
The growth of the private rental sector has a lot to do with the growth in buy-to-let mortgages. Most of those able to afford a buy-to-let mortgage already own their own home. However, the buy-to-let boom has started to threaten the economy and many landlords will find themselves paying more stamp duty and taxes on their rental income. The fear is this will be passed on to the tenant as single owner landlords refuse to absorb the cost. Is the solution to encourage business with lots capital to come further into the market?
"It seems counterintuitive to say we need big companies involved in private rental," Rosie laughs, "particularly for activists who cut their teeth in the 90s anti-corporate stuff! But I think in this case it would actually help. One of the main reasons the German model works is that private landlords there are mostly big companies so they can absorb lower profit margins, they're more accountable, they are visible. And because they own a large number of properties the tenants can find out who each other is and act collectively."
But the British model is the opposite. What's the best way renters in the UK can change things?
"Private renters need to see they have political status," Rosie says. "Talk to your housemates and make sure you are all aware of what your rights are and what you are entitled to. Real change will not come through dramatic protests on the street, but through education and knowledge increase for private renters. We've also got to start talking properly about rent control – it's not a mad communist plot, they do it in most European countries. Landlord licensing can also work if you do it properly and set proper standards that you can enforce. All these solutions are there, but it does need the political will."
And where does that will come from?
"It has to come from the 11 million renters. They've got to understand that they are being really exploited."
The Rent Trap is out on 20th March from Pluto Books
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