Is there any group in Britain that has it tougher than private rental landlords? They really haven't been feeling the love recently.
Perhaps it's the estimated stonking £22 billion that landlords in London alone will take off renters in the next year that's stoking resentment. Maybe it’s the prevalence of "revenge evictions", where people are kicked out for complaining about their shoddy flats, that has seen them take on pariah status. Maybe it’s the fact that 78 percent of the increase in homelessness since 2011 is down to people being kicked out by private landlords. Maybe it's popular VICE column London Rental Opportunity of the Week. Perhaps it's sheer revulsion against the beneficiaries of a system which ultimately sees those who own property leech of those who do not. Who knows?
Whatever the reason – sorry, I just thought of another one: maybe it's that everyone has a story of the time their landlord came in unannounced and told them not to have friends over, or failed to fix the shower for weeks on end, or suddenly decided to convert their living room into another bedroom, meaning they had to eat in their bedroom, AND at the same time raised their rent, giving the reason that... gas prices have risen(???).
Anyway. For some reason or other, landlords have had their names tarnished by the press while being subjected to new regulations from government, many of which are set to hit in October.
Things have gotten so bad that "landlords could be forgiven for thinking that 'hostile environment' legislation policies go beyond immigration", according to the Residential Landlords' Association's in-house magazine. The "hostile environment" is the policy that gave us, among other things, the Windrush Scandal. I’m not sure "in the context of a catastrophic housing crisis, monetising extra property that you own – property additional to the house you actually need to live in – and being subjected to relevant legislation" is the same thing as "being thrown in indefinite detention before being deported from the country", but there you go. Is it a bit crass to compare regulating the damp in your bedroom to Theresa May’s policy that mercilessly ruins people’s lives with state racism? Not for me to say.
But that was the jist of "Future Renting", a conference hosted by lobbying group the Residential Landlords Association (RLA) in London on Thursday. It was a sort of pity-party, where landlords gathered to criticise attempts by The Man to regulate them, such as a newly-designated minimum room size – the unfair stipulation that bedrooms must not be smaller than a converted walk-in-wardrobe – which was blasted at the conference as "populist".
But you don’t really hate landlords, do you? Haven’t you got the wrong idea? Property market analyst Kate Faulkner had some helpful suggestions for rebranding the Private Rental Centre (PRS): "People Renting Securely" or a "Place for Renters to be Safe" were two of them. I’m sure you can think of your own snappy acronyms for your experience of renting.
"Landlords need to be seen as part of the solution not the problem" read another of her slides.
Sure enough, there was a wry protest from the London Renters Union, to "express their deepest sympathies and financial support" during what the RLA describes as "turbulent times" for landlords. The protesters played "You Got a Friend" by Carole King on "the world’s tiniest violins".
Inside the conference, it was no laughing matter.
Anne Frost, billed as "the most senior civil servant implementing the government’s strategy for private rented housing policy", was on hand to explain that the government is on the side of landlords, calling Heather Wheeler, a housing minister, an "enthusiast" for the private rented sector.
She told the audience that the ministry of housing will "work with you to ensure that rogue landlords don’t drive the narrative" and "stop the idea of rogue landlords being the only type of landlord being heard about out there". This makes a change, since it’s the government that has pushed the "rogue landlord" idea into public consciousness in order to sell their legislation, in an attempt to look like they have a handle on the housing crisis. This idea of a few bad apples was often repeated at the conference, despite the fact that fully one third of private rented homes are failing to meet the national Decent Homes Standard.
Labour MP Karen Buck was there to introduce her "fitness for habitation bill", which gives renters the power to take their landlord to court if their home is not fit for purpose. She was in a similarly conciliatory mood, stressing that landlords have a "reputational interest" for the government to target "that minority of the sector that is letting substandard accommodation" – which is presumably why the legislation is backed by the RLA.
Last week it emerged that a nervous Downing Street is killing off plans to guarantee renters three-year tenancies because the Treasury doesn’t want to scare off investors, and in case the measure is defeated by a few rebel MPs. This kind of thing is not that surprising, given that one in five MPs are private landlords. All of which puts the idea of landlords being subjected to a "hostile environment" into some perspective: they help shape the legislation they’re subjected to. Not sure if undocumented migrants can say the same thing.
So what does the future of renting hold? The protesters had some interesting suggestions, which included forbidding landlords from discriminating against those on benefits, rents that take account of local incomes, limits on rent rises and a suggestion to "end the politics and culture of property as investment rather than to house people". I wonder if any government ministers will summon any enthusiasm for that.
Until then, we’re left with some slight market correction, it seems. Many landlords are selling their houses as new taxes hit and eat into their profits. Those who aren't are jacking up rents. There is also a lot of concern about Universal Credit, which is impoverishing benefits claimants and therefore making landlords nervous about taking them on. This presumably won’t really hit bigger landlords who can soak up the new costs – it won’t cause systemic change. But the dream of baby boomers funding lavish retirement cruises with a couple of cheeky buy-to-let student dives is taking a bit of a knock – a crying shame. A burning injustice. Won’t somebody think of the landlords?