There are 11 million private renters in the UK. Staggeringly high rents, low interest rates and historically low social housing provision mean that vast numbers of working class people are unable to afford secure homes. On average private renters now spend 47 percent of their take home pay on rent, rising to 72 percent in London. In response to this a reenergised housing movement is attempting to take on the powerful private landlord lobby and the lack of affordable homes provided by the state.
The Rent Trap is an engaging and thorough attempt to articulate the growing mood to fight around the issue of housing alongside an investigation into just how badly ordinary people are being treated. There are plenty of horror stories in The Rent Trap — poverty enforced by increasingly high rent; unsafe homes; and underfunded councils unable to cope with ever-diminishing budgets. And that’s not to mention the landlords unwilling to provide tenants with repairs, mould treatment or even running water. Thankfully, though, The Rent Trap doesn’t rely too much on anecdotal evidence. It candidly interviews people from all aspects of the sector, including those who do not benefit from an expose of housing.
A key feature of The Rent Trap is an investigation into the role that private landlords play in the housing market — a highly unregulated industry — with most landlord organisations operating on an entirely voluntary basis and few councils requiring a landlord register. Section 21 (the law that allows a landlord to evict a tenant on a “no fault” basis) crops up regularly throughout the book. It cuts to the heart of the housing crisis in the UK today. Very little is required of the landlord to issue a Section 21 notice, so they can be used as “revenge” evictions in retaliation for “troublesome” tenants who ask for repairs or improvements to their home.
One of the most interesting chapters is on the history of private renting. This highlights just how much the ideology of housing provision has changed over the past century. Victorian philanthropists operated the slum clearances to ensure skilled workers lived in sanitary conditions, while the post-war boom saw the creation of genuine widespread affordable housing for working class people.
We learn of the focus on creating “healthy living” in the garden cities of Oxfordshire and Essex, the creation of “slums in the sky” in east London, and the widespread selling off of council housing in the right to buy schemes of the 1970s and 1980s. One of the most interesting fights for housing — mentioned all too briefly in The Rent Trap — was the victorious Glasgow Rent Strike in 1915. The action, bolstered by trade unionists who threatened strike action in support of the rent strike, showed the potential for tenants to take action against unfair rents.
Although the housing movement is now on the rise it remains disparate and on the whole very localised. The Rent Trap points out that, “Traditional trade union style organising models can’t work when each renter has a different landlord; there’s no mechanism for collective bargaining in the way there is in a workplace, or in a social housing block owned by one organisation. With 70 percent of the UK’s private landlords letting just one home each, private renters are scattered as a political group.”
The Rent Trap is a thorough analysis of the problems caused by leaving such an important thing as safe, secure, affordable homes for working class people to the unregulated market. It falls short of drawing any broader political conclusions beyond the immediate problem of the housing crisis.
The difficulties of enacting real housing change are highlighted repeatedly — the powerful landlord lobby, the voluntary nature of much landlord regulation and the reluctance of most MPs (almost a third of whom are private landlords themselves) to fight for reform that contradicts their own interests.
Housing, particularly in London, has crept up the political agenda over the past few years, with MPs, civil servants and others more likely to raise it as a priority. Important rights are being enshrined in law — as The Rent Trap points out, “Before 2007 there was no obligation for a landlord or agent to protect a tenant’s deposit; until then…there was no legal mechanism for the tenant to claim them back.”
The Rent Trap has very little to say about the small but significant recent housing victories — the New Era campaign is a great example of a political campaign that won a significant victory for its tenants.
The Rent Trap is a useful tool for those arguing for housing reform, not as a utopian ideal but looking at progressive housing structures that already exist. For example, the UK is almost unique in Europe in not operating some form of rent control. But modern day Britain is also set apart for more positive reasons. Mass state provision of housing, built to high standards and with secure tenancies, is something that has existed in Britain on a mass scale in the recent past. We won it before and can do so again.