Stepping Up the Housing Struggle

Rent reforms proposed by the government last week give tenants in England cause for some cautious optimism. But what's most important is that they could galvanise the fight for real rent controls and council housing, to truly bring this crisis to an end.

The evolution of the housing policy agenda has been a fascinating lesson in what happens when we refuse to compromise on bold demands. (Sean Gladwell / Getty Images)

It’s been more than thirty years since tenants have been able to say ‘no’ when landlords have put the rent up. A bit like squatting an empty building, which has only been a criminal offence since 2012, as a society we’ve simply forgotten that it’s a thing that can be done. The law has stripped us of our power, and our behaviour and attitudes have followed in the legislative wake.

That’s why last week’s announcement on reforming the private rented sector is genuinely very important. We’ve finally seen some details of the government’s plans on housing—promised in the 2019 manifesto and then announced in two successive Queen’s Speeches—and they’re surprisingly good.

Short-term tenancies drive up rents. Housing costs, particularly in busy urban areas, tend to approach monopoly prices because landlords are not subject to competitive forces: it’s impossible for tenants to shop around when it comes to the need for appropriate shelter, and left to their own devices, rents can rise to the maximum level that the market will tolerate. That’s why, all over the world, governments generally step in to impose some sort of legal brake on this process.

Secure, long-term tenancies with rules on price increases, on the other hand, mean that rents can’t rise too quickly, or too arbitrarily. Even better, rent controls are direct interventions in the market that prevent landlords from extracting too much. In most countries these are seen as necessary, sensible measures to prevent the frenzied price rises that can occur when housing markets are left unchecked.

In the UK, however, the previously-existing system of private housing regulation was dismantled in the 1980s and 1990s, and replaced with a system of short-life tenancies designed to allow rents to rise unhindered. In the then-government’s words: ‘the letting of private property will again become an economic proposition’. This is the point about section 21: it’s not that so-called ‘no-fault evictions’ are unfair and distressing—although, of course, they are—but that they allow rents to rise whenever landlords think that a new price can be realised.

When your landlord tells you that the rent is going up, you know that your situation is so precarious that you have no real choice but to accept it or move out. Regulating the private rented sector by re-introducing secure tenancies is therefore a matter of hard-nosed economics just as much as it is a matter of social welfare.

With its new white paper, the government has expressed an intention to limit rent increases to one per year, and to ensure that such increases are not ‘disproportionate’ or ‘unjustified’, although these terms have not yet been defined. If your landlord can’t evict you for challenging an increase, and if a tribunal is in charge of deciding what your home is worth, we should (at the very least) see a significant slowdown in the churn of renewed tenancies let at ever-higher rents.

Of course, tribunals aren’t perfect. But it’s a vast improvement on landlords naming their price. As the new law beds in, the hope is that landlords may have to learn to forget about spiralling rents just as we had to forget about squatting and tenants’ rights. The renting system here would look a lot more like the more stable systems in place in other countries, where housing costs rise at a much slower pace. Of course, if this does happen, it won’t be overnight: the experience in Scotland shows—despite the phenomenal work of groups like Living Rent to ensure that tenants are standing up for themselves—that the repeal of ‘no-fault’ evictions has not (yet) led to any major upheaval.

But there are other positives, too. A ban on discriminating against benefit-dependent households and families with children will be formalised in a new law. It will become more difficult for landlords to refuse to allow pets. Housing standards are set to increase through new obligations (although this would probably have happened anyway, as the existing legal rights to repair will become so much more effective when at-will evictions are thing of the past). Landlords will have to register on a new ‘property portal’ system.

These Tory proposals far exceed—rather embarrassingly—the limited calls for ‘family-friendly’ three-year tenancies that had dominated Labour and NGO thinking in the pre-Corbyn years. Even during the 2017 election, the abolition of shorthold tenancies was off the table. In 2019, however, Labour adopted the campaign for the abolition of ‘no-fault’ evictions shortly before the election was called, and the Tories—presumably not realising that this would entail a fundamental re-writing of tenancy rights—followed suit.

The evolution of the housing policy agenda has been a fascinating lesson in what happens when we refuse to compromise on bold demands. After a ponderous consultation period and a delay during the pandemic, during which we all assumed that they were trying to work out how to backtrack or obfuscate, the government now appears to have committed itself to actually doing what it said. It came as a surprise. The landlord lobby must be furious—and is no doubt gearing up to fight the proposals before they become law.

And there are, of course, countervailing reforms to appease those landlords, which reminds us that we should maintain a healthy scepticism about what’s been proposed. The government looks set to increase the number of circumstances in which it would be mandatory for the courts to evict someone, targeting in particular rent arrears, ‘anti-social behaviour’, and situations where landlords want to sell up or accommodate a family member. There may also be scope for getting around the new tenancy protections. But overall—and with the caveat that everything is at a tentative, early stage in the legislative process—this is a better announcement than many of us had expected.

Despite that fact, or perhaps because of it, many I’ve spoken to in the housing movement remain wary of the white paper. After all, we’re not particularly used to revelling in government policy announcements. They are right that this is not a simple fix for affordability and rent rises, and does not fulfil the demand for proper, formal, rent controls. But we are being restored, broadly, to a level of security that existed before 1988, and it’s an opportunity we should seize: restoring security of tenure is a prerequisite to more effective organising. Largely because of the renting system, today’s Left has lacked the physical space and geographical stability of previous generations, and we should use our new rights as a springboard for bigger and better things. We should be just as positive as the Daily Telegraph is horrified.

So why is Michael Gove, of all people, doing this? Given the famous Marx quote about the Tories being ‘enthusiastic only about ground rent’, what possible motive could he have? Does he hope to destabilise Johnson’s shaky leadership by fomenting the political crisis that might ensue when Tory MPs realise that they’re being whipped to vote against landlords’ interests? Is he trying to percolate a collapse in house prices in a few years’ time, calculated to undermine a future Labour government? Is he worried that a voter base founded on dwindling numbers of home owners is a busted flush, and anxious to win over older and wealthier renters? Is he trying to neutralise an emboldened and dangerous housing movement? Does he simply not understand that he’s attacking the very forces that make private renting so fabulously profitable in England? Or is he conscious that rents and housing standards have, in fact, well exceeded crisis levels, and that this intervention is genuinely needed?

All these factors likely come into play, and more, but the best interpretation is probably that Gove is hedging his electoral bets. Given that successive governments’ efforts to expand home ownership have been consistently unsuccessful, the Tories must know that they’re going to have appeal to the renters somehow. And it’s not just renters themselves: homeowning Tories presumably have split loyalties, as they see the dreadful housing insecurity that their own children are having to endure.

This electoral answer isn’t totally satisfactory. Gove needn’t have gone quite so far as implementing secure tenancies in order to chalk up a win on housing policy, and there is a very clear tension between protecting housing wealth (which has, traditionally, been a core Conservative tactic) and undermining the profitability of the rented sector. But it’s the best guess as to why a hard-right Tory minister is restoring the package of rights that existed thirty years ago.

Whatever the underlying reason, credit is certainly due to the housing activists who have campaigned for this so effectively. Their call to abolish section 21, which was dismissed as pie-in-the-sky by many who ought to have known better, was unified and steadfast. We currently live in fear of quick and arbitrary evictions, and when these are exceptional (some landlords will doubtless try to find loopholes, or evict illegally) rather than the fundamental basis of the landlord-tenant relationship, it will be this flourishing housing movement that deserves credit.

This movement is an exciting prospect. It’s wonderful when we stand together, support each other to access housing, and sue our landlords once we’ve been evicted. These reforms are the beginning, not the end. From here, I’m looking forward to helping my friends and comrades to fight for lower rents and improvements, rather than scrapping around to ensure that we all have somewhere to live. I’m also looking forward to building even stronger campaigns for rent controls, council housing, and the winding-down of privately rented housing.

There’s plenty of time for the wheels to come off, of course. And even if they don’t, the juggernaut of the rack-renting industry won’t stop overnight: it took decades for capital to convert Thatcher’s deregulatory measures into a mature housing crisis, and it will take time for economic forces to react to this attack on profitable short-life tenancies. The housing crisis is not going to disappear the minute this law comes into effect, and landlords are sure to exploit us for as much as they can for as long as they can, but we move. Or rather, we don’t.