1. Governance
July 22, 2019updated 04 Aug 2023 8:47am

“The rent has increased by 80 per cent, but the mould still keeps coming back”

By Michael Deas

When London Renters Union member Ghazal moved with her family into a house in Newham, the kitchen ceiling was almost completely covered in mould. Every time the landlord does a quick repair job in response to Ghazal’s complaints, he promptly hikes the rent. Ten years on, the rent has increased by 80 per cent, but the mould still keeps coming back.

Pooja has been told by her landlord that she has to choose between paying a 20 per cent rent hike or be evicted to make way for someone who will. Another of our members was recently forced to move an hour away from where his young son goes to school because he can’t afford the rent in Newham anymore.

Rents in London have risen 22 per cent since 2011. At the London Renters Union, we meet dozens of people each week, whose rising rents are leaving them with little left over for food or other essentials. Rent rises are driving gentrification in our city and forcing countless people away from their communities and support networks.

It’s in this context of real human suffering as a result of London’s profit-driven housing crisis that Sadiq Khan’s call on Friday for the power to introduce rent controls should be warmly welcomed. He is calling for powers to establish a London Private Rent Commission that would maintain a much-needed database of landlords and rent payments and set a maximum rent level for different areas in London.

Even if the mayor of London being given such powers still seems a long way off, the boldness of the proposals and the focus on reducing rents rather than just stabilising them shifts the debate about who and what housing in our city is for. An announcement like today’s would have been unthinkable five years ago but London’s renters are demanding change and a renters movement is growing fast across the capital. Hopefully we’ll one day look back on today as a massive and historic step towards transforming the housing system so that it works for renters rather than investors.

But there’s still a long way to go. For starters, the mayor hasn’t set out how much he’d like to see rents reduced by, preferring instead to say that this will be determined by the hands-off Private Rent Commission he hopes to create.

It’s generally accepted in the sector that housing that costs someone more than 30-35 per cent of their income is unaffordable. A two-bed in Newham typically costs £1,400 per month, which is 60 per cent of local incomes. To be effective, rent controls need to eventually reduce rents to 30 per cent of local incomes after tax, so people can stay in their communities and flourish in their homes without having to skimp on other essentials just to make the rent.

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It’s also concerning that Sadiq’s proposed London Private Rent Commission would have powers to “incentivise investment” in the private rented sector and make build-to-rent more attractive for landlords and investors.

At its core, London’s housing crisis is driven by the assumption that underpins our broken housing system: that houses are commodities, rather than homes for people to live in, a situation that has only worsened since London’s property market became a more attractive option for investors after the financial crash. 

Renters in London this year will hand over £22bn from their wages to private landlords who can pay off their mortgage and then sell up, while their tenants are left with nothing to show for years of rent payments.

Rather than providing fresh incentives to investors looking to profit from people’s need for housing, the mayor should be looking at ways to bring more housing into public democratic ownership. He could ask for powers to issue compulsory purchase orders on the 22,000 long-term empty homes in the capital. Or he could find a way to offer landlords upset at the prospect of rent controls the ability to sell their homes to the public sector or community trusts, so they can be rented out at affordable rents with indefinite secure tenancies.

Truly transforming the housing system means shifting the balance of power and that requires action from below as well as from above. Sadiq should also look to empower renters themselves, and their organisations. In just our first year, thousands have joined the London Renters Union and we’ve supported more than 50 people to improve their housing situation – including by taking direct action to prevent evictions and force estate agents to hand back thousands of pounds they’ve wrongly withheld from renters. We were part of the End Unfair Evictions coalition that secured an announcement from Theresa May that the government will scrap Section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions. Along with ACORN and Living Rent, two renters unions, we forced NatWest to scrap policies that discriminate against renters who receive benefits.

The Labour party leadership recognised the vital role that a mass movement of organised renters could play in transforming society when they pledged to fund renter unions when next in power. Sadiq should follow this lead by making sure renters unions are given a prominent role in his proposed London Private Rent Commission. He could also take further steps to empower renters such as supporting the right of renters to go on rent strike and to enter into collective bargaining with big landlords. 

Ultimately, Londoners and people across the UK need a housing system that prioritises everyone having a decent home rather than profits for landlords and investors. Hopefully Sadiq Khan’s announcement on Friday takes us closer to that reality.

Michael Deas is coordinator of the London Renters Union.

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