The director of Generation Rent on how renters should know their own strength.
Last week, I was sifting through old emails from a letting agent to find out exactly how much their surprise moving out fee was, so I could include it in my personal response to the government’s consultation on banning letting fees. (No, just one response from Generation Rent wasn’t enough for me.)
One of the threads I unearthed was a negotiation about the rent increase that year. They capitulated to my flatmate’s offer, reasoning, “Well, you have been good tenants,” then throwing in a backhanded, “for the most part”. This was slightly surprising because I think we had been pretty amazing tenants. But then I realised that, if you’re a lazy letting agent, you probably don’t consider tenants who make frequent but reasonable requests about disrepair in their home to be particularly good.
The Conservatives have played on this subjective definition of “good tenants” in their manifesto, promising them greater security of tenure. By specifying “good”, they appeal to renters who will unanimously consider themselves good, and to landlords who might be frightened by the prospect of rewarding “bad” tenants.
There are few clues to what this policy will entail – but it’s one of several new housing offers that the parties have added to their arsenals for this round of voting. Labour is promising discounted homes to buy and more council homes, the Lib Dems favour a rent-to-buy model, while the Greens want to trial a Land Value Tax.
For voters who simply want some respite from stiflingly high rents this might not set the pulse racing. But it’s fair to say each party has made a significant shift in appealing to renters – and anyone who wants a fairer housing market – since 2015, when their manifestos were pathetic by comparison.
Private renters, now 20 per cent of the population, are constantly lectured by pundits that we won’t be listened to until we start voting in greater numbers. I’m pleased to report that we are. Based on numbers from the Electoral Commission, English Housing Survey and Ipsos Mori, we estimate that 617,000 more private renters voted in 2015 than in 2010 – a larger increase than among homeowners.
This is the result of the rise in house prices that means many people are stuck renting. The increase in absolute numbers comes despite low and falling turnout rates among renters (51 per cent in 2015); by contrast, they’re high and rising among home owners (77 per cent).
The private renter population is so big now that 93 seats in the UK – one in seven – could be decided by their votes. These are seats where there are more renters who don’t feel loyal to one party (an estimated 30 per cent) than the incumbent party’s majority. They include marginals where there are a few dozen votes in it, but also relatively safe seats like Amber Rudd’s Hastings & Rye and the Labour-held Luton South.
A successful pitch to renters by one of the major parties could see the Tories take 30 seats from Labour, or 29 seats go the other way.
Constituencies where renters could decide the winner, coloured by the pary that currently holds them. Click to expand.
We based this analysis on data from the 2011 census. The private renter population has since grown by 25 per cent since, so there are likely to be many more constituencies where the renter vote will be a factor.
Given the prize on offer, the parties should be doing much more to win renters’ votes. Although politicians acknowledge the enormous shift taking place in home ownership, at this rate we’ll have our dysfunctional housing market for at least another 10 years.
Unfortunately, renters can’t simply wait until they dominate the polling booth to see any fundamental change. Benefit cuts mean many are sinking deeper into debt; others have their lives and families on hold until they raise a deposit to buy a home.
Change is also held back because the very act of voting is more difficult for renters. Thanks to the ability of landlords to use “no-fault” evictions and raise rent to unaffordable levels, renters are six times more likely to move home in a given year than homeowners. They are therefore more likely to find themselves unregistered when an election comes around. It doesn’t help that the government has stopped their annual mass nudging of people to register.
So it is up to the likes of Generation Rent, ACORN and other local renter groups to help people register to vote, provide information about parties’ housing policies, and to organise private renters so they can start punching their weight in the political arena. It’s already starting to work – all UK-wide parties except UKIP are committed to banning letting agent fees.
But until we have a government that will bring rents down significantly, renters will just have to rely on the negotiating gambit from my erstwhile flatmate. “While the market rent may be £380 a week, the landlord is unlikely to find a tenant willing to pay that without extensive refurbishment, improvements to the kitchen and a new sofa – so he’d be better off keeping us here on £340.”
Dan Wilson Craw is interim director of Generation Rent.
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