rs21 housing fraction members Kate Bradley and Charlotte Powell write on long awaited renters’ reforms – but ask, what is it we want in the long-term?
Now that Michael Gove has been restored to his former position in government – with the word salad job title of ‘Secretary of State for Levelling Up’ – it is looking more likely that his previously proposed Renters Reform Bill might actually happen. The renters’ movement in England and Wales is back to holding its breath. It’s important that we don’t also close our eyes.
Amongst the proposed reforms is the scrapping of Section 21 evictions, widely agreed to be a strategic priority by the housing movement. Section 21 allows landlords to evict tenants without giving a reason or proving a fault on the tenant’s part. The English Private Landlord Survey in 2021 found that over two thirds (67%) of landlords who evicted tenants or asked them to leave in the preceding year gave their tenants a Section 21 notice. Research by Generation Rent showed that Section 21 was the leading single cause of homelessness. Section 21 was brought in under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s to make landlords’ lives easier – and was one of a series of measures, including the Right to Buy, that transformed the housing market into the hellscape it is today.
Housing activist and rs21 member Sol Quinn detailed the other reforms earlier in the year. He argued that, while the proposed reforms are nowhere near enough, they are nevertheless urgently needed – especially those relating to regulating the private landlord market and holding them to higher standards on keeping homes habitable and in good repair.
Gove pressing ahead with this new Bill will not necessarily please smaller landlords – the class of rentier capitalists with one or two houses that Thatcher’s policies created. As we enter a recession, many of these landlords will not want to be lumbered with houses tenants can no longer afford to cover the mortgages on, and so they may wish to sell up using Section 21 to evict their tenants.
So why are the Tories pushing this policy now, and how should we react?
Contradictions in Conservative housing policy
Whilst the Tories are the party of landlords (a quarter of Tory MPs are private landlords themselves), their ideological drive for at least the last 40 years has been to push for home-ownership, shoring up their voting base and cementing the mortgage markets as a key driver of the economy. In recent years, the Tories have hit a contradiction in the plan they’ve been delivering since the 1980s: wages have stagnated but house prices are still rising, meaning fewer people are able to get a mortgage. They have had to artificially inflate first time buyers’ buying power with schemes like Help to Buy, a massive giveaway of cash to get people onto the ‘property ladder’.
Despite these measures, the number of households that own their own home has been falling over the last decade, and the private rented sector is growing. This creates a problem for the Tories: how can they give a new generation of working-class people a ‘stake’ in capitalist economic growth? If they can’t, do they need to start appealing to the swelling numbers of private renters to vote for them, irrespective of their own party’s role in perpetuating rising rents, shoddy housing conditions and insecurity of tenure?
Moreover, if the private rental sector is here to stay, how can they stop it from generating runaway social problems, like ever-worsening homelessness?
The renters’ reform package, viewed in this context, looks like an effort to do two things: first, to clean up the private rented sector to make it sustainable as both a profit-making industry and a way of housing a growing proportion of the working class; and second, to appear as ‘responsible’ and respectable capitalists, rather than corrupt privateers.
What does the renters’ movement want?
It is right that the housing movement is demanding these urgent reforms, but we shouldn’t be quiet about the fact that the proposals from June are very weak. Firstly, they don’t actually propose getting rid of no-fault evictions – they simply replace Section 21 with new mandatory grounds (meaning you can’t argue it’s unreasonable to evict you during the legal process, so tenant protections will not be significantly better). The meme below was circulated amongst landlords on Twitter in June, suggesting that they are comfortable with the loss of Section 21 if they are given new mandatory grounds to evict people fairly easily.
Furthermore, whilst investment in regulatory bodies that can hold landlords to account would be valuable, we should be under no illusions that a Tory government intent on pushing through further waves of spending cuts will implement a new system which has enough money and power to properly enforce new and existing rules regulating landlords. A House of Commons report from earlier this year concluded that currently ‘Local authorities do not have the capacity and capability to ensure an appropriate level of protection for private renters’.
If the Tories are at a contradictory stage in their approach to housing, then so are we. A new renters’ movement has been rising and doing brilliant work. But the government’s limited political will to deliver on reforms means we can find ourselves asking for something we don’t really want – a cleaned up private rented sector in place of abolishing landlordism.
Though prioritising reforms can be necessary, both to alleviate suffering today and to get wins to bolster the housing movement, it’s always worth considering our long-term goals. Mass private landlordism is a relatively new phenomenon in our history. Britain’s housing market has been transformed over the last 40 years, with a growing buy-to-let sector pushing up house prices and leaving more people than ever renting from unregulated private landlords. Buy-to-let landlords are now the majority of private landlords: 52% of all landlords bought their property, or properties, to rent out. Most tenants live in properties with a landlord that rents out more than one property. In England, the English Private Landlord Survey demonstrates the scale of the changes to the private rented sector:
The number of households in the sector rose by 45% between 2008-09 and 2020-21, from 3.1 million to 4.4 million households. The private rented sector is now the second largest tenure in England, and is home to 19% of all households, compared to 14% in 2008-09, when it was smaller than the social rented sector.
Successive governments have pursued a strategy of starving local authorities of the money to build and maintain housing stock; selling off public housing stock into private hands; pushing privatisation and allowing profit-making to creep into the social housing sector; encouraging buy-to-let investment; and allowing the almost totally unregulated private rented sector to boom. All of this has furthered their aim of pushing up house prices. This needs to end. Getting rid of Section 21 would be great, but it has to be in service of a more ambitious goal: shrinking and eventually destroying buy-to-let landlordism as a phenomenon.
The problem is property
The core problem with housing is the system of private property that underpins our economy and society: the private ownership of our means of reproduction. Enclosure of land and dispossession of those who live on it is a key stage in capitalist wealth accumulation wherever capital roams. Capitalist powers or states acting on their behalf will, at an early stage of capitalist development and then continually, prevent people from socially reproducing themselves outside of the system of wage labour so that they must work for a wage to buy back necessities – food, heat, light, water, shelter – as commodities.
In the UK, the original dispossession was long ago, but the cycle of dispossession continues wherever capital moves into an area to ‘develop’ or ‘regenerate’ it: leasing land cheaply from money-starved local authorities to build on, forcing local residents out to replace them with more profitable developments, and destroying the natural environment.
One solution to this problem is to push for policies in government to build or buy up residential property so that it is socially owned. Here we can draw a distinction between what we know as ‘social housing’ and a truly socialised housing over which tenants and the public have some control. Our social housing system is increasingly privatised, and private providers in various guises are making huge profits from it. The same is true of the homeless system that now relies on hotels, B&Bs and private landlords to house increasing numbers of people in temporary accommodation. Housing standards are often low, as highlighted by a series of news stories recently about mould, disrepair and tragic deaths of residents living in substandard social housing.
Instead, a socialised housing system should be run by the public and tenants in the interests of the people who live in it and those who might in future. This would involve radical change in the housing system and the local authorities that administer it. Getting this back on the political agenda should be a key goal of renters’ movements – a horizon we can’t neglect while focusing on modest reforms of the present system. It is already a focus of many tenants’ unions and community groups, including the Social Housing Action Campaign (SHAC).
Despite the desperate need for more social housing, there are issues with this approach taken alone: what can be given by the state can be taken away – as those on absurdly long waiting lists for social homes know.
An alternative approach is found in the co-operative movement. Often, housing co-ops are small-scale, encompassing simply one or two houses, which are then lived in collectively and run through house meetings, or sometimes by a committee of members, following some democratic principles and processes. In searching for mass solutions to the ‘housing question’, socialists can often see co-operatives as inadequate, and there are good reasons for that. Setting up co-ops is highly labour intensive and difficult, meaning there are very few housing co-ops in the UK. Rising house prices mean that potential co-ops must raise large sums of money for deposits. There are some organisations that help people create co-ops, such as Community Led Homes and Radical Routes, but these are relatively little-known and aren’t able to act on the scale required to transform the housing sector.
In a more supportive legislative environment, Uruguay in the 1960s made it possible for co-ops to access land to build and maintain collectively-owned homes. According to a 2020 Tribune article, there are now nearly 500 of these housing co-operatives in Uruguay, and they’re home to more than 20,000 families, nearly 3 percent of the population. This model survived the Uruguayan dictatorship of 1973 to 1985. When threatened by a government attempt to undermine the co-operative model of ownership, the thriving tenants’ movement inside the co-operatives organised a payment strike against the National Loan Bank – which the article’s authors argue was a factor in eventually bringing down the dictatorship.
We should see the co-operative movement as part of the wider housing movement. Even in a world dominated by international capital, it has found places to thrive and provide socialised ways of living that do not rely on – and can successfully fight back against – capital and right-wing government attacks.
Both of these visions of socialised and collectivised housing share a common factor: they will not happen without a lot of collective work and a fight. Those of us living in rented accommodation should be working together to push for changes to our immediate conditions, but also to dream together about what we might want instead. The tenants’ movement is growing more powerful, evidenced by wins in Scotland around a rent freeze and evictions ban this winter, and Gove feeling the need to posture about ‘rogue landlords’ when he proposed the Renters Reform Bill this year. Now we must continue to grow and push forward, and not be placated by a minor package of reforms that is unlikely to increase our power in the long term.
Landlords need us; we don’t need landlords.