Fight for the private renters!

Submitted by Matthew on 10 December, 2014 - 11:50 Author: Matt Cooper

There were only muted howls of anger from the rich who lost most from the changes to stamp duty on house sales in George Osborne’s Autumn statement.

That’s because those who will be paying an extra £163,750 on their £5 million house can afford it and they realise that this is a bid by the party of the rich to cling onto power in next year’s general election.

It’s those in private-rented housing who are really suffering. After years of growth in home ownership, the numbers able to afford to buy are in decline,; many people are reliant on private rentals. The 2011 census showed that the number living in private rented accommodation had increased by 69% since 2001, while the proportion in mortgaged homes has declined by 15 per cent. It is mainly younger people, many with families, who are priced out of the property market.

The alternative to both private renting and home ownership has been social housing, offering greater security, better quality and lower rents. At the time of the 1981 census 31 per cent of households were social housing. By 2011 that figure was 18 per cent. Over the same period private rentals have increased from 11 per cent to 18 per cent of households.

Earlier this year the government told social landlords to charge “affordable rent”. This piece of Orwellian language disguises a policy of pushing up social rents to 80 per cent of the market rents — unaffordable to most people on average incomes.

Thus, private rented housing has become the only option for many, but it is often an insecure one. In recent weeks the threat to force the tenants out of the New Era estate in Hoxton has caught the headlines, but this is the tip of a very dirty iceberg.

According to Ministry of Justice figures the numbers being evicted by private and social landlords are at an all time high. The number of court orders to evict has been increasing since 2010, with over 40,000 a quarter now being issued and in excess of 30,000 repossession notices issued in July to September 2014. Shelter estimates half-a-million people were threatened with eviction in the last year. In some of the most disadvantaged areas of London nearly one-in-twenty tenants were threatened with eviction in the last year.

Why is this happening? Cuts in housing benefit, the impact of the bedroom tax, and rent arrears are the main reasons. There is also a tendency in the private-rented sector for landlords to respond to the shortage of housing by increasing rents while allowing their property to fall into worse repair.

Worse, tenants who complain can find their rent increased in retaliation and, because they can’t afford the increase, are evicted. A recent Private Members’ Bill to outlaw rent increase retaliation was talked out by a pair of right-wing Tory MPs.

According to research by the Joseph Rowntree Trust and Heriot Watt University, if current trends continue one person in five will be living in privately rented accommodation by 2040. Renters will a face a projected rent increase of 90 per cent, rent rises that will be twice as much as income. At the same time social housing will continue to be squeezed.

We need a labour movement campaign to fight these trends. We must demand an end to benefits cuts combined with new social housing at rents that are truly affordable . A maximum rent in social and private housing. We need legal regulation of private sector housing. Slum landlords should have their property confiscated and converted to social housing.

But we need a movement that can build a campaign for these demands. Since 2008 Spain has seen a movement against the repossession of homes where the mortgage is in default. In the USA there have been community-based organisation against the destruction of social housing and foreclosure on mortgages (there vacant properties have become derelict and whole areas have become semi-populated wastelands).

The New Era estate campaign and Focus E15 campaign on the Carpenters Estate in east London show the potential of housing to become a major focus in the UK. Without that fight back, housing will become less affordable, of poorer quality and more insecure.

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