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Two and a half million Londoners now rent their homes from private landlords. They have minimal rights and no control over rent increases. Some privately rented homes are well maintained and affordable but the very worst housing conditions - and the highest levels of poverty - are found in the private rented sector. Landlords encounter little enforceable regulation yet enjoy huge profits.
The vast majority of London’s private renters do not want to be private renters. They rent privately because they have no choice: the shrinking supply of social housing means a secure, social tenancy is harder and harder to get, while the encouragement of buy-to-let has pushed house prices well beyond the reach of anyone without inherited wealth. ‘Help to Buy’ schemes have inflated house prices further and only help a tiny few. In all but one London borough, first time buyers need an income of more than £50,000 and a deposit of at least £10,000 to be able to use the current scheme.
One in three households living in London’s private rented sector has children. The minimum legal tenancy lasts just six months, and landlords are free to make tenants move on without having to give a reason. Twice a year, these children face the possibility of having to move home and move schools, if the landlord puts the rent up, or refuses to repair something, or if they simply fall out of favour with that landlord. It is not unheard of for landlords to wait until their tenants’ children are settled at local schools and then, demand huge rent increases, knowing that some parents will have no choice but to pay. Short-term private tenancies cause neighbourhood ‘churn,’ breaking community links and putting huge pressure on family relationships.
London needs all its citizens, not just the wealthy ones. London needs teachers, doctors, bricklayers, social workers and refuse collectors. We need cleaners, care workers, taxi drivers, and carpenters. We need students, musicians, and poets. But without drastic action to improve conditions for private renters in the city, London will destroy the very things that give it life. London needs bold, brave politicians, who will stand up to private landlords, letting agents, property developers and ‘buy to leave’ investors, at local and regional level.
We need all our politicians to support councils in securing the resources they need to do their jobs properly, and to be tough on those who still don’t try. We need representation from politicians who understand what life is like for private renters in this city, who are willing to challenge central government when national systems fail to meet our needs.
Power and democracy
The Assemblies of Scotland (population 5.425 million), Wales (population 3.125 million), and N. Ireland (population 1.87 million), have legislative powers. But law-making power has not been devolved to London (population 8.136 million). Ours remains one of the most centralized countries in the developed World.
We need a London Housing Bill, allowing devolution of powers over housing. With devolved power to collect its own property taxes, London would then be able to make housing policy that fits London’s unique circumstances. London is unlike the rest of the UK and its powers should reflect this. The London Housing Bill could give the Mayor power to introduce modern, flexible, city-wide rent controls - bringing London into line with other major cities in Europe.
Abandon the current definition of ‘affordable’ as 80 per cent of market rate. With market rates so high, 80 per cent is unaffordable to the vast majority of ordinary Londoners, whether they’re renting or buying.
Incentivise private landlords to charge the London Living Rent: an amount based on how much money a renter needs to live on (to buy food and cover other essential living costs) after they have paid their rent. It’s not as crude as ‘one third of net earnings,’ but it is based on average earnings in different parts of London, and is calculated according to whether or not a renter has children or a partner. Landlords who charge above the London Living Rent should be heavily taxed on the amount above that line.
There are many successful and modern forms of rent control used in other cities, including:
The Berlin model: landlords can’t charge more than 10% above the median rent for the city
The Swedish model: rents are set using a points system, with points awarded for the size and quality of the home, the features it has, and what amenities are nearby
A flexible model: a cap is set, but landlords are free to charge above it if they want. Any amount they charge above the cap is taxed at 50 per cent. This extra tax revenue can fund social housing in the capital, to alleviate the pressure on the private rented sector.
Put pressure on central government to increase Local Housing Allowance, otherwise known as Housing Benefit. Although rents have been allowed to rise, LHA was capped and frozen. In 2018, the rate increased by just 3%, the first increase since 2015. As they try to make up the shortfall, to avoid eviction and homelessness, private renters are being pushed into poverty, without enough money to meet other basic needs.
Improve council staff training to understand the ‘viability assessments’ that developers use to get around their Section 106 affordable housing obligations. Build the skills and confidence of council staff so they can challenge developers who currently run rings around them. OR…
Abolish viability assessments altogether, replacing them with a more transparent and democratic system
Make the planning decision-making process more transparent and accountable, with genuinely enforceable quotas for affordable housing to rent and buy, rather than meaningless targets.
Set up a new agency to encourage public bodies who own land in London to use it for genuinely affordable house building. Transport For London (TFL) owns land bigger than the size of Camden, and much of it is underused.
Explode the myth that developing brownfield sites is more expensive than developing green belt land. It isn’t.
End land banking by introducing a ‘use it or lose it’ two year limit.
The GLA currently runs a Housing Bank offering low cost loans to speed up housing developments. Currently, this is targeted at ‘intermediate rent’ and shared ownership, neither of which offer a good deal to London renters. This money could be used to establish mutual models; housing co-ops and community land trusts, with a fund to enable private renters to take their landlords to court.
Around half of London boroughs are now planning or have already introduced some form of additional and selective landlord licensing scheme, to drive up standards and force out criminal landlords. Some are better resourced than others. Introduction of a mandatory London property licence would demand better standards. In addition, a London-wide enforcement team, joining all the council schemes together, would work evenly and more effectively.
Make energy efficiency measures a compulsory in privately-rented homes. No landlord should be allowed to claim an exemption because he is unwilling to make the investment necessary to cover improvement costs.
Decent Homes Standard
The Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act was introduced to ensure that all rented accommodation is fit for human habitation. For private sector renters, taking action against a landlord during the term of an assured shorthold tenancy might well be essential. In some boroughs, overburdened environmental health officers are now advising private renters to pursue the landlord themselves, rather than acting on behalf of renters, as they are empowered to do. But ‘The Homes Act’ makes no mention of protection from revenge eviction after initiating such an action.
Unless the environmental health department of the local council issues the property owner with either
• an improvement notice or
• an emergency work notice.
private renters have no protection from the possibility of 'revenge eviction' at the end of the fixed term.
An amendment to the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act should prevent a landlord from evicting a renter after initiation of any action, where there are no exceptional circumstances.
Security of tenure
Currently, the only private landlords still offering tenancies of longer than a year are those who cater for the wealthiest end of the market (for example, Get Living London in the Olympic Village charges around £400 per week). Londoners on ordinary incomes desperately need security of tenure, too.