Editor's Picks, Social Justice

Britain is in the grip of a rental housing crisis

The rental market is not just unaffordable, it is unethical.

Everyone needs a place to live.

Unfortunately, the UK is currently in the grip of a housing crisis. There is a crisis of supply, meaning that too few new homes are being built, and a crisis of access, where people are struggling to get on to the housing ladder. Homelessness is spiraling out of control and has increased by 102% over the past six years.

There are very few controls on landlords, and properties currently don’t have to be fit for people to live in after 72 MPs voted down a Labour amendment in 2016 that would force landlords to make their homes ‘fit for human habitation’.

The number of MP landlords has increased fourfold since the last parliament. It’s blatantly in the interest of MPs to vote against making landlords more responsible for their properties.

One in 30 adults in the UK is a landlord, and their income makes up 3% of Britain’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The property rental market is huge business.

According to Karl Marx, the ownership of private property creates the most oppressive possible class structure under capitalism. One of the major tenants of socialist thought is the critique of exploitation and alienation caused by the ruling class’ ownership of private property. With landlords currently holding all the cards in terms of housing ownership, is it ever ethical to own multiple properties?

Economist James Yunker also criticizes the system of housing ownership, namely because owning private property generates a ‘passive income’ that requires no exertion on behalf of the landlord.

At the mercy of these passive earners, people are being forced to rent for longer than ever before, with the proportion of homeowners aged 16-34 falling from a half to a third in the last ten years. Many millennials, dubbed ‘generation rent,’ are now resigned to renting into their 40s or 50s, or never being able to buy a home at all.

Hatti, 26, believes that she’ll never own her own home. “I can’t even afford my rent a lot of the time. I don’t feel great about the fact that some people have multiple homes, and others have none.”

If you’re spending every spare penny of income on rent, there’s little leeway to save for a deposit on a house, particularly for those struggling to afford day-to-day necessities.

The under-35s who are homeowners often have a class advantage. Many have been financially assisted by parents, and in some cases, have been left substantial sums by deceased family members.

Others opt to live at home and save money for a deposit, but for those with overcrowded family houses, strained relationships with parents or family members who are abusive, this is not an option.

And it’s not just the rental trap that’s a problem. The standard of rental properties is often substandard, and charged at a premium rate, particularly in the capital.

“Renting in London is always taking a huge risk. Even landlords who seem reputable will leave you with broken front doors and black mold,” says Grace, 21. “When you’re scraping overpriced rent together for unliveable conditions, you can’t help but feel depressed and powerless.”

Laura, 25, also rents in London. “I moved into a place that was absolutely filthy, with piles of rotting fingernails in one of the dressers, bins of rubbish stuffed into cupboards and dust and dirt all over the house. At the end of the tenancy, they tried to charge us for leaving it unclean.”

Unliveable properties and dodgy landlords aren’t unique to London either. I lived in a rented house in Manchester where the landlord had attempted to cover damp walls with a coat of paint. They blackened and stank. Eczema covered my arms and face.

The damp invaded the electric sockets and left us with no heating, lights, or working plugs in February. The letting agency couldn’t get in touch with the landlord to obtain permission to work on the property. He was living out of the country. 

These stories are so depressingly familiar that the word ‘landlord’ has all but become synonymous with poorly maintained, rip-off accommodation. 

Em Morley from Just Landlords, an insurance firm, says: “Whilst there are unethical landlords out there, the vast majority are intent on providing excellent homes for their tenants. Without landlords, there would be considerably less choice and availability of homes for the most vulnerable people in our society.

“The private rental sector provides an alternative to either social housing or buying property, acting as a lifeline for the people who need good quality, stable homes. It should be protected by the right legislation and managed, so it benefits the tenant whilst encouraging landlords to provide the highest quality homes possible.”

So how ethical can it ever be to invest in buy-to-let properties in a broken housing market? Mass social inequality in Britain is caused in part by the fact that so many are struggling to scale the property ladder, while others profit from a passive investment into one of the necessities for human life – a place of shelter.