Danny Schultz reviews Tenants, a recent book by Vicky Spratt exploring the scale of exploitative landlordism in Britain, finding an indictment of British capitalism and an urgent call for renter organising.

Tenants by Vicky Spratt, 2022, Profile Books, £20. Image, London Slum by Gustave Dore, part of the Wellcome Collection, CC4.0 license.

The known statistics show that the housing system we have now is cruel, callous, and spiteful. Over £22 billion is handed to private landlords every year in Britain through housing benefits. Over four million homes do not meet the Decent Homes Standard. 850,000 former council homes are now owned by private landlords. Four million people live in poverty. Recently, in Lewisham, a teacher noticed a child pretending to eat from an empty lunchbox.

The unknowns are incalculable; the stress, anxiety, fear, depression, and terror inflicted on millions of people because they have unsatisfactory housing, threatening landlords and jobs which simply don’t pay enough.

In Tenants, Vicky Spratt weaves this all together – the cold hard facts and all too human impact in a compelling, readable book which, rightly, speaks with fury. In the process, Spratt shows how the current housing crisis is just one component of a wider crisis that includes low pay, poverty, a collapsing health service, underfunded schools, and attacks on workers’ pay and conditions.

The Background

It may seem fantastical, but Britain once had progressive housing policies influenced by Garden Cities, Bauhaus, modernism, and the ambition of building better housing to build a better society. An immense amount of good quality low-cost housing was built, and there is still a substantial legacy of this achievement. But from 1980 onwards, with the election of Margaret Thatcher and the adoption of neoliberalism by both the Tories and Labour, this legacy has been under constant attack.

The introduction of ‘Right to Buy’ in the early 1980s wrecked the good work done by local authorities in the previous eighty years or so. The Housing Act of 1988 continued the neoliberal assault on housing rights and fair rents. Deregulation was introduced which gave private landlords brutal and oppressive power over tenants. They could now evict when they wanted using Section 21, for which they do not even need to provide a reason for the eviction. Rent controls and lifelong tenancies were scrapped for private tenants, and weakened for housing association tenants. Part of the chaos today is directly related to these active decisions by right-wing politicians.

Britain now has a largely unregulated private rented sector, shortages of social housing, a layer of people with two or three properties and skylines in London, Manchester, Leeds and elsewhere filling up with high rise buildings that do nothing to address the underlying problems. The provision of housing has been financialised, monetised, and homes have become assets and commodities.

Home Owning and Renting

Over 60 percent of households in Britain own their own home. But for those who rent from private landlords, they are often in a precarious situation where they face constant pressures and are frequently moving from one poor quality and expensive place to another. People in the rented sector are using more of their income to pay for housing. Finding anything at all to rent is becoming increasingly difficult. Spratt outlines the tiny number of places to rent in several areas. As she makes clear, people who are earning what should be a reasonable wage are struggling. What about those who earn less? Those who work in the gig economy? Those who find themselves in hard times due to sickness, bereavement, or relationship breakdown?

For those on Universal Credit, the housing element is only set at a rate high enough to cover up to 30% of the actual rents in any area. For those whose rent is higher than that, where is the extra supposed to come from? Why, of course, by not buying food, going hungry to feed the kids, never going to the pub for a drink, making sure the heating is always off. Holidays and new clothes and the occasional treat? Not even in people’s dreams can they have such things. People of colour, LBGT+, women and single parents often experience even worse treatment.

Tenants and the Importance of Housing

Government seems to have become confused with advertising. Policies that might help or protect people are replaced with soundbites. A huge gap has opened between what Tory politicians say and what they mean. But what is it actually like for people who have no real place to call home? Spratt travels deep into this world, following individuals as their realities and stabilities are ripped apart by unexpected evictions, the pressure of bullying landlords, demands for more rent, and incomprehensible bureaucracy.

Housing is a primary human need. It is the material basis of what sort of life a person has. It should be a place of shelter, security, comfort; a place to grow, to safely retreat into from the pressures of work, government attacks and other issues. Capitalist reality is relentless in its oppression and exploitation. But increasingly people have nowhere they can properly retreat to. Capitalism has captured their very home. In Tenants, Spratt constantly describes how this impacts upon people. In any sane world, need would be the starting point for the provision of housing. Not profit, not rent, not capital expansion, but people.

Constant moving and widespread displacement are now facts of life for a whole layer of people. It impacts on access to healthcare, education, and disrupts critical communities of friends and relatives. Personal histories entwined with local people and familiar faces and places are lost.

Spratt outlines how the private rented sector is only one part of this. There are new developments, all products of neoliberalism: temporary accommodation, beds in sheds, no-contract housing, property guardians, and of course the constant problem of homelessness.

Beds in sheds is exactly that. Landlords build a shed in a garden and cram people into it. The Ordnance Survey carried out a drone survey of the London Borough of Newham a couple of years ago and discovered at least 400 examples. 

Property Guardianship is a new scheme where people can live in dilapidated property where they have few, if any rights – as temporary security of unoccupied properties. Landlords can turn up unannounced at any time and health and safety is a thing of the past.

No-contract housing means the shadow economy of accommodation without any contract at all. This fits perfectly with zero-hours contracts and the gig-economy. The poverty may not be quite so bad as the nineteenth century slums with open sewers and dripping wet windowless basements, but the dynamic of exploitation is exactly the same.

Landlords and the Importance of Profits

Sarah Wise’s book The Blackest Streets is an extraordinary account of a 19th century slum, the Old Nicol in Shoreditch. In the first chapter she describes the stomach churning conditions. But what really shocked me when I reached the second chapter were the descriptions of how much money private landlords were making. These sentences, about 1800s slum landlords, could have been written today. The quality of housing has become worse for more and more people, and more expensive, but the profits of the landlords have grown and grown.

There have been attempts to deal with rogue landlords. A database was set up 2018 to record them. In the first year, only four names were recorded. By 2020 this had risen to a total of 21. It’s the exposure of such shocking statistics that gives Tenants punch.

For landlords, a good source of profit is houses in multiple occupation (HMO). People may share bedrooms, they will definitely share a kitchen and perhaps one shower with many other people. This sector is supposed to be regulated but in practice it isn’t, and licensing is not properly enforced. There are proven links between HMOs, tax avoidance, modern slavery, and human trafficking. It’s chaos capitalism and it’s in every town and city in Britain.

Thousands of people, including large numbers of children, and even babies, spend long periods of time in temporary accommodation – the housing sector meant to support people facing immediate street homelessness. Between April 2019 and March 2020, while families were squashed into one room struggling with the basic needs of food and shelter, the private sector landlords who run some of these places scooped up over £1bn. Thousands more were in ‘Bed and Breakfast’ accommodation. The owners pocketed £400m.

All these pounds and pence can be added up. But the cost on the lives of babies, infants, young people, and adults appears to be of little interest to the ruling class of Britain.

Some thoughts

There are some gaps in Tenants. It would have been useful to have an outline of the progressive policies which built good quality housing in Britain between 1900 and 1980, and what the forces and dynamics were that achieved this; particularly municipal socialists influenced by a large and at times combative working class. What happened to all of that?

To understand house-price inflation and why so much is being built without solving the housing problem it is necessary to look at capital flows into construction and property ‘development’. There is a lot of dirty money which comes from autocratic and despotic regimes; China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and so on. Many of the high-rises they fund are half empty. How is that possible? It would be useful to make those links.

The conclusions in Tenants are a little scatter gun: get involved in charity work, work towards love, join tenants’ action groups. But I think that’s partly because the conclusions are so difficult. Housing now expresses the power of global capital and that power feels immense. Where to start? What to do?

I completely agree with Spratt that large-scale imaginative thinking is needed. But just as importantly, left-wing socialist thinking and action is needed. The Tories are never going to solve the housing crisis. Practically they are mired in profit making and corruption and ideologically they blame the poor and under-paid for the poverty they find themselves in. Anyone involved in campaigning for better housing needs to decide whether collective, working class action will improve housing or whether the answer is with Tory profiteering. 

We need an organised unity of everyone who experiences the multiple crises of low pay, the cost of living, and housing. Building that unity will not be easy, but it is the only way to break the grip of capital and money power. Building that unity will only be possible with clear socialist ideas and solutions: the socialisation of housing, rent controls, bringing public housing under workers’ control, the unionisation of construction workers, an end to the investment of dirty money in housing stock. 

Reading Tenants, you will be angry, you will be inspired; but most of all, you must help in the task of organising.

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