Tenants in Scotland’s private rental sector have just lost the most significant reforms won by housing organisers in recent years – the rent cap and eviction moratorium. Tony Boardman reports on what’s happened since the reform was revoked, comments on what we can learn, and considers how we build a fightback. 


Living Rent Rally for Rent Controls, Govan, May 2024. Photo by Anne-Caroline Le Bescond. 

Last month, the Scottish government lifted its 3% rent cap and eviction moratorium for private tenants, in place since April 2023. This followed September 2022’s rent freeze and eviction ban, and originated as emergency legislation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Existing tenants of the Private Rental Sector have, predictably, been thrown into a state of turmoil. Rents can technically now be raised as high as a landlord wishes (though most rents can be capped at a 12% increase, but only if the tenant challenges the rent hike). A survey of Glasgow private tenants by Scotland’s tenants union Living Rent suggests widespread distress, with some alarming figures: 62% of respondents fearing they will lose their home, a whopping 98% saying the changes had affected their mental health. 

While this article will focus on private tenants (making up 14% of Scottish households), there is an urgent, parallel struggle against rent increases for social housing tenants (making up 24% of Scottish households). Council and housing association tenants never actually received the 2022 rent cap – a planned 3% rent cap was removed in January 2023, before social housing’s annual rent increases in April. Social housing tenants also regularly find that results of consultations on rent increases are ignored, and that landlords do not make repairs or work to resolve issues like damp and mould. More work needs to be done to unite these issues.

When the rent cap and eviction moratorium were enacted for private tenants, they were justifiably considered a victory for Living Rent and the tenant movement, and seen as an example of winnable reforms for the tenant movement across the rest of Britain. Still, it is important to note that there were limits to their effectiveness when tested by a militant landlord class, themselves threatened by rising mortgage rates, continually self-describing as the victims of ‘anti-landlord rhetoric and policy’ from the Scottish government, yet continually able to push the limits of limited legislation. Since September 2022, landlords exploited loopholes to circumvent the eviction ban then in place, so that 80% of eviction applications were actually granted. Furthermore, over the past year, average rents have been increasing at a higher rate in Scotland than the rest of the UK, with private landlords simply setting higher rents at the start of new tenancies, or when a tenant moves out. (An understudied element of this may be the increase, since the pandemic, of people migrating from England to Scotland, particularly those priced out of London. This offers landlords in certain areas more competition and thus opportunities to raise rents.)

This jacking-up of rents during the rent freeze/ cap is at once a symptom of landlords’ individual anxieties, and is a collective disciplining of the tenant movement and its political allies. Landlords have, from the beginning, fought tooth and nail against these limited measures. While landlord-activists in the Scottish Association of Landlords have organised themselves to intervene politically against rent controls, a British Property Federation survey reveals that many property owners, already rattled by the threat of Scotland’s independence, simply took their properties off the rental market or sold them – indeed, landlords took properties off the market at a higher rate in Scotland than the rest of the UK between September 2022 and September 2023. Property owners’ justifications demonstrate straightforward class interests, far removed from responsibilities of providing decent housing for renters. As one says: 

We have no commitments to Scotland and the rent freeze only confirms that [pulling out of investments in Scotland] was the right thing to do. We can deploy capital and get the returns we need in other markets without these sorts of constraints.

Another:

You have an asset and you choose: do you deploy the worth of that asset in a price-controlled area or a non price-controlled area like the stock market? It’s blindingly obvious what will happen.

And another:

I want a boring, stable and consistent asset to pay our pension liabilities.

Tenants, of course, get nothing boring, stable and consistent out of the removal of the protections; just anxiety and instability. With boring consistency, wages come from the boss and go straight to the landlord, housing benefits from the state going the same way. While landlords fret about whether they are deploying the full worth of their assets, private tenants worry about eviction, forced displacement through increased rents, less money for food, or to do anything with. These two sets of anxieties are clearly not the same.

Implications for the tenant movement

Protections and rights won for groups of tenants* can, as the Scottish experience shows, be taken away, watered down, or not enforced properly. They can, of course, also be extended or strengthened – this all depends on the strength of the movement. There are some lessons we must take from the ongoing fight to win lasting rent controls and eviction bans.

The tenant movement must fight to enforce and protect any gains it makes, and build its capacity to win more in doing so. The ease with which we can lose gains previously won through reforms ought remind us of our relative weakness and disorganisation in the face of capital and the state – despite victories for, and growth of, organisations like Living Rent – and that we are in a long struggle, bound to be full of both advances and setbacks. Skills for fighting to defend rights will be useful in fighting for more gains; Living Rent’s local member defence groups are, and will be, key in the struggle to building confidence among tenants through resistance, and enabling tenants to both enforce and expand existing tenant rights. That is to say: we should resist a strategic outlook that separates out something like ‘policy work’ from something like ‘direct action’. We should not let policy wins deprioritise the work of militant member defence campaigns; policy wins, in fact, depend on the confidence of members to flex their organising muscles.
We must be ready for a gritty defensive struggle after this loss. Anecdotal evidence suggests that landlords have been emboldened by this win, with friends served notices for rent increases of 40% and higher. Prominent anti-eviction blockades and demonstrations will be key to protecting our neighbours, and to striking fear into landlords considering evicting tenants.
We cannot imagine the tenant class as equal partners, or ‘shareholders’, with the landlord class, vying for attention and begging for rights from a devolved liberal Scottish government. As classes, tenants and landlords have materially different interests. It is actually true that a rent freeze would present potential investors in rental properties with a higher level of risk on their asset than in other parts of Britain. As such, any conception based on an idea of the government listening equally to landlords’ and tenants’ interest groups attempts to reconcile irreconcilable positions. We, therefore, fight directly for concessions, rather than for an audience with politicians.
Conservative and liberal commentators will inevitably paint the last years as a failure for rent controls. We must resist this interpretation, while pointing to the limits of the previous legislation. Numerous articles on Scotland’s rent controls described them as leaving both tenants and landlords unhappy. But the main concerns for tenants were because of landlords exploiting loopholes, rather than an inherent problem with rent controls. Universalising and strengthening rent controls would increase housing stability and affordability, slow displacement, and provide particular support for low-income renters (see Living Rent’s demands and recent demonstrations for rent controls).
Sections of capital can wield powerful economic weapons to make gains from the state – landlords are organised and will wage class war on us. We will be defeated if we don’t fight like hell. Investors and landlords can deploy the capital strike, taking their investments away from a region, in order to win political demands, as investors in Build to Rent housing have appeared to do over the past year. Our strategy in response must take this into consideration. We need to build enough power not just to gain recognition from the state, but to seriously fight powerful actors who have their own solidarities, their own organisation, and a range of disciplinary mechanisms in their toolkit. We must develop our solidarities, our organisation, and our own toolkit – containing mass mobilisations, direct actions, eviction blockades, anti-foreclosure occupations and the rent strike – accordingly. 

 

*defined, as by the LA tenants union, as including anyone who is not in control of their own housing

 

Further Reading

Samuel Stein. Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State, on the ‘real estate state’ and capital strikes.

Tracy Rosenthal. 101 Notes on the LA Tenants Union on militant struggles against gentrification, and an expanded conception of tenancy.

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