Housing activist Kate Bradley reviews Nick Bano’s Against Landlords: How to Solve the Housing Crisis (Verso, 2024), an incisive Marxist take on the housing crisis, particularly the private rented sector (‘the villain of the piece’ [p14]).

Housing campaigners, image by Pete Cannell public domain

Even as books about housing go, this one feels timely: it comes out as Rishi Sunak announces new racist social housing allocations policies, Councils face bankruptcy due to their growing homelessness bills, and the Renters Reform Bill continues to make headlines as it’s kicked further down the road and savaged by landlord MPs.

A sense of injustice undergirds the writing in Against Landlords, but Bano isn’t overly sentimental. The pages are not padded out with stories of tenants struggling to pay the rent. For that sort of coverage, plenty of options exist: in fact, there are times when it seems that the sad story about eviction, disrepair or homelessness is the only journalism allowed about housing, a variation on poverty porn if not also combined with analysis. Bano focuses instead on the structural factors that have led to this situation – legal, political and economic, necessarily co-constitutive. Despite this, the book is generally very accessible, in places even conversational.

Against the ‘supply guys’ who would have you believe that the key to fixing housing problems in Britain is cutting red tape and building more homes, Bano advances the argument that we are not in a crisis of housing supply, but one of ratcheting rents first and foremost. He cites that ‘a 2022 report found that the ratio of homes to the number of households has in fact grown over the lifetime of this crisis’ (p8), without an attendant reduction in prices or homelessness. As such, there isn’t a supply crisis, and a lack of houses isn’t what’s causing rent and purchase prices to rocket. The crisis is in the  grossly uneven distribution of wealth, stemming from capital’s role in the market and the pro-capitalist policies and laws that favour landlords and developers. As a tenant-side housing barrister, Bano is well-placed to explore these factors and relate them to the realities of tenants’ situations.

Bano draws on Marx and Engels throughout (Marx more favourably than Engels, overall), in particular to consider a value theory of housing prices. ‘House prices are driven by rental yields’ (p15), he argues, laying out how the value of housing as a commodity can be explained through the lens of ‘capitalisation’ (pp39-42): when you buy a house, you buy ‘a legally enforceable right to receive rental income’, and can work out your profit margin accordingly based on how much rent you can charge, set against your costs (including mortgages and, crucially, repairs, explaining landlords’ desire to do as few of them as possible). 

Bano goes on to explain how private rental investments have become ‘an incomparably secure and fruitful form of investment’ (p42). One of the main reasons for this, Bano argues, is that the state underwrites landlords’ profits through housing benefit. In fact, in 2022, Housing Benefit paid more than a third of the nation’s total rent bill (£23.4bn of an estimated £63bn). As Local Housing Allowance goes up this April for the first time in years, this number will increase again. This state backing prevents downward pressure on rents caused by wage stagnation and poverty amongst tenants. As housing assets now form such a huge part of Britain’s wealth, the housing market is not allowed to fail – and rents are not allowed to fall. 

Against Landlords goes back in history far further than the usual 1980 to explain the modern housing crisis. In the chapter ‘The Longview’, Bano looks back as far as the 1400s to describe the slow reorganisation of tenure into its modern format through centuries of contradiction – primarily between leaseholders and freeholders. 

Though it winds its way there, the 1980s get their due attention in the book – in particular the 1988 Housing Act that introduced both Section 21 no-fault evictions and uncapped rent rises. Bano describes how ‘the absolute right to evict – the state’s guarantee that landlords can take possession very quickly – puts landlords in an overwhelmingly powerful bargaining position. Housing insecurity produces a silent compulsion enforcing rental discipline’ (p31). This explains why it can be so hard for organisers to get renters on board when resisting evictions or refusing unfair rent rises – something I have seen in practice as a tenants’ union activist.

Bano then tells a story that isn’t told often enough: that the private rented sector was almost completely decimated in the 1960s-70s as a result of policies that controlled both rents and development, and it took some serious rehabilitation and facilitation for the state to bring it back to life. Now, after decades of pathetically weak Labour Party opposition, the private rented sector thrives, housing 4.6 million households (mostly not by choice on the tenants’ part). Bano’s book is partly a call to remember that the abolition of private landlordism is not only possible, but nearly happened in living memory.

Much of the analysis in the chapter ‘The Making of the English Landlord Class’ relies on the idea that landlordism as a phenomenon has massively changed in the last 40 years: following the introduction of the Buy to Let mortgage in 1996, the vast expansion in the number of petit-bourgeois individual landlords has meant that many tenants have landlords in their families, or at least know one socially. Many landlords buy a property because they have been promised it will provide a low-level income, for example to supplement a pension. This makes the necessary work of abolishing landlordism a lot more challenging, both discursively, but also materially. It is not devastating socially to seize property from a bank or major developer for redistribution (as Berliners voted for a few years ago), but it is likely to be socially devastating to wrest a significant asset from 2.5 million landlords’ hands. Moreover, I would add, these 2.5 million landlords form a petit-bourgeois voter base for the Tories, which has made passing even modest rental reforms extremely difficult (where in the past Bano points out even the Tories were alright with some level of reformist housing policy).

Bano’s chapter on race and housing – ‘Illegitimate Concerns’ – focuses on the way that housing insecurity is racialised and tends to affect black and minority ethnic tenants the most, and not by random chance but for structural reasons. I’m glad the book had the chapter, especially as the government proposes its ‘British homes for British workers’ policy. Examples of ‘social engineering’, ghettoisation and racialised housing outcomes arm readers with useful information to oppose racist housing policy and the exploitation of racist narratives to explain the housing crisis (such as by blaming asylum seekers for shortages in affordable homes – something coming up more and more in far-right election campaigns and online arguments).

If I had one main criticism of this book, it would be how coy it is about the current housing movement. Glasgow’s famous era of rent strikes is mentioned, alongside examples of radical housing campaigns in London across the 20th century. But today’s tenants’ unions and movement organisations are only mentioned in passing. I was surprised to see how little of this book was devoted to considering strategies for challenging landlords today, even in the chapter ‘Solving Things Ourselves: Tenant Organising’, which is largely historical. 

Since the economic crash in 2008, a plethora of new housing-focused groups have emerged, including the Social Housing Action Campaign (formed 2013), residents’ groups and forums like Housing Action Southwark & Lambeth (2016) and Focus E15 (2013), the ‘new’ tenants’ unions like Acorn (2014), Living Rent in Scotland (2014), London Renters’ Union (2018), CATU in Ireland (2019), Greater Manchester Tenants Union (2020), and TACU in Lancaster (2022). Particular housing-related events, such as the Grenfell fire and cladding scandal, have led to single-issue groups emerging, like Justice 4 Grenfell (2017) and the Manchester Cladiators (2019). Groups have formed to resist gentrification and the bulldozing of estates, such as the Stop the Haringey Development Vehicle campaign in North London and the campaign to save the Aylesbury estate. Zooming out, we have the large lobbying groups like Shelter and Generation Rent, as well as housing lawyers, homelessness charities, and human rights organisations like Amnesty International who sometimes walk the housing beat. Then there’s the trade unions who dabble in housing issues as part of their community organising, like Unite.

Between these organisations and others, there are tens of thousands – if not hundreds of thousands – of people trying to organise against landlords. Are housing activists across these groups simply the ‘patient gardeners’ Bano mentions in Against Landlords (p119), or could they be something more insurgent? What have these groups achieved, and what power do they hold? What stands in their way and how could obstacles be moved? Bano started exploring these questions in 2020 in the New Socialist, but I think things have moved forward since that initial analysis. As part of working out how to solve the housing crisis, we need to work collectively to answer these questions. 

Overall, Against Landlords is an incisive and engaging take on the housing crisis, with some crucial commentary that anyone interested in housing would benefit from reading.

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