The promise of home ownership is now an impossible dream for many, we are doomed to rent forever. This blog is about ‘The Rent Trap’. About the economic and political forces that made it possible, the institutions that sustain it, and the culture, inheritance and social mores that have made us all part of it. It starts with policy, and it ends in our attitudes and language. In the future we might look back on ‘The Rent Trap’ as a historical quirk. But first we have to see it. It’s time to throw open the curtains.
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The majority – 63 per cent – of households in the UK live in homes that they own, either outright or with a mortgage. But the picture is changing rapidly. Private renters now represent 19 per cent of households, while 17 per cent are social renters. Private renters have the lowest legal status. When a private renter loses their home, it is not headline news; there’s no dramatised public battle like the recent campaigns staged by Focus E15, the group of council tenants in Newham protesting against being rehoused away from London, or the tenants of New Era, whose charity owners sold their houses to a private property company. These protests captured the public imagination precisely because they were defending what private renters have never had: the right to a permanent home.
It was easy to identify with what those protesters were fighting for: a family, a neighbourhood, a sense of belonging. But to the untrained eye, it was less obvious what they were fighting against: becoming private renters. They knew that would mean searching for a new home every year or two, finding either unaffordable rents or landlords who won’t accept the state payments they need to be able to pay those rents. They knew that – even with the kindest landlord and the most agreeable home – the possibility of having to pack up and leave is only ever two months away. For private renters leaving their home – because the rent has gone up, because the landlord refuses to fix the boiler, because the strangers they had to share it with became too difficult – there are no struggles fronted by Russell Brand, and no TV crews. There’s nothing to struggle for, nothing to defend. It’s an everyday event.
The worst kind of injustice is the kind that is so ordinary, so mundane, that it goes unnoticed by perpetrators and victims alike. At first glance, there’s nothing remarkable about an email exchange with a letting agent who doesn’t care about the law, or who describes a tenant as ‘not playing ball’ when she exercises her legal rights. When private renters complain about another house move, another withheld deposit, another uninvited visit, it almost sounds like whingeing. There’s no merry band of protesters pitched against the state or a giant property developer; no obvious David or Goliath.
When private renters seek legal advice, the most common response is embarrassment at believing they had more legal protection than they actually have. Like so many renters’ stories, there’s no real triumph, no tragedy, no happy ending. It ends in a state of perpetual insecurity, with few checks or safeguards, and there is little she can do to challenge it. You cannot leave, break away or climb out. There is no exit. We should call it what it is. A trap.
The Rent Trap: How we Fell into It and How we Get Out of It is available at 30% discount if you enter code GEO2019 at checkout.
Rosie Walker is a social policy writer and researcher interested in housing, inequality, employment rights and debt. As a researcher she has worked for London School of Economics, University of Bristol and University of Brighton. She was once evicted by her landlord for asking for a new chest of drawers.
Samir Jeraj is a journalist who specialises in housing and worked as a city councillor. His work on housing has appeared in the Guardian, the Independent, Inside Housing and the New Internationalist.