If the enemy of Occupy was the banker and the enemy of Black Lives Matter was the cop, the archetypical villain of the coronavirus crisis is the landlord. Over the course of the pandemic, the landlord has emerged as a uniquely intransigent, rapacious breed of capitalist. Landlords expect their assets to retain their value, irrespective of the reality of market forces. They demand that renters cough up, regardless of whether they’re among the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve lost their job or have been hospitalised with Covid-19.
Among the many iniquities the pandemic has exposed—racial disparities in healthcare, barefaced government corruption, an eviscerated welfare state—the extent to which our economy is structured around landlords’ whims has been made dramatically clear. Some of the most disastrous decisions of the past nine months have been made not in the interests of public health, but private wealth. The government has worked tirelessly to keep university, corporate, and private landlords afloat, while allowing the rest of us to drown in debt.
Being landlords themselves, but also messy bitches who live for drama, the Tories have baited this bloodthirst. While the party would never actively side with renters, it naturally shares their bias against the rental market. Margaret Thatcher’s flagship Right to Buy policy sought to cement property ownership as the cardinal aspiration of the British people, and in doing so sought to render renting as ‘second rate’.
These were Boris Johnson’s words to the recent Tory party conference, where he called it ‘disgraceful’ that declining homeownership was forcing people to ‘pay through the nose to rent a home they can’t truly love or make their own.’ Ever the literalists, the National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA) was quick to rebut the PM’s claim, citing its own survey finding that 63 percent of renters had redecorated.
The Landlord Lobby
The NRLA’s very existence is a symptom of a deep and insecurity among the landlord class, one borne of a late renaissance in renter organising. British tenants have been striking since the late nineteenth century: between 1938 and 1939, thousands of East Enders did. In Our Flag Stays Red, the former Communist MP Phil Piratin colourfully recalled the pitched battles led by figures like Ella Donovan and Michael Best Shapiro.
During these epic confrontations people in tenements and flat blocks ‘defended themselves with saucepans, rolling-pins, sticks, and shovels’ against police and security for, in some cases, months. Eventually, the rent strikers won £10,000 (£679,000 today) of cancelled rent arrears from their landlords and gained a degree of rent control from the government.
Yet with such controls having long since slackened and neoliberalism’s grip on political normality only tightening, such wins have been unimaginable in our times. Until recently, that is. Over the past five years, a fresh crop of tenants’ unions—Acorn, Living Rent, the London Renters Union—has sprung up across Britain.
These young, scrappy groups have rapidly mobilised a renter army of thousands, culminating in a big win in April last year: Theresa May’s pledge to scrap section 21 (or ‘no-fault’) evictions. Realising the people they’d dismissed as snot-nosed millennials were mounting a real threat to their power, landlords moved to consolidate it; exactly a year after May’s pledge, the National Landlords Association and Residential Landlords Association merged to form the NRLA.
While this newly reinvigorated landlord lobby represents an obvious obstacle to tenant organising, it has also enabled us to put the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu’s proverb into practice: ‘know your enemy and know yourself, and you will have nothing to fear for 100 battles.’ Lurking in the weird, paranoiac world of LandlordZONE and Landlords Today, the British Landlords Association and NRLA has given me a more acute understanding of what landlords fear—licensing laws, DSS, the ‘space race’ to suburbia—than any renters’ union.
Literature of Landlordism
It’s also how I came across Parasite, an anonymous memoir claiming to expose the plight of landlords and ‘the hostile environment’—no, not that one—in which they operate. Published just weeks after the coronavirus eviction ban was lifted and a ‘tsunami of evictions’ races towards our shores, my first thought was: unbosom yourself, sweet landlord.
The book’s title is, of course, a reference both to 2019’s instantly iconic Bong Joon-Ho film, as well as the term increasingly used to describe a job that has never seemed less real. More than anything, it is a symptom of self-pity: ‘Being a landlord is a thankless profession,’ writes the so-called Secret Landlord. ‘Everyone hates you.’
The book, written as a year-long series of diary entries, captures the cognitive dissonance engendered by a housing system that both posits property as a marketable asset, and housing as a human right. At times, the Secret Landlord appears to recognise that her houses are someone else’s home, and that she therefore has a duty of care to her tenants, incanting that ‘tenants need to be looked after as much as the properties they rent.’
She even describes herself as ‘like a part of their extended family’, her tenants ‘like my children’. Yet this mawkish paternalism evaporates instantly on contact with her material interests. When a construction company bills her £190.40 for boarding up a door the police broke down in order to arrest her tenant, the Secret Landlord discards parental metaphors. ‘I am his landlord,’ she writes, ‘not his mother … all I do is rent him a house’. Not a home.
Among the more effective analgesics the Secret Landlord finds for the pain of her contradictory existence is projection. It is not she who wishes to evict Mr Brown for hoarding. No, it is ‘the council guy’ who, despite having nowhere to accommodate Mr Brown, somehow insists that ‘the private rental sector isn’t really the place for him.’
‘So he should be kicked out of here to sleep on the streets, is that it?’ the Secret Landlord replies, aghast. Were this account not a psychodrama designed to assuage the author’s guilt—a ‘handwritten letter’ from another tenant reads simply, ‘thank you for being you’—evicting Mr Brown would be the last thing wanted by someone employed by the council; local authorities are legally obliged to prevent homelessness. Here, however, he is a convenient baddie.
Reading Parasite, I was reminded of Novara Media’s James Butler’s description of David Graeber as ‘a kind of anti-cynic, at pains to point out how common acts of altruism, mutual support, sharing and solidarity were’. These acts were radical, wrote Butler, since they ‘don’t fit comfortably with the contemporary capitalist conception of the human being, a perpetually value-maximising agent of economic exchange.’
With Parasite, we discover just how uncomfortably. Years spent squeezing value from the vulnerable have endowed the Secret Landlord with a hard shell of misanthropy. ‘She eyes me carefully,’ she observes of one woman, ‘like a prey gerbil she’s about to pierce with her beak-like nose’ — one occasionally cracked open by her glimmering awareness of it: ‘I’m too aware of the bad in people.’
The Secret Landlord is fuelled by a deep mistrust of people yet an equally intense desire for their love, a paradox that produces such bizarre scenes as when the author visits a property from which she has just evicted her tenant of fourteen years after he fell upon hard times: ‘I could still smell him, see his stuff as he used to have it on the walls, in the rooms … I felt sad, deeply sad, and so empty.’
I was surprised to discover that my prevailing feeling towards the Secret Landlord was not rage, but pity. Never will the kind of human connection Graeber both theorised and practised be available to her, sentenced to a life spent trudging the lonely treadmill of capital.
‘If you want to run a landlord business,’ advises the Secret Landlord’s professional helpline, another figure who helpfully forces her to enact the cruelty she supposedly disdains, ‘you need to take the emotion out of this and get on and run it like a business.’ In the end, she takes their advice.
The epilogue announces that the Secret Landlord has found the perfect solution to the thorny problem of being in possession of a human heart: estate agents. Rather than having to engage in the business of dealing with tenants directly, the Secret Landlord outsources her ‘emotional labour’ to a cadre of professional property managers.
With (at least her own) feelings assuaged, the Secret Landlord is free to maximise profit while losing not a minute of sleep over the cancer one tenant’s aunt has developed, the food banks on which another relies, or the OCD from which another tenant suffers. The gristle of existence melts away, the path to capital is smoothed once more, and we grind on.