The UK housing market is a dustbin on fire. Rents outside of London are rising at their fastest rate since the financial crash, accelerating gentrification, displacing young people and adding more than £450 to an average annual rental bill.
Londoners have long been inured to this reality. The mega-city was once held up as an aberration – an experiment in free-market thinking gone wrong. With rents equivalent to 57 percent of the average salary and more than 3.3 million tenants living in substandard conditions, London—conventional wisdom often said—was too far gone to save.
Surely no one could expect politicians to flex their regulatory muscles to return the city to the hands of ordinary people? The real issue was working-class tenants living beyond their means. Those irked by their inability to rent a house in a London suburb for less than £1,700 per month were being unrealistic. After all, this was London. What did they expect?
The solution was simple: give up and look elsewhere. The pandemic has forced many to do just that, but prospects outside of the capital look similarly grim.
Contrary to the wishful thinking of the political establishment, two years of financial insecurity and social deprivation have left people wanting more, not less, from post-pandemic life. This is particularly true for Londoners – a constituency that has suffered disproportionately under a poorly regulated rental system.
Almost two-thirds of renters have considered moving out of London since the pandemic began, with the property website Rightmove reporting a 126 percent increase in searches for homes outside of the city.
Londoners fleeing the husk of corporate capital has had a predictable effect: the sweeping redistribution of property inflation beyond the London skyline.
In Wigan, Greater Manchester, Mansfield, and Nottinghamshire, rents have risen by more than 10 percent in the past year, while in Hastings, East Sussex, and Norwich, rents rose by more than nine percent. The average rental price for a property outside of London reached a nauseating high of £1,007 last month.
All the while wages continue to stagnate. Data from the housing charity Shelter shows rents in England grew 60 percent quicker than wages between 2011 and 2017.
These figures paint a bleak picture. But where there is anger, there is hope – and people are beginning to fight back.
Membership of renters unions soared during the first lockdown. Community union ACORN doubled its growth month-on-month, while London Renters Union (LRU) reported 2,000 new sign-ups since the pandemic began. From the halls of the University of Manchester to the streets of Dalston, renters went on strike.
Surprise victories were won—like the case of a Monaco-based property magnate paying out £19,000 to his tenants for failing to license his property—a vindication of the power of grassroots organising in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. But while strikes, occupations, and protests are urgently needed as an interim measure to stem the worst abuses of the rentier class, rampant rent increases can only be countered with more permanent measures like rent controls and the mass expansion of public housing stock.
To achieve these victories, the Left must confront the economic interests behind the curtain.
It’s partly a problem of ideology. For generations, renters have been discouraged from viewing themselves as such. Thatcherite consensus told us we didn’t exist. We were all simply landlords-in-waiting. The ensuing policies created intertwining problems: the unavailability of ownership, and the unaffordability of rent.
As researcher, writer, and housing campaigner Michal Rozworski says: ‘If everyone sees themselves as a potential owner, it’s easy to get them to identify with the kind of policy that ultimately benefits landlords and keeps the whole system unaffordable. Capital has gotten smarter.’
Renters need to build their power as a voting block, and the mass exodus of city-dwellers does offer one advantage: the redistribution of a radical political constituency across parts of the UK traditionally dominated by homeowners who voted in their own interests.
A recent YouGov poll shows more than four in ten (42 percent) of people moving out of London are between the ages of 25 and 44. The average tenant is aged 35. Demographic change is glacially slow, but the exponential growth of the tenants organisations like ACORN and LRU shows us that political will is anything but.
While there are natural barriers to this type of consolidation—private renters move house frequently and just 58 percent are registered to vote—we have to organise beyond this. The tide is moving against us and renters can’t afford to wait beyond 2024.
We must capitalise on our growing political leverage in constituencies outside of London to call for rent controls while building movements that demand large-scale public housing.
We must strengthen consensus for debt forgiveness movements like Cancel The Rent and Can’t Pay Won’t Pay, which challenge the idea of debt as a sacred cow which should be worshipped—always—at the expense of the renter.
We must pressure politicians to call for greater regulation on holiday home rentals to stop private landlords from capitalising on the ‘staycation’ boom that’s driving down housing stock while pushing rental prices to obscene new heights.
Above all, we must face the reality of the moment rather than dreaming of an imagined future. Only then can we achieve the goal set out by the labour movement almost a century ago: to build a housing system that serves people, rather than profit.