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The renters’ rights movement must look beyond ‘affordability’

As we enter the worst recession in 300 years, renters’ incomes will be squeezed with chances of meaningful wage-increases remote for most. As such, all concerned with safeguarding and improving renters’ quality of life should turn their attention to minimising the cost of living where possible.

Given housing costs are renters’ greatest expense, how rent is determined should be scrutinised closely with rent reduced as much as possible. In addition to benefiting renters as individuals, reductions in rent would serve to fortify aggregate demand during the recession1.

Competing definitions of affordability

In 2011, the coalition government introduced a definition of affordability which provided a rented property would be classified as ‘affordable’ if it cost no more than 80% of the local market rent.

The definition was absurd.

It is impossible to calculate whether something is affordable if the formula you use takes no account of the renter’s income and essential outgoings. In response, various well-intentioned actors, including the Labour Party came up with their own definitions² of affordability focusing on renters’ income and ability to pay.

The limitations of a focus on ‘affordability’

Any suggestion that market forces should not be the sole determinant of renters’ housing costs should be broadly welcomed. However, limiting demands around housing costs solely to those of ‘affordability’ has served to tacitly legitimate the landlord and renter relationship, a relationship that is, at its core, inherently exploitative.

The principle that landlords should profiteer from renters has become locked-in as ‘something that goes without saying’, all calls for affordability demand are that landlords’ profiteering should not be so great as to cause renters excessive hardship. Crucially, a focus on ‘affordability’ for the renter has meant the landlord’s side of the relationship has avoided scrutiny.

Scrutiny of how landlords justify the rent they charge exposes the inherent unfairness of the landlord and renter relationship

1) ‘Supply and demand’ might explain rent levels, but explanation does not equal justification!

Housing costs for renters should be based on the actual cost of supplying the home, not what the market can bear. Sometimes, because of the layout of the plumbing in certain properties, it is impossible for water companies to provide individual water bills for each household. When this is the case, the landlord of the building will receive one water bill for the entire property and then invoice each household for their portion of the bill.

It is unlawful for landlords to make a profit from the re-sale of water in such circumstances as it is recognised it would be morally abhorrent to profiteer from something so necessary to human survival when the water company has already done so.

Given shelter’s own importance to human survival and given that everyone involved in the construction of the home has already been paid for their work and materials, there is no compelling reason why re-sale of shelter should be treated differently.

2) Landlords’ costs of supplying a home, outside of initial acquisition, are negligible compared to the rent they charrge.

45% of landlords own their renters’ homes outright without a mortgage. For such landlords, the ongoing cost of supplying a property to a renter is limited to the costs incurred keeping the property in a good state of repair and fit for human habitation (£73.17 per month on average for a three bedroom home). In comparison, the average rent on a three-bedroom home in Manchester is £895.00 per month.

3) It is unfair for landlords to expect renters to cover the cost of initial acquisition of the home through their rent, unless ownership is transferred in exchange!

As an alternative to pointing to the free market price mechanism, landlords sometimes use their Mortgage CMIs as justification for the rent they charge. It is unfair for them to do so. If landlords want somebody else, i.e. renters, to cover their costs in acquiring ownership of the home, as a basic point of fairness, ownership of the home should be transferred to the ones doing the actual paying in exchange.

Currently, landlords have their cake and eat it, at the renter’s expense.

Moving beyond affordability

If challenges to housing costs focus solely on ‘affordability’ a systematic investigation of landlordism, and subsequent exploration of pathways that could lead to greatly reduced housing costs for renters, such as nationalisation of the private rented sector, become foreclosed.

It is unclear why, historically, supposedly progressive actors have been content only to ask for ‘affordability’ on behalf of renters. There may have been a lack of courage in challenging landlordism head on, or perhaps a latent ‘protestant work ethic’ type notion that it is virtuous for housing costs to be at least a bit of a burden for renters.

Whatever the historic reasons, we are now in extraordinary times, merely asking for affordability is not good enough.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Tom Lavin</span></strong>
Tom Lavin

Tom Lavin is on the organising committee of ACORN Liverpool and a Justice First Fellow working in housing law at Merseyside Law Centre. He previously worked for Shelter as a housing adviser.

1 This argument is made here in relation to rent suspensions but can equally be applied to reducing rent.

² Housing charity Shelter state a rented property should not be considered affordable if housing costs are greater than 35% of net household income: https://blog.shelter.org.uk/2015/08/what-is-affordable-housing/  Manchester City Council came up with a more convoluted formula based on the average income of residents in the city: https://secure.manchester.gov.uk/info/100007/homes_and_property/7638/manchester_housing_strategy/2

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‘Affordable rent’ chaos

It was all too clear when providers were asked to put in bids to provide new homes under
the ‘affordable rent’ programme that the timetable was tight, the risks were high, and that there was a lot of confusion about who would actually have influence over issues such as rent levels.
Housing associations, in particular, had hugely complex assessments to make of the financial implications for their organisations.  Subsidy per unit would be tiny and associations would have to use up a high percentage of their private borrowing capacity to make the schemes work.  Many were extremely concerned about the levels of rent that would be required, which could be up to 80% of market rents, and the fact that they would be completely unaffordable to their normal profile of new tenants.  Privately, quite a few were outraged that a share of their re-lets of social rented homes would have to go into the ‘affordable rent’ pool to fund the developments.
During the period when the bids were being prepared and put in, it became obvious that many local authorities were being bypassed and that quite a few of them were not on the ball and influencing what was happening.  There were genuine problems for housing associations, who might have been looking at schemes in a large number of different council areas, often dealing with indicative figures for future years and not real schemes on specific sites.
It must be said that some housing associations, but not all, have tried hard to make some
sense of the scheme, appreciating that the scheme will work less badly in some places
than in others and trying to keep rents, especially for family homes, down wherever possible.  It has been said by the mayor in London that the average rent will be 65% of market but there seem to be no published official statistics to see how this is calculated.
A little late in the day in some cases, councils have realised that new development in their
district was being determined in confidential contract negotiations between individual providers and the Homes and Communities Agency, and that final decisions would be made by Ministers, no doubt taking due account of the political implications.
There are now some unholy rows going on as councils see sites that they thought would produce some units of social rented housing going for ‘affordable rent’ and they are
sticking to their guns and insisting that rent levels should come down.  This might then make individual schemes unviable.  Some are demanding that re-lets of existing social rented homes should not be taken out of the genuinely affordable housing pool just to finance new expensive homes.  Providers thought they had deals with Government which may now unravel and are unclear what impact this might have on their total borrowing.  Councils may face a choice between having homes that are far too expensive or having developments drop out of the scheme altogether.
It is not entirely clear who has the final say.  Councils think they have a veto.  Providers
thought it was a done deal and won’t do schemes they think are not viable.  The HCA is trying to negotiate a brand new scheme with a lot of risk under strict political instructions.  And CLG Ministers have the final sign-off on the schemes.  There have already been
significant delays.
Perhaps Grant Shapps should tweet less and manage his portfolio more effectively?

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Why are they keeping quiet about 'affordable rent'?

The Government’s announcement of the new ‘Affordable Rent’ programme gets more and more curious.
We commented last week that although they and the HCA listed the 146 organisations that would receive money for the high rent initiative, both had failed to say who would build how many homes and failed to provide any information at all about the two key criticisms of the scheme – the rent levels that would be charged for the properties (they could be ‘up to 80%’ of market rents)  – and the number of re-lets of existing social rent homes that will instead be let at so-called ‘affordable rents’ to pay for the programme – ie taken out of the existing pool of genuinely affordable homes.   Nor, when we think about it, is there any
information about how many will be let on flexible (ie possibly short term) rather than permanent tenancies.
The information is clearly available, as London mayor ‘Codswallop’ Johnson tried to make political capital by saying the average rent in London would be ‘65%’ – ie much higher than social rents now but not as disastrous as it could be, reflecting a big effort by housing providers in London to make sense out of the whole thing.  Johnson continues to obscure the real truth about the housing programme in London and still has the cheek to claim credit for the continuing completions of social rented homes from the programme inherited from Ken Livingstone.
Today, Inside Housing claims that housing providers have been ‘told to keep quiet’ about their allocations – ‘HCA tries to silence landlords’.  Keith Exford, chief executive of Affinity Sutton, is quoted as saying that Ministers got ‘carried away’ in their announcements.
The ‘affordable rent’ programme is intermediate housing masquerading as social rent.  As Johnson already has, the government will make great claims about their achievements in
producing affordable homes.  But ‘affordable rent’ is not affordable in many parts of the country, however hard providers try to let it to people who would previously have been offered social rented homes, and in many cases it will not be secure.
With key information withheld and providers apparently silenced by the paymaster, the government are taking the public for fools.