The Return of the Private Landlords

Updated 24th April 2015, originally published August 2014.

Look out, they’re coming for the houses and the futures of your children!

Having been thought more or less extinct, particularly in some parts of the north Private Landlords are now increasingly being spotted once again roaming the land, freely and rapaciously.

Their supporters and apologists, and they have many inside and outside government, say that they’re ‘not all bad’ and I’m sure it is possible to find fair, decent and honest ones if you look very hard. But think about it for a minute. When you think of the phrase ‘Private Landlord’ what other words easily and immediately append themselves to it? How about ‘Corrupt, Exploitative and Absentee’ for starters?

When I first got involved with housing associations in the mid 1970s they’d already started calling themselves a ‘movement’. And like all movements they had things they were for and things they were against. The things they were for, like fair rents, secure tenancies and decent funding seemed to be flowing forth with the good will of all political parties. And the biggest thing they, or by this time we, were against? Private Landlords.

Early days. Conditions in a house in Walton, Liverpool. Victim of a Private Landlord.
Early days. Conditions we found in a house in Walton, Liverpool. Victim of a Private Landlord.

They had all but ruined whole areas of Liverpool. Breaking up houses into tiny bedsits and treating all repairs, if they could be contacted about them at all, as the fault and the responsibility of tenants. Time after time we would come across families and elderly people living in conditions that we in our ‘you’ve never had it so good’ world assumed had been seen off years ago.

Not so, not so at all. But the governments and local authorities of those days then legislated and acted. And in their thousands the Private Landlords were driven from the landscape and their former victims, and let’s call them that, woke up to find themselves decently housed and decently treated in secure homes. Not all of the Private Landlords went quietly. On several occasions there were packs of dogs involved when we went to take possession of somewhere that had been Compulsorily Purchased because of their multiple failures of care and repair.

All together in 1978. Dave Bebb, LHT, Neil McIntosh, Shelter and DesWilson, founder of Shelter.
All together in 1978. Dave Bebb, LHT, Neil McIntosh, Shelter and DesWilson, founder of Shelter.

But we did it, this ‘movement’ that we were. We drove the corrupt, exploitative and absentee Private Landlords from the face of the land. And I am as proud of my own small part in that as anything else I have done in my life.

But now they are back. In yesterday’s Guardian an article by Aditya Chakrabortty revealing that the number of private tenants is now once again higher than those in social housing.

And the Private Landlords are up to their old ways. Renting out sheds (Like they did in Cathy Come Home, remember?), cupboards, garages. ‘Human kennels’ Aditya calls them.

“Welcome to the new age of landlordism, in which the property-owner has all the power and the renter hardly any choice. This year’s English Housing Survey revealed that the number of private tenants had outstripped those in social housing for the first time in its history.

The disparity between those tenures is like the gulf between day and night, between a home and a rabbit hutch. Council tenants get security of tenure and controlled rents; shorthold tenants pay up to four times as much and under most contracts are only ever two months’ notice from getting turfed out of their homes. Yet the impossibility of first-time buying, and the scarcity of public housing, means the private rental market has taken off. The 2001 census showed 1.9m households renting privately in England and Wales – now there are 4m in England alone.”

One in four Conservative MPs, he tells us, and one in eight Labour, are themselves Private Landlords. So the enemy is well ensconced in the citadel of power. Also in the citadels of popular acclaim as Premiership footballers and even mamagers (hello Brendan) see private property portfolios as a nice, safe way of boosting their already engorged incomes.

Well, I won’t repeat or reprint all of his article. Though I could. But do go and read it if you care for the future of the country. If you care about where your children will be able to go and live. My own daughter and her partner? Late twenties, in good jobs, three children, in expensive private rental and no chance in view of either buying their own home or getting a housing association house. I’m not proud of that. That’s not what all that ‘movement’ was about.

And the housing associations, or ‘social landlords’ as they’re now called, what’s going on with them?

Well if you’re a seasoned reader of this blog you might often have seen me writing about them in the past tense, as if they’re not around any more. But that’s a reflection of the fact that I stopped working for my particular housing association, Liverpool Housing Trust, nearly twenty years ago.

No, they’re still around. Doing very good things and containing some very good people. I know many of these people, some of them are my lifelong friends and I know they care deeply about their work and how they can best help out with weathering this storm of political austerity we’re all trying to live through.

So no criticism implied here. Oh well, there is some actually. Collectively social housing seems to be almost mute. The people in the best position to know exactly how bad life is for the people on the sharp end of benefits cuts, discrimination, low wages and exploitative Private Landlords are saying nothing about it. Or if they are it’s being said so quietly and so politely it’s certainly not reaching my ears.

Wondering what might be going on, this morning I picked up this blog post by an old friend, called ‘Don’t worry our values will save us’. Tom Murtha was with us back there in the days we were driving Private Landlords from the land, and he still has more to do with housing associations than I do these days.

From his position inside the camp Tom writes persuasively about the core values of housing associations now being eroded by the pressure to diversify, to pursue more commercial activities. He worries that their boards are giving more attention to monitoring their financial performances than monitoring their performance against the core values they supposedly exist for.

“I am suggesting that unless we monitor and remain vigilant values will be slowly eroded as HAs strive to become more profitable in the current difficult climate. I would be less concerned about the future direction of housing associations if I believed that we were giving the same importance to measuring our performance on values as we do to measuring performance on our other business objectives. Of course we can continue to claim that there is nothing to worry about and that our values are in safe hands. But I am sure that is what those involved in Northern Rock and The Cooperative Bank said. And look what happened to them. As someone tweeted to me recently. Are some housing associations being dazzled by “being commercial” to the detriment of their social ethos. If this is the case who will save us?”

Looks like it’s time for the Housing Associations to wake up and speak up. Collectively, like we once did. Before the Private Landlords, who are already within the gates of Parliament, come to rule the land.

Since I originally published this in August 2014 there have been encouraging signs of social housing recovering its voice. Notably through SHOUT, the Campaign for Social Housing, Real Life Reform, the Northern Housing Consortium and also a pre-General Election march and rally to Parliament – though this latter was compromised, in my opinion and many others by Tory Chair Grant Shapps and even Nigel Farrage being invited to speak (I could go on). Nevertheless, encouraging signs of life – at last.

Published by Ronnie

Writing about life, Liverpool and anything else that interests me. As well as working with others to make the world a fairer and kinder place:

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  1. i think that the problem now though is that since Social Housing Associations had to go into the ‘PropertyPool’ run by Liverpool City Council it’s near impossible to get a house. It was a much better system when you were on the books of various Social Landlords and on a waiting list. Property Pool sucks. Angel Cake.

    1. Hi Angela, I remember it being started as a joint initiative and run between the housing associations themselves. Because it seemed like a good idea not to make someone fill in a form at LHT, a similar one across the road at CDS and then still have to trudge up the hill to complete yet another one at MIH. So it was a good idea to stop that.

      But yes, it seems like the good idea itself has gone bureaucratic. Whereas housing need can only be seen, felt and judged by real people we’ve now somehow ended up with a ‘computer says no’ situation. Meanwhile the homeless bed down for another night in shop doorways in Bold Street and the private landlords prey on everyone with any money who can’t get housed by anyone else.

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