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  • Published in Opinion
Rent too high in London

South London renters formed their own ‘Community Housing Inspection’ team. Photo from www.letdown.org.uk

Conan Doyle on why we need a radical reform of the entire housing market

There has been a lot of complaining lately, both light hearted and more serious, that Hipsters, or affluent young white people are taking over the areas that used to be bastions of Afro Carribean culture in London, such as Brixton. I argue here that the so-called hipsters themselves are not the problem, but rather the unregulated private rented housing market is leading to the gentrification of London’s diverse boroughs. Of course Hipster culture, and its hyperconsumerism is not unproblematic, it’s more that the hipsters taking over Brixton are a symptom of a wider social malaise created by a lack of coherent housing policy.

Having recently gazed into the abyss of potential homelessness myself, I have experienced first hand the perils of an unregulated housing market. Although a white native English speaker with the benefit of an EU passport, I nevertheless have the constant migrant’s problem of being unable to prove a local connection, which is necessary if you are to expect a Local Council to aid you. Private renting is therefore the only option.

Like many people who still looking for work in the current labour market, I need to claim benefits in order to survive. This leads to the next problem, which is that private landlords feel entitled to actively discriminate against benefit claimants.

One popular classified listings website currently has 172,000 ads for single room properties or rooms in shared houses in the greater London area. Of these, only 171 ads do not specify “no DSS,” meaning that the landlord will not consider a tenant who claims housing benefit. That’s less than 0.1% of the listed properties. Gumtree.com listed 55,318 flat share offered ads for London at the same time. Only 6 of these shared property ads specify “DSS Welcome”, whilst 444 whole properties to rent specify this. The situation is not as bad as it seems however, as only 1,216 properties stipulate “no DSS”, a number far higher on other classified listings sites.

Even if you manage to find a private landlord who does not discriminate against those forced onto benefits by a lack of jobs or poverty wages, the chances are that the poky single room in a shared flat is going to be significantly more than the Local Housing Authority limits for a single person. The only accommodation offered that actually came within that £80 a week limit are shared rooms in shared houses. This is especially inappropriate for those young people most likely to face homelessness, i.e. those fleeing domestic or sexual violence and those with mental health problems. I personally fall into both categories, and the idea of having to share my sleeping quarters with a man I don’t know actually terrifies me to the point of panic.

In my experience, the cheaper a room is offered, the less likely the landlord is to be willing to consider benefit claimants as tenants. I even had one landlord tell me that I was too old for his property full of people in their 30s (I’m 31), as he seemed to confuse my mobility aid for a decade in age. As such, it is only people who earn enough not to rely on state safety nets that have the luxury of choosing where to live.

I’m not writing this to evoke personal sympathy, in fact that’s the last thing i want.  I’m one of the lucky ones insofar as I have recently received back payments of the disability benefits I had applied for over a year previously, leaving me in the ludicrous  situation of being a homeless benefit claimant contemplating lastminute.com as a place to find temporary accommodation. More pragmatically, I’ve been able to use the back-pay to afford a room I in a shared house I would otherwise never afford. I write about my situation because I know how rare it is for someone in my circumstances to have the kind of happy ending I had to my homelessness crisis.

The soft gentrification of London’s once diverse boroughs is thus being driven by the flagrant prejudice and avarice of rent-seekers[1], i.e. private landlords. The rent-seeking behaviour that drives the unregulated property market was first posited as aspirational by Thatcher’s government, who simultaneously began a policy for the wholesale sell-off of the majority of the UKs social housing stock. With cash-strapped local authorities unable to invest in new housing stock, and so-called affordable developments[2] in the capital only being affordable to highly educated professionals, the poor are being pushed out of their traditional neighbourhoods in favour of young mobile white iphone wielding university graduates in Khaki shorts and bushy beards.

There are several ways this process of gentrification could be slowed, halted, or even reversed, but it is unlikely that either would happen under the Neoliberal consensus of the political parties who take turns to rule Britain. The Local Housing Authority limits which exacerbate the problem were imposed by New Labour in 2008, and it is highly unlikely that the London Assembly have the will or power to implement even the laxest of rental controls under the leadership of the Tory Party’s Buffoon-in-Chief, Boris Johnson.

In reality, we need a radical reform of the entire housing market, a true implementation of the human right to adequate housing and an end to the abuse of property ownership for profit made on the back of social and economic inequality.

Notes

[1]   I use the term rent seeking in the sense of Anne Kreuger and Adam Smith to denote the acquisition of capital through manipulation of the sociopolitical environment rather than through wealth creation or by traditional means of production. It is thus not limited to “rent” on property.

[2]   www.london.gov.uk/priorities/housing-land/increasing-housing-supply/affordable-homes-programme
Generally only applies to Key Workers, all of which are professions requiring at least an honours degree, if not postgraduate or vocational training, such as a medical diploma, teaching qualification or social work masters.

Tagged under: Austerity Economics Housing
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