Interview: The Rent Trap
There are roughly 11 million people who rent privately from their landlord in the UK. According to analysis from the New Policy Institute in 2013, 4 million of those renters live in poverty. Ten years most ago, most of the poorest people in the UK lived in social housing. If one rented, they were the least likely of all tenures to be in poverty. But after a decade of dizzying rent hikes, selling off social housing and unregulating the property market, more and more people found themselves pushed into private renting and more and more renters into poverty as they find themselves trapped. Now private renters are more likely to be in poverty than any other housing tenure.
Samir Jeraj along with Rosie Walker recently published The Rent Trap: How we Fell into It and How we Get Out of It, exploring this growing phenomenon. The book offers a critical account of what is really going on in the private rented sector and expose the powers which are conspiring to oppose regulation. Samir Jeraj, a journalist who specialises in housing issues and former city councilor, recently took some time to answer some questions for Urban Life.
What is the rent trap and how did we find ourselves with this situation?
The rent trap is the situation of being a private renter, with increasing rents, poor protection, and no security; and not being able to change that situation through social housing, owner-occupation, or improving renting to address these issues in the first place.
How does the rent trap affect the communities we find ourselves in?
It means those communities may cease to exist, or at the very least become strained to breaking point. Renters are only ever a few months away from being asked to leave, where there is no guarantee where they will be next year, and almost certain the next place will be more expensive. Forming communities and maintaining relationships in this environment is extremely hard. This insecurity has an impact on health and wellbeing, particularly for children who are more likely to be living in rented housing than ten years ago.
If the rent trap is not dealt with, what are some of the long term ramifications we could see?
The worst-case scenario is that we move back towards Victorian levels of inequality. 120 years ago, 90% of people were renters, but they still spent a smaller proportion of their income on housing than we do today. If an ever growing number of people cannot afford to live where there are jobs, there will be large rises in unemployment, more of us will be living in poverty, and the rich will continue to get richer. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimated that real rents would rise by 90% by 2040 unless something changes.
Recently, the controversial Housing Bill was passed in Parliament. How will this bill affect those who find themselves in the rent trap? Will we see more people finding themselves in the rent trap?
Overall the Housing Bill (now the Housing Act) will be a disaster for housing. It is important to note that there were a few improvements for private renters, such as a national ‘rogue’ (i.e. criminal) landlord database, strengthen other means to tackle rogue landlords, and changes to rent repayment orders. However, these will have little to no effect as the dismantling of social housing will mean more renters competing for housing. Similarly, Starter Homes are unaffordable for most people in the rent trap, and still rely on the logic of housing as a commodity rather than a right.
What are some practical ways that faith communities can respond to this growing issue?
Faith communities have a long and proud history of work on housing. As we know, faith organisations often provide help and support to those who have nowhere else to go. Many of the early philanthropic and community housing projects set up to tackle poverty and slum housing were faith-based. Organisations such as Housing Justice and the YMCA continue to campaign for decent housing for everyone. On an individual basis, I have met people of faith who participate in resisting evictions – putting their own wellbeing at risk to protect others. Rediscovering that housing activism on a mass scale could change housing in the UK.
Faith organisations and institutions have the power to create change on a grander scale – if the leading faiths of the UK set up a cooperative to build decent, secure housing, they could challenge the big private developers. In Sweden, this happened when the trades unions and tenants organisations founded two cooperatives to provide housing for people rather than profit – today, cooperative housing makes up more than 20% of housing in Sweden.