Rise of 'slum landlords' as Britain's housing crisis deepens

Unaffordable, insecure, overcrowded, unsanitary housing has a negative effect on every aspect of our society, writes Glynn Robbins.

In 1918, 90 percent of the UK population were private tenants, but the squalid legacy of the Victorian industrial city was not "fit for heroes."

The 1919 Addison Act encouraged councils to build more homes and with the spectre of Bolshevism haunting the ruling class, the country began a 60-year rejection of slumlords.

By the 1960s private renting had fallen by two-thirds and by the '80s it was only 10 percent of the housing stock, where it hovered for the next two decades.

The collective memory of Rachmanism resisted numerous government attempts to restore private landlords.

Now the cross-party 30-year attack on council housing, the ineffectual role of housing associations and state-sponsored property speculation have created "generation rent."

Some 18 per cent of households - and rising - are private renters. For many this is not a choice but a necessity.

Fuelled by the lack of alternatives, private-sector rents are at an all-time high, averaging £187 a week.

Predictably, they're rising fastest in London and south-east England, where they average £250 a week.

Housing charity Shelter found that rent consumes more than 50 percent of private renters' income in 23 of the capital's 33 boroughs.

Some 25 percent of private tenants need housing benefit - a £9.3bn public subsidy to landlords.

Despite exorbitant costs, one million privately rented homes fail to meet basic standards of safety, warmth and repair. Private renters are less likely to demand improvements because, since the introduction of assured shorthold tenancies in 1989, it's been much easier for landlords to get rid of them.

Shelter estimates that last year 200,000 were victims of "revenge evictions" by slumlords who didn't want to carry out repairs. Some 37,739 lost their homes because of rent rises and benefit cuts.

At the most extreme end of abuse, we have "beds in sheds" where unscrupulous owners exploit some of the most vulnerable members of society.

"Slumlords" are back because our economic and housing policy is broken at every level.

Low interest rates and tax breaks are reflating the buy-to-let bubble that burst in 2008.

Many of the properties being hoovered up by investors are former council homes then rented out at three times council rent levels, sometimes to homeless families and paid for through housing benefit.

The GMB union recently exposed how many slumlords have direct links to the Tory Party.

Increasingly, housing associations - so-called "social" landlords - are building homes for private rent, subsidised by £1bn of public money.

The government's new "affordable rents" allow councils and housing associations to charge 80 per- cent of the market price for fixed-term tenancies, further escalating costs and damaging our communities.

The total housing benefit bill now exceeds £20bn, but the Con-Dems and media have the audacity to blame tenants, as though they set the rent.

The inflated market is making it impossible even for people on decent salaries to buy a home. Meanwhile, the waiting list for genuinely affordable housing is approaching five million.

This grotesque vicious cycle is creating fortunes for a few and misery for millions.

The Labour Party and tenant campaigns want reform of private renting by the reintroduction of rent control and regulation of landlords.

They point to continental Europe where private renting has long been regarded as a reasonable alternative to home ownership.

But there's a different vision of private renting in the US where the sector is dominated by ruthless large-scale institutional investors who own thousands of homes across the country.

As private renting becomes more profitable, a similar pattern may develop here.

Improving and regulating private renting is only part of the answer.

We need to reverse the flow of valuable public assets becoming private speculative commodities.

In the '60s and '70s, local councils like Camden and Islington bought up scores of privately owned street properties that stood empty or had fallen into disrepair.

More recently there have been isolated examples of councils increasing their stock by buying back homes sold through the right to buy.

Local authorities can also bring empty private homes back into use through compulsory purchase powers.

Making better use of our existing housing needs to go alongside an emergency programme of new council house building.

We must be wary of generalising about private landlords in Britain. The vast majority are private individuals who own a single property. They're not all like Rigsby in Rising Damp.

Some become landlords to fill a hole in their pensions or because right to buy subsidies make it irresistible.

A council tenant I know, who's a security guard working 60 hours a week on the minimum wage, recently told me that the £100,000 discount makes it possible to buy his home.

He lives in a property "hot spot," so by buying and perhaps renting out his small flat, he can make money almost overnight than he would in 10 years.

The fundamental problem with our housing policy is that it's skewed too heavily towards private property and speculative investment.

While this may occasionally benefit working-class people, it encourages profiteering.

There are now more private than social renters in the UK. This is regressive.

The return of the slumlords is part of unwinding a host of other achievements of the welfare state.

Any campaign for reforming private renting must happen alongside demands for direct public investment in housing. Given a choice, most private renters would swap for a council tenancy tomorrow.

* Glynn Robbins writes for MorningStaronline.co.uk.