Sorry Ken, rent caps aren't the best answer to our housing crisis

Ken Livingstone correctly identifies many of the problems in the rental market. But a more workable solution than his proposed rent cap may be right under our noses, says Shelter's Robbie de Santos.

Ken Livingstone, writing on Comment is Free on 19 July, was right to highlight the issues with private renting. We agree with much of his analysis – renting is too often unaffordable, unstable and subject to poor conditions and bad management. But we’re not sure that comprehensive rent caps are the answer.

For too long private renting has been the Cinderella of housing policy, largely ignored while successive governments dreamt up ways of helping first time buyers get on the ladder or fiddle around with social housing provision. Talk of private renting was quiet for a while, but in the last few years politicians have been forced to acknowledge that renting from a private landlord is the new norm – and an often unsatisfactory norm at that.

So who rents now? Well over eight million adults do, and more than a million families with children. Almost a third of private renters are over 45, and the biggest recent increases come from the top and bottom ends of the middle income bracket. Many of the new generation of renters are not there through lifestyle choice – it is a necessity as many will not be able to buy a home or access social housing. Politicians would be wise to spend a bit more time improving their lot.

What’s wrong with renting? Mr Livingstone touched upon unaffordable rents, hefty rent increases, poor standards, rogue landlords, and rip-off letting agents. Government statistics tell us that private renting families with children are ten times more likely to have moved house in the last year than those with a mortgage. Renting in this country can mean short contracts and uncertainty over future rent levels, which are increasing rapidly in many parts of the country.

There are effectively two different ways of making renting more workable. The old-style rent cap involved setting overall maximum rent levels, giving tenants indefinite contracts, and limiting the rent increases that could be given to tenants once they were in a contract. That’s what we had in this country until 1988.

But Shelter’s research finds that few other comparable countries have such an intensive set of controls. In Germany, France and Spain, rents are determined by the market at the outset; tenants have longer term contracts (often indefinite in Germany, three years in France and five years in Spain) and, as long as tenants are in these contracts, their rent can only be increased by an inflationary index.

These countries don’t cap overall rents; they just allow people to have more certainty and predictability about their future renting costs for a longer period, allowing them to anticipate higher rents and to know that they won’t be priced out of their own home.

Capping overall rents goes against the grain of the market – whether this is good or not, some of the side-effects can be really quite undesirable. In markets with rent caps and where demand outstrips supply, a landlord may discriminate on tenant rather than price. This could see people with lower incomes losing out because landlords might see prospective tenants with higher incomes as more reliable. For example, in New York City, where some apartments are subject to rent control, the people who may benefit the most from controlled rents are precisely the people who may find themselves excluded from such apartments.

Rent levels are high because there are too many people who have to rent, and not enough homes available for them to rent, driving up the prices people have to pay. Rents can only be reduced by increasing overall supply of all types of homes, so that fewer tenants are competing over each available home. Building new homes, including for rent, has to be a priority – especially in high pressure markets like London.

But introducing tenancy types like those in France and Spain could improve life for private renters up and down the country. For example, a five year tenancy with inflation linked rent increases could help families break from the uncertainty of short contracts and unpredictable rent increases, giving them the stability to make their rented house a home and plan for the future.

Shelter recently commissioned global property consultants Jones Lang LaSalle to look at whether landlords would be able to work with longer term tenancies. They would. In fact, rental indexing would enhance landlords’ returns, by keeping rents in line with inflation, reducing void periods and cutting out letting agents’ fees. Not only could they be attractive to landlords, longer tenancies could also be offered today, developed from the current framework.

As appealing as rent caps may sound, a more workable solution may be right under our noses. Longer Assured Shorthold Tenancies, with inflation-linked rents, could give millions of renters the chance of a stable home that they can truly make their own.

Robbie De Santos is Policy Officer at Shelter.

London faces a shortage of housing. Photo: Getty Images

Robbie de Santos is a policy officer at Shelter.

Campaign pictures/Office of Jorge Sharp
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Meet Jorge Sharp, the rising star of Chile’s left who beat right-wingers to running its second city

The 31-year-old human rights lawyer says he is inspired by Jeremy Corbyn’s alternative politics as he takes the fight to the Chilean establishment.

Bearded, with shaggy hair, chinos and a plaid shirt, 31-year-old Jorge Sharp does not look like your typical mayor elect. But that does nothing to stop him speaking with the conviction of one.

“Look, Chile is a country that solely operates centrally, as one unit,” he says. “It is not a federal country – the concentration of state functions is very compact. In reality, most of the power is in Santiago. There are many limitations when it comes to introducing significant changes [in local areas].”

In October, Sharp upset Chile’s political status quo by defeating establishment rivals in the mayoral election of Valparaíso, the second city of South America’s first OECD country. He is taking office today.

Often compared to Podemos in Spain, Sharp’s win was significant – not only as yet another example of voters turning against mainstream politics – because it denied Chilean right-wing candidates another seat during local elections that saw them sweep to power across the country.

As the results rolled in, Conservative politicians had managed to snatch dozens of seats from the country’s centre-left coalition, led by President Michelle Bachelet, a member of Chile’s Socialist Party.

Sitting in one of Valparaíso’s many bohemian cafes, Sharp accepts the comparison with Podemos gracefully but is keen to make sure that Chile’s new “autonomous left” movement is seen as distinct.

“What we are doing in Chile is a process that is difficult to compare with other emerging political movements in the world,” he says. “We are a distinct political group and we are a modern force for the left. We are a left that is distinct in our own country and that is different to the left in Spain, in Bolivia, and in Venezuela.”

Sharp’s Autonomous Left movement is not so much a party rather than a group of affiliated individuals who want to change Chilean politics for good. Considering its relatively small size, the so-called Aut Left experienced degrees of success in October.

Chilean voters may have punished Bachelet – also Chile’s first female leader – and her coalition after a number of corruption scandals, but they did not turn against left-wing politics completely. Where they had options, many Chileans voted for newer, younger and independent left-wing candidates. 

“We only had nine candidates and we won three of the races – in Punta Arenas, Antofagasta and Ñuñoa, a district of Santiago,” he says. “We hope that the experience here will help us to articulate a national message for all of Chile.”


Campaign pictures/Office of Jorge Sharp

For Sharp, the success of Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump and the pro-Brexit movement are due to people fed up – on a global scale – with their respective countries’ mainstream political parties or candidates. Given that assumption, how would he describe the cause of his own election success?

“The problem in Chile, and also for the people in Valparaíso, is that the resources go to very few people,” he says. “It was a vote to live better, to live differently. Our project for social policy is one that is more sufficient for all the people. It’s a return to democracy, to break the electoral status quo.”   

Sharp – like many – believes that the United States’ Democrat party missed out by passing up the opportunity to break with the status quo and choose Bernie Sanders over the chosen nominee Hillary Clinton. “They would have been better off with Sanders than Clinton,” he believes. 

“The [people] in the US are living through a deep economic crisis. These were the right conditions for Trump. The people weren’t looking for the candidate from the banks or Wall Street, not the ‘establishment’ candidate. The way forward was Sanders.”

Turning to other 2016 geo-political events, he claims Brexit was a case of Britons “looking for an answer to crises” about identity. Elsewhere in South America, the tactics of former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe – who led the “No” vote campaign against peace with the Farc – were “fundamentally undemocratic”.

In the future, Sharp hopes that he and the rest of the Autonomous Left will be better-prepared to take power in higher offices, in order to further reform social policy and politics in Chile.

“For these elections, we weren't unified enough,” he concedes. “For 2017 [when national elections take place], we will have one list of parliamentary candidates and one presidential candidate.”

And while Sharp clearly sympathises with other left-wing movements in countries throughout the world, this is not a call for a unified approach to take on the rise of the right.

“Every country has its own path,” he finishes. “There is no single correct path. What we need to do [in Chile] is articulate a force that’s outside the political mainstream.”

Oli Griffin is a freelance journalist based in Latin America.