The private rental sector: misery, stress and poverty

Renting is the new normal, but for many it means no security and a constant risk of exploitation.

Much of the coverage regarding Britain's housing crisis has concentrated on the misery our over reliance on the private rental sector has inflicted on young people seeking to buy their first house. It's valid, but the sector takes a greater toll on those families who end up in its clutches.

For an illustration of this, listen to Paul Smith's story. He's 44, and he works in IT. Back in 2006 Paul was living in Malta with his wife and two children, then aged eight and six. They owned a house on the island, and decided it was time to move back to England. They put their house on the market; due to the discrepancy in property value, it only raised them about £30,000.

The family had no prior banking history in the UK, so they struggled to secure a mortgage. They put up a £7,000 deposit to rent a house in Bracknell. The house was fine, but Paul wanted more security for his family – he wanted them to go some way to having assured tenancy. Upon moving, the owners of the house, a private rental firm, hit Paul and his family with a bill for £1,500 due to alleged damage to the furniture.

(Your correspondent has actually been done over by a similar scheme when renting many years back – the owners of the house I was renting had called in a dodgy survey company to inspect the house at the start and end of my tenancy; being young and naive I'd not had a survey of my own done, so it seemed better to reach a settlement rather than fight it in the small claims court, much as I wanted to.)

The family moved to a run-down cottage in Ironbridge. After two years there, they were told the landlord wanted the place back. The landlord, who was registered through the local council, hit them with a bill for £600, despite the fact that the local council's environmental health team had helped them move (the place even had damp rot around the electrical sockets). The council claimed Paul would be able to get the £600 back: in fact, he was awarded £70 in compensation. For the third time in two years, the family moved – this time to a much more pleasant house in Telford. It was far better, but at the start of 2008 the family were offered a place with the housing association in Ludlow. They snapped it up, despite the fact that Paul had now lost his job in the financial crisis and work would be harder to find there.

The trouble was that the stress of constantly moving, coupled with the ebbing away of their financial situation (their savings were gradually eaten away by the costs of high rents and constant moves) had taken an unbearable toll on Paul's marriage. He and his wife split up last September.

"It was worse for the children," he tells me. "Every move involved finding them a new school, but they struggled to make friends before being dragged away to a new place. They never felt stable. It had a profound effect on my family."

Renting is the new normal. Over the last fifteen years, the number of people who rent their home from a landlord has almost doubled to 8.5 million people, and nearly a third of renters are members of families with children. Typically, these people are on contracts of 12 months or fewer. Paul's family were among the 67 per cent of families in the private rental sector who moved house in the last three years. Last year 310,000 out of 1,017,000 families with children in the sector moved: a shocking 30 per cent of all families. In comparison, 122,000 out of 3,863,000 families with children who own their home moved house last year: just three per cent.

Paul's situation was hardly unusual: as the charity Shelter has revealed, almost half of people who are renting privately say that housing costs are causing stress and depression in their family – a higher rate than any other group. The children of these families are not just suffering because of the constant upheaval - they're suffering because of the effect of parents who are poorer (the charity has also shown showed that 38 per cent of families with children who are renting privately have cut down on buying food to pay their rent), and more prone to arguing.

There are two reasons those in the private rental sector don't feel as if their accommodation is stable – the possibility of eviction with just two months' notice, and constant worries about when rent rises will hit. It's why Shelter is calling for a Stable Rental Contract, which it claims would offer the stability of five year tenancies.

The problem isn't necessarily due to the oft-imagined stereotype of cruel, Rachmanite landlords. In fact, it's often due to the fact that they are reliant on letting agents because they don't feel confident enough to rent the properties themselves – and the agents "add value" by encouraging short-term tenancies. Shelter has cited research by Jones Lang LaSalle, a real estate services firm, which shows that not only would it provide more security for tenants - it makes business sense for landlords, with a steadier, long-term income rising more gently with inflation that could increase their returns.

"I'm now an avid campaigner for affordable house building," Paul tells me. "It's a mystery to me why the Government is looking at spending money on things like HS2 when a comprehensive programme of affordable houses would put people in work and improve the lives of thousands. I wouldn't wish what I've been through on anybody."

 

Nearly a third of renters are members of families with children. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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The economic and moral case for global open borders

Few politicians are prepared to back a policy of free movement everywhere. Perhaps they should. 

Across the world, borders are being closed, not opened. In the US, Donald Trump has vowed to halve immigration to 500,000 and to cap the number of refugees at 50,000. In the UK, the Conservative government has reaffirmed its pledge to end free movement after Brexit is concluded. In Europe, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic are being sued by the EU for refusing to accept a mandatory share of refugees.

Even Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has followed the rightward drift. Its general election manifesto promised to end free movement, and Corbyn recently complained of the “wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe”.

Among economists, however, a diametrically opposed conversation prevails. They argue that rather than limiting free movement, leaders should expand it: from Europe to the world. Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, likens the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk”.

Economists estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent. A doubling of GDP (a $78trn increase) would correspond to 23 years of growth at 3 per cent. By contrast, the International Monetary Fund estimates that permitting the entirely free movement of capital would add a mere $65bn.

The moral case for open borders is similarly persuasive. As the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman writes in his recent book Utopia for Realists: “Borders are the single biggest cause of discrimination in all of world history. Inequality gaps between people living in the same country are nothing in comparison to those between separated global citizenries.” An unskilled Mexican worker who migrates to the US would raise their pay by around 150 per cent; an unskilled Nigerian by more than 1,000 per cent.

In his epochal 1971 work A Theory of Justice, the American philosopher John Rawls imagined individuals behind a “veil of ignorance”, knowing nothing of their talents, their wealth or their class. It follows, he argued, that they would choose an economic system in which inequalities are permitted only if they benefit the most disadvantaged. The risk of being penalised is too great to do otherwise. By the same logic, one could argue that, ignorant of their fortunes, individuals would favour a world of open borders in which birth does not determine destiny.

Yet beyond Rawls’s “original position”, the real-world obstacles to free movement are immense. Voters worry that migrants will depress their wages, take their jobs, burden the welfare state, increase crime and commit terrorism. The problem is worsened by demagogic politicians who seek to exploit such fears.

But research shows that host countries gain, rather than lose, from immigration. Migrants are usually younger and healthier than their domestic counterparts and contribute far more in tax revenue than they claim in benefits. Rather than merely “taking” jobs, migrants and their children create them (Steve Jobs, the son of a Syrian immigrant, is one example). In the US, newcomers are only a fifth as likely to be imprisoned as the native born. A Warwick University study of migration flows between 145 countries found that immigration helped to reduce terrorism by promoting economic development.

In a world of open borders, the right to move need not be an unqualified one (the pollster Gallup found that 630 million people – 13 per cent of the global population – would migrate permanently). Under the EU’s free movement system, migrants must prove after three months that they are working (employed or self-employed), a registered student, or have “sufficient resources” (savings or a pension) to support themselves and not be “a burden on the benefits system” – conditions that the UK, ironically, has never applied.

But so radical does the proposal sound that few politicians are prepared to give voice to it. An exception is the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, who argued in 2016: “Inevitably, in this century, we will have open borders. We are seeing it in Europe already. The movement of peoples across the globe will mean that borders are almost going to become irrelevant by the end of this century, so we should be preparing for that and explaining why people move.”

At present, in a supposed era of opportunity, only 3 per cent of the global population live outside the country of their birth. As politicians contrive to ensure even fewer are able to do so, the case for free movement must be made anew.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear