Is this renting’s watershed moment?

The problems of "Generation Rent" seem finally to be getting some political attention, but without more homes being built, renting will continue to boil over.

In a week that a parliamentary inquiry begins into the state of private renting, and official statistics confirm the seismic growth of Generation Rent, it’s starting to look like rental Britain is beginning to get the political attention it deserves.

More than nine million people now rent from a private landlord. With hundreds of thousands priced out of home ownership and unable to access social housing, renting is fast becoming the new normal. And figures this week finally confirmed that for the first time since the 1960s, more people rent their homes from a private landlord than from a council or housing association. More and more of us now understand the frustration of paying hundreds of pounds each month in "dead money" to landlords, for a home that we can’t make our own.

Last week, Shelter’s Rent Trap report painted the latest bleak picture of life for Generation Rent. While wages stagnate, rents are up in 83 per cent of the country; on average, renters are paying out £300 more each year. In some areas, that rises to more than £1,000 a year – and that’s on top of rents that are already higher than mortgage costs.

This is the rent trap: people can’t afford to buy, so are stuck paying high rents, leaving them with little left over for anything else - half have less than £100 after rent and bills. This means they’re not able to save enough for a home of their own - leaving them facing yet another year of renting. As homes remain increasingly unaffordable, this trap sucks in ever more young people who know that the dream of a place of their own is slipping away.  

But the rent trap isn’t just a social issue; it’s an increasingly political one too. Renters are an ever-larger political constituency, with many closely resembling the archetypical middle income voter. And for voters in marginal constituencies, renting is a bigger issue than ever.

Our report found that the cost of renting has increased substantially in a number of key electoral battlegrounds – meaning that prospective MPs will need to become more familiar with the realities of renting if they want to win or keep these seats. Renters in Solihull - a Lib/Con marginal - are paying almost £400 a year more in rent; Lab/Con marginal Thurrock saw rents increase by almost £300; and three way marginal Hampstead and Kilburn rents are up by more than £800. The subject of the newest by-election tussle – Chris Huhne’s Eastleigh seat – saw rents rise by 3.2 per cent over the past year – more than twice as fast as wages. Some might say: does it matter if people rent? It’s commonplace in Germany, and people seem perfectly happy renting there. Should we be worried about this trend?

The trouble is that renting in England isn’t set up to play the kind of role that it plays in Germany and other developed countries. Renting was deregulated in 1989 to provide flexibility for a mobile workforce – the Assured Shorthold Tenancy was introduced and 6-12 month contracts became the norm. Politicians at the time envisaged lots of young people moving around for work before they settled down, bought a home and had kids.

But that’s not the role that renting is playing now. A major part of the growth of renting in recent years has been from families with children – some 1.3 million families now rent. For these families, renting isn’t working. They’ll typically have short contracts, after which they can be asked to leave for any reason, or their rent can be increased with no upper limit. That’s far from ideal when you’re feeling financially squeezed – or when your children are starting a new school year without being sure of where they’ll be living come the summer holidays.

For years, successive governments have tinkered around the edges on renting. Politicians recognise that most don’t want to rent for the long term, so have focused on helping people into homeownership: guaranteeing 95 per cent mortgages, expanding shared ownership schemes. But these schemes aren’t going far enough – and this leaves families stuck in rented homes with no reassurance from government that things will ever improve.

It seems that some politicians are beginning to wake up to the new reality of renting. Boris Johnson has said he intends to pilot longer tenancies in London, and Conservative newcomer Jake Berry has made the case for them too. Meanwhile, Ed Miliband and Labour’s Shadow Housing Minister, Jack Dromey, have spoken about more widespread measures to make longer term contracts the norm, and called an Opposition Day debate on the issue in January.

This week, a Select Committee began sitting for an inquiry into the private rented sector, and Shelter gave oral evidence on Monday, telling the stories of the thousands of people who come to us for help with renting problems.

In the short-term, government needs to tackle the reality of rental Britain, because every indication shows that it’s here to stay. We’ve proposed the Stable Rental Contract: a five-year tenancy with predictable rent increases, which will give renters the certainty they can keep their children in a local school and plan their finances, while also helping reduce the risk of empty periods for landlords.

It’s good news that politicians are beginning to up their game – but they have to translate words into action, as voters will hold them to account. The truth is that the efforts of successive governments have not gone far enough in helping people on ordinary incomes get a decent, stable, affordable home.

The government needs a much bolder plan of action for helping people achieve this basic aspiration. The bottleneck of supply and demand is worsening. Without more homes being built, renting will continue to boil over. Rents will continue to rise; people will struggle even harder to put money aside; the dream of a home of their own will continue to slip away.
 

More than nine million people now rent from a private landlord. Photograph: Getty Images

Robbie de Santos is a policy officer at Shelter.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.