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5 November 2014

Renters need reform now – not the promise of a house in seven years

Will Labour break the grip of the home ownership political orthodoxy?

By Dan Wilson Craw

Trudging home through a downpour the other day, I was reminded how nice it is to have a warm, dry flat waiting for me at the end of a long day. Then I was reminded how different it could be next year. You see, I rent that flat, and between now and next November I could find myself somewhere else. When my wife and I renew our tenancy, the letting agent could decide to bump up the rent so far that we can’t pay it. Or the landlord could decide to cash in on his investment and give us two months to find somewhere else.

Our next place might not be so cosy. Thirty-five per cent of houses in the private rented sector fail to meet minimum health and safety standards, and having rented two decent places in a row now, I don’t like my odds if I have to move again.

For most of the UK’s 10 million private renters, home is either a ramshackle hovel that you dread returning to, or a temporary retreat that could be snatched away at the whim of the landlord. No wonder two thirds of us want to buy our own place.

Politicians get that bit. After decades chasing the votes of the homeowning majority, parties are responding to the rise of renting by trying to make it easier to escape. Under the coalition, renters feeling left behind have been handed extra loans to pay those ridiculous house prices. At party conference, Labour promised to double the number of first-time buyers in a decade, while the Conservatives announced a Rent to Buy scheme that would let private renters buy their home after seven years.

But none of the parties question whether the desire to buy is really driven by aspiration – or desperation. If renting wasn’t so awful: if tenants were encouraged to invest in their homes, allowed to keep pets and given the confidence to raise a family, then maybe they wouldn’t throw all the money they have at a mortgage at the first opportunity. Renting would be a choice, not a second-class tenure.

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Although more housebuilding is essential, new supply won’t make a dent on house prices and rents for the best part of a decade, and renters will remain stuck and increasingly resentful. They need a government that will improve their housing situation now.

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The party that ought to offer them that is Labour – in 2011, 50 of the 65 parliamentary seats that had more social and private renters than homeowners were held by Labour. Generation Rent has predicted that this number will rise to 75 seats out of 104 renter majorities by 2021. That’s 75 Labour MPs who will represent a majority of people who are hurt by rising house prices – and 29 seats that the party should be trying to win with a pitch to renters.

While Labour has a considerable polling lead among renters, there are low levels of party loyalty in the growing private sector – our own polling by ComRes found 35 per cent change how they vote between elections – and first-time voters living under a landlord’s roof won’t automatically pick Labour as the party for them. There are votes to be won here but if the choice is between a house in seven years’ time or eight, renters will stay at home.

To their credit, Labour has announced plans to ban letting fees, make longer tenancies the norm and stabilise rents, but this needs to be central to their cost of living campaign given that private renters are handing over two days’ wages every week to their landlord. And they can go a lot further on expanding supply than the Lyons report proposed – we need a new secondary housing market where prices are regulated so they are treated as homes rather than financial playthings.

There are MPs who understand that renting needs to be as good as ownership – whether they represent more renters than homeowners or not – and Generation Rent is calling on them to stand up for renters against a political culture that is stacked against them. We are recruiting a cross party coalition of Renter Champions who will finally give the propertyless a voice in Parliament, and ultimately the knowledge that they’ll have a warm home when winter comes back around.

Dan Wilson Craw is communications and marketing manager for Generation Rent