The Rental Crisis - A Feudal Throwback
December 3, 2022.
"Facing eviction, I’ve learned that relying on ‘good landlords’ is a feudal throwback," says Moya Lothian-McLean. ‘Private tenants are powerless. Keep your doctrine of kindness, and give us a legal safety net instead.’
I am in the midst of a house move. It is not by choice. I am one of the thousands of renters in London facing eviction – although technically our landlord has simply decided not to renew our tenancy, a decision that doesn’t seem to factor into official eviction stats, though it should, given the frequency with which it’s occurring.
My landlord was one of that rare breed: the “good” landlords. You hear about them occasionally. The bar is very low, yet most private landlords (in London, at least) fail to clear it. Not a price gouger; fixes things when asked; doesn’t treat tenants like squatters who happen to be paying half their monthly salary for the privilege of residing in their buy-to-let.
But without proper legal protections and rights for private tenants, such as rent caps, tenancy security even in cases of house sales, and the option of indefinite tenancies, all that separates a good landlord from a bad one is the wafer-thin concept of decency. Tenants are totally reliant on the whims and personal circumstances of their particular landlord. As such, privately renting is not just a financial and psychological burden: it is also a crash course in extensive relationship management.
Putting off getting the boiler fixed because the washing machine was just replaced, and if you ask your landlord for two costly repairs in a row a little switch in their brain might flip your house from ‘asset’ to ‘albatross’, and they might decide to sell.
Or calling a house meeting to collectively draft an unfathomably sycophantic email two months before your contract renewal, essentially begging the landlord to grant you and your housemates the great honour of staying in their beautiful property. Sending them flowers, just because. (There is a housing crisis, and you need them to like you enough to ignore the estate agent in their ear telling them they can collect 30% more in monthly rent.)
And yet, at the slightest pressure decency withers and dies. In September, my ‘good’ landlord asked to increase the rent by a small and reasonable amount, in line with rising living costs (no word, of course, about decreasing the rate to mirror real-terms pay cuts). My housemates and I agreed, but requested the increase came into effect after 90 days, according to the terms of the contract we had signed, rather than immediately.
The landlord pushed back, with an undertone of aggrievement that we would repay their kindness in such a fashion, and then went quiet. Days later, we were informed our tenancy was ending. By adhering to the only legal protection we had, we’d become an albatross.
Unspoken was the reality that by referencing the vulgar, transactional nature of the landlord/tenant relationship, we had pierced the gossamer veneer of civility. We had reminded our landlord that they were a landlord, and not simply a kind benefactor. It was ungrateful in the face of their generosity. Personal affront sealed our fate.
Where the state has withdrawn, I have noticed an increasing emphasis on interpersonal “decency” to one another, an exhortation to rely on a supposed inherent goodness that will see us all done right by. Perhaps the seeds of this rhetoric were first planted by David Cameron’s vision of a ‘big society’, which involved the cutting down of actual society, via slashed public spending, and its replacement with voluntarism. There is a cultural emphasis on being ‘kind’ in lieu of solid legislative frameworks and state safety nets to catch us when we fall.
Often, it is those people with the most material power who preach this doctrine: at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the then chancellor, Rishi Sunak, was instructing the public to practise ‘kindness’ and ‘decency’, and later refusing to overhaul statutory sick pay. Wealthy celebrities and influencers wield the phrase ‘be kind’ like a get-out-of-jail-free card at the slightest hint of criticism. And there is a reliance on the individual compassion of the likes of landlords, in order to keep a roof over our heads.
This ‘kindness’ is a myth: it is bondage of a feudal nature, an exercise in massaging the egos – or should that be the consciences? – of those with assets and access in the hope that they will continue to patronise the rest of us.
Unfortunately, this vague folk concept of ‘kindness’ disappears as soon as those at the top of the totem pole feel a squeeze; see landlords en-masse increasing rental rates in line with their own living costs, never mind that some aren’t even grappling with higher mortgage repayments and have more than enough of a financial cushion from the properties they let out.
It is understandable in times of crisis: a scarcity mind-set becomes particularly sharp. The perception of being harder up, however, means kindness falls by the wayside. Self-preservation kicks in, and damn objectivity when it comes to assessing actual power dynamics.
“It’s been a very difficult time for landlords, too,” my friend was told earlier this year, after a rent increase on her mouse-infested flat. The landlord in question collects income from 11 properties. Under the decency doctrine, everyone’s suffering is equal.
Keep your kindness. I would rather have housing security or the ability to easily book a GP appointment without relying on a sympathetic receptionist’s pity when I turn up at the surgery in tears at 8am. “Decency” without the backing of robust welfare and legislative infrastructure is nothing but a farce, existing to alleviate the guilt of the haves in relation to the have-nots. It is a finite resource. The UK, it seems, is close to running on empty.
© Moya Lothian-McLean / The Guardian 2022.
Images © The Guardian 2022
Moya Lothian-McLean is a contributing editor at Novara Media