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Against Landlords by Nick Bano review – valuable ideas for how to solve Britain’s housing crisis

Against Landlords by Nick Bano review – valuable ideas for how to solve Britain’s housing crisis

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the housing crisis could be solved without building any more homes? There would be no carbon emissions from construction sites, no green fields covered over, no householders upset at dwellings appearing in their view. Instead, rents would become affordable and decent homes available through changes in government policy. Such is the promise of Against Landlords by the author and barrister Nick Bano, a man who has been described as “Britain’s top Marxist housing lawyer”.

The crisis, he argues, is not one of supply but of cost. There are enough homes to go around, but they are notoriously expensive. The cause of high prices is the dominance of private landlords, of whom there are now 2.5 million – one in 21 of the population – receiving a combined £63bn per year in rent. They are supported by government policy, which allows them to turn tenants out without giving a reason, lightly regulates them and sometimes directs vast sums of money in their direction, out of the £23.4bn annual housing benefit bill.

Bano writes with passion of the horrors that follow, sharpened by his experiences representing the homeless and the badly housed in their legal cases. He describes a family of four, for example, moved by a local authority into a shipping container in Greenford, west London, boiling in summer and freezing in winter, for which they had to pay £1,600 a month in rent. He accurately describes the malign effects of the current regime – how calculations of cost of living are warped by the disproportionate effects of rents. His dislike of landlords is visceral and vehement. No matter how well intentioned they might believe themselves to be, he argues, they are all ultimately exploitative, enriching themselves not by hard work but by extracting money from their (almost always poorer) tenants.

The current ascendancy of private renting wasn’t always so. In the 1970s, writes Bano, there were rent controls and tenancy protections, which – together with the large-scale provision of social housing by the state – created a situation where in 1979 only 7% of homes were privately rented. These policies reflected a decades-long turn against private landlordism, by both the public and politicians, in reaction to the miseries of slums and extortionate rents. Even Conservatives thought that private renting was in irreversible decline.

“But as close as we came to the death of the private landlord,” writes Bano, “we never held up a mirror to that hungry maw to check that it had breathed its last.” Margaret Thatcher’s government revived the beast. Alongside her well-known decision to sell council housing, her 1988 Housing Act introduced the now standard assured shorthold tenancy, which enables “no-fault” evictions. These and later policies, such as the promotion of buy-to-let investment, got us where we are now, with more than 5m homes privately rented compared with about 1.5m in the 1980s.

Bano would like to return, with due allowance for the fact that public housing of the time was sometimes less than perfect, to the 1970s to complete the project of driving “landlords and house-price speculators from the face of the earth”. He wants to reinstate rent controls and end no-fault evictions. It’s not entirely clear how people currently privately renting would then be housed (though it seems likely that they would become tenants of the state), or how the transition would be effected. He acknowledges that it might be a brutal process, given the dependency of the national economy on property values, perhaps involving a monumental property crash.

Bano’s arguments have already taken a bit of a battering, both from more centrist commentators and, doubtless to his delight, from the rightwing thinktank the Institute of Economic Affairs (“an edgy Maoist rebel”, it called him). These critics question, with some reason, his basis for saying that there are enough homes, in light of the fact that studies tend to show that Britain has the smallest new-build homes in Europe.

It’s odd that Bano is so opposed to new homes, given that the near extinction of the private landlord in the 1970s owed much to postwar public housing programmes, as well as to rent controls. But he is absolutely right to say that there is no point in getting the diggers and the concrete mixers churning if issues of tenure and affordability are not also addressed.

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He’s also right to attack the numbing normalisation whereby the transactions of the private housing market are allowed to obliterate ideas of what a good home might be – for example, that it might be more than a transitory shelter until such time as a landlord decides they can get a better rent with someone else. Generation rent, as he puts it, is dependent on its own exploitation. So Against Landlords is flawed but valuable – a powerful weapon against those who think that building is the answer to everything.

Source: theguardian.com