Like the earth rotates on its axis, and tupperware loses its lid, our rents increase year on year. Rent rises seem like a law of nature. But they aren’t. The system that makes people pay a large proportion of their income to rent is made and maintained by people and organisations that could, and should, act differently. Particularly in a pandemic, which has churned up lives and livelihoods like a long, savage, yet monotonous, storm. We need rent freezes in social and public housing.
On top of long established inequalities, renters are currently scrambling to get by due to various pandemic-related turmoil: job losses, losses to income due to furlough and reduction in work hours due to shielding requirements and increased childcare hours. With the eventual ending of an eviction ban, and a reduction of universal credit by £20 in September, renters are facing increasing poverty and financial anxiety, precarious living arrangements, and homelessness. This will undoubtedly cause hardship. Rent increases on top of all this is nonsense. Which is why Living Rent has launched its “Freeze Rent” campaign” for social and public tenants.
Here, we will look specifically at Gorgie-Dalry, where Living Rent members are focusing on the upcoming rent consultation with Dunedin Canmore housing association, a subsidiary of the Wheatley Group & Lowther Homes, the mid-market and for profit arm of the Wheatley Group. Social housing tenants in Dunedin Canmore were asked to choose between whether they want their rent increased, or increased a bit more, with only 3.3% of tenants agreeing to an increase. For Lowther tenants, they were not consulted on their increase. Living Rent believes any meaningful consultation on rent increases should allow tenants to ask for a 0% increase, and be listened to. Andrew, a current tenant at Dunedin Canmore believes that they maintain:
“a top-down dictatorial management style with their agenda thinly disguised as a housing association which should be more democratic in its constitution, allowing its members (the tenants) to have a voice (which has been removed over time). For example: rent increases every year at 3.4% which are cumulative on top of previous annual increases. We are asked if we agree and given an opportunity to write whether we agree or disagree (this is nothing more than a paper exercise at its best).”
This pandemic has seen housing debt (i.e. arrears) increase over all housing sectors, but renters, particularly social renters, have been hit the hardest. A few numbers will hammer this home. Arrears for social renters have more than doubled over the pandemic, totalling around 9% of social renters, while 6% of private renters, and 2% of mortgage-paying homeowners, are also in arrears. This includes huge numbers of families with children: 307,000 families in total, including almost half of the social renters that are in arrears.
Arrears have accumulated alongside a reduction of earnings. Earnings have gone down, either due to furlough, job losses, or working hours that have been reduced for shielding or to cover increasing childcare needs. Compared to people with mortgages, renters are four times more likely to have been furloughed (8% of renters, 2% of mortgaged homeowners), twice as likely to have lost their job (16% or renters, 8% of mortgaged homeowners), and more likely to have had their earning reduced by 10 percent or more (11% of renters, 9% of mortgaged homeowners).
Many have responded to their loss of earnings by using savings to pay rent, with 18% of private renters using savings compared to 9% of social renters, and 10% of homeowners. Plausibly, social renters haven’t dipped into their savings as much because they are far less likely to have any: 40% of social renters entered the pandemic with no savings, compared to 22% of private renters and 11% of mortgaged homeowners. About a fifth to a quarter of renters have cut back on spending over the pandemic to pay their rent, and almost 1 in 10 renters have borrowed money.
Other than sheer figures, we need to consider the human stories behind the numbers. For example, what does it mean for the quality of people’s lives if they cut back on other spending to make their rent as the Weatley group encourages them to do when asking them to ‘put rent first’? Particularly for poorer people, what are they cutting back on? It is likely that it is often basic necessities, such as food and heating. Alanski, who lives in a home run by Lowther Homes, writes "“Since the takeover [by Lowther Homes of Dunedin], my rent will have risen by almost £75 a month within a few years, a considerable amount. My working life as a freelancer has deteriorated over the last couple of years, and I'm finding the situation more and more difficult, given the extra living expenses I'm subjected to, and despite their bluster and lies about maintaining a 'great' service.”
Similarly, Audrey, a shared owner at Dunedin Canmore, reports:
“[Dunedin Canmore] take rent and maintenance costs from shared owners but we receive nothing from them. Our rent has gone up year on year by 3% every time but any complaint is met with a pro forma letter telling you how wonderful they are doing and their cost rises, etc. They never address your points. My wages in 21 years have never gone up by 3%. Never, and even in the years I've had a wage rise, usually between 0.5 - 1.5%, my rent has gone up 3%, and my council tax has gone up too. My utilities go up and sometimes my bus pass. Diesel always goes up and any insurance we have goes up. Maintenance goes up despite them doing so little.”
Many will suffer if depleted household finances/debt collide with yet more rent increases, particularly those who are already less well off. Rent freezes are the minimum the social housing sector can do to preserve people’s physical and mental health. It is questionable what the use of the social housing sector is, if it doesn’t act in socially responsible ways. The response from housing association boards will likely be that the public sector and social housing can’t afford to freeze rents. But after a pandemic that has shaken to the core our assumptions about the sustainability of our modes of living, and made us reconsider our priorities, relying on arguments that things should continue as they have been will further weaken the wellbeing of our society by exacerbating inequalities.
The limiting factors for what we can achieve in our societies are whether we have the people power to do necessary jobs, the resources that living and working require, and the knowledge and skills to create the society we want. Rents are not related to any of these - they contribute instead to a hugely unequal society where a very few make vast profits either directly from the work of others, or from government benefits. Under a system of high rent, benefits - which are necessary to alleviate some of the worst aspects of poverty - also become another way that public wealth is funnelled into private hands. In this case, the hands of landlords. For example, Martin Armstrong, the chief executive of the social housing organisation Wheatley group which covers the GHA, Dunedin Canmore & Cube where tenants are organising for a freeze, earns £296,000 a year. Like rent increases, this is not a law of nature, nor even a necessary factor in a functioning economy.
The final limiting factor in what we can achieve is the collective will to make changes. A campaign to freeze rent, by consulting and campaigning with tenants, is already underway. Whether it is achieved depends on who engages. There are no quick fixes in changing a hugely exploitative system at the core of our economic system, which makes a wealthy landlord class out of others' hard work. Standing up to rent rises is one way to start tackling these inequalities of wealth and power.
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Dunedin Canmore, responses to the 2021/2022 consultation:
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