Against Landlords

The other day our landlord walked into our apartment. Just opened the door right up and headed in. They were here to fix a problem we’d never heard about, and then they began to moan about the maintenance of the building. Oh, the upkeep! Oh, the leaves from down the street! Oh, the humanity — how hard it is to be a landlord!

As I politely nodded, I felt a blood-hot rage and realized this feeling isn’t new. I’ve experienced this feeling before. But what is it?

This feeling was there when I lived in Nottingham and found myself paying 70% of my paycheck to live in a rotting building. It was there when I walked around Mayfair and saw the lights and the cars and the money before returning to the slum hotel I stayed in. It was there in Berlin when I stayed in an eye-wateringly expensive Airbnb in the red light district. It was there in Plymouth when I had to move back in with my mom and I stayed in a tiny loft, knowing that I’ll never own a house, never have a garden or a nice bathroom. And it’s here now in SF, listening to this landlord decry the burden and pain of living across the bridge and returning to this apartment once every six months to fix something.

This feeling isn’t rage though, it’s simply injustice. A sensitivity to an unnatural thing. A force you might not understand, but you feel it in your bones.

It’s not often that I feel my socialism meter tick again to the left with a thud, but Nick Bano in his excellent book Against Landlords has done just that. Bano writes about the housing crisis in the UK and how to fix it but in the process he’s rekindled this slow burning, fusion-like rage in me. He’s put to words the injustice I’ve felt for decades.

First, Nick identifies the problem: housing prices are caused by rent. This, to me, is new and novel information. Obvious in hindsight, sure, but Nick argues that we see such exorbitant house prices because the rental market acts like a monopoly, even if the vast majority of rentiers (what a great word!) are not giant corporations in the UK. Acting like a monopoly and being the legal defintion of a monopoly are two separate things.

This means that the only way to fix the housing crisis is to look at how rent works in the UK. We need to fix that first.

My favorite bit of the book is where Bano talks about how rentiering shouldn’t be a job at all and is actually a modern invention. At first when I read that it felt like it was challenging the laws of the universe—of course some folks should rent their properties! But Nick says, nope, absolutely not. Being a landlord in the UK was an extremely unprofitable business pre-1970s because it was designed that way. Policies were put in place in order to prevent a housing crisis like the one we see today.

Nick mentions this woof-able line a few times, but: the UK is really just a housing market with some economic activity on the side. Landlords and speculative house prices based on the backs of high rents did that. So what might seem relatively harmless from a distance—renting your home out to a stranger—is dangerous when it becomes unregulated. At a certain scale, rentiering is a threat to us all.

So let’s just stop moaning and build more houses! Right? Well...

The vast majority of homes in England and Wales—about 70 per cent—are under-occupied. Scarcity of buildings is not the problem. We have a relative abundance, in historical or geographically comparative terms, but a crisis of price.

Nick writes that landlords and home owners have merged together into the most powerful political force in the UK because high rents are good for homeowners—it artificially jacks up the price of their investment. And if we fix the rent problem, people fear, we will cause a collapse of the housing market and send the UK economy into a death spiral since the economy is really just a bed sheet on top of a house-shaped casino.

So enough moaning – what’s the solution here? I’m paraphrasing, but from Nick’s book:

  1. Expand the stock of council houses.
  2. Rent control, rent control, rent control.
  3. 100% capital gains tax .

That third point I have no idea about, Nick mentions it only in passing, so I won’t say much about that. The first two are clearly obvious and good things we should focus on immediately. Council housing especially:

We dismantled the council housing system, and replaced it with one in which £88 billion is paid to residential landlords every year.

When it comes to rent control, Nick has this to say:

Rent controls are more than just a weak compromise with the landlord class, a staging post on the route to a better society. When they work, just like large-scale council-housing, they create the conditions for reducing or eliminating the exploitative private rented sector.

I must say that this book turned a lot of gears in my head. When I lived in the UK I would hear all the time from both sides of the bench that there are masses of people coming over here and leaching off the government. But time and time again, Nick proves in his book that landlords are the leaches. They’re an enormous burden on the economy that’s now primarily sat on the head of a single industry (the gambling/speculative housing market). They have taken what should be public funds for public good and used them to line their pockets to build ever more expensive houses. Each year they make the problem worse and every day they force people into unlivable situations.

The way to fix the housing crisis then is to follow the money and call this thing for what it is: a grave injustice, social violence, an untenable situation that we all experience and only few profit from.