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Proper Gander: Home Truths

Proper Gander

Over 11 million people in Britain live in rented accommodation, mostly owned by private landlords, as opposed to Registered Social Landlords (councils and housing associations). The two kinds of landlord differ in the way their organisations are structured. RSLs don’t have shareholders to swallow up profits, so any surplus from rents collected is supposed to be re-invested into maintaining properties and building more social housing. The rents which RSLs charge are shaped by government, with the aim that they are more affordable to people on lower incomes. Private landlords are individuals who own the properties they rent, so they can choose the amount they charge and wait for the profits to land directly into their bank accounts. The terms of a tenancy agreement may or may not differ much between the private sector and social housing, depending on how closely the landlord sticks to the law and accepted practice. Consequently, renting from the private sector often involves even less security and shoddier properties than with RSLs. While many private landlords live in luxury bespoke villas, their tenants struggle to afford cramped flats with damp walls. How would these landlords react to having to live in the conditions that their tenants endure?

We find out in The Week The Landlords Moved In (BBC1), another one of those ‘switching lifestyle’reality TV programmes, the offspring of Wife Swap and Undercover Boss. Each episode follows two landlords who move in to one of their own properties for a week and manage on the same income as their tenants, who temporarily move to other accommodation.

The participating landlords include a father and son who own properties worth £7million in London and the commuter belt which bring them £15,000 a month profit. Another has 80 properties which draw in £30-£40,000 rent each month. Two young entrepreneurs boast that they earn £750 an hour, and talk of people and property as ‘investment vehicles’. All the landlords are open about being in the property business to rake in the dosh, with ‘buy low, rent high’and ‘let it and forget it’as business models. One cannily realises that for him, the housing crisis is an opportunity. With lots of people looking for fewer properties, private landlords can pick which new tenants can pay the highest rents, boosting their profits.

The properties they rent out include a two bedroom flat on the London / Essex border for £950 a month, £575 for a room and communal kitchen in Milton Keynes, and £450 a month for a two bedroom flat in County Durham. Mould is often thrown in at no extra cost, and many flats have unique features such as peeling paint on bathroom tiles and electric meters shared with the neighbour. Fixtures and fittings may not be fixed and fitted. Some of the tenants lack the confidence to report repairs or problems, worried about being evicted if they are seen to be awkward. Many live in fear of having to move out if the rents increase beyond their means. They have often learnt to manage without things like adequate money, heating, storage space and working appliances, things which the landlords take for granted. So, when the landlords move into their own substandard rented accommodation, it comes as a shock. Living on less than £100 disposable income for the week is another eye-opener for those used to ten times that much.

Living as tenants gives the landlords some much-needed empathy. One tearfully (and belatedly) comes to understand that he’s responsible for someone else’s living conditions. Another realises that he should be looking at the properties not through their ‘functionality’but as homes for people. After the week is over, many of the tenants return to renovated and redecorated rooms and assurances that the properties will be maintained better in future. The landlords’previous reluctance to re-invest much of their profits back into maintenance shows how the profit motive leads to greed and a poor quality service.

The Week The Landlords Moved In illustrates the alienation that the housing system engineers between people. Landlords are distanced from their tenants not only through their differing legal rights to the property, but also through the differences in their wealth. Their relationship is financial and bureaucratic, rather than co-operative and on an equal basis. We’ve learnt to accept as normal the notion of someone else owning and having control over where we live. And of course it is a normal, integral part of the system. But consequently, our homes don’t often have the security and comfort that they should provide. Paying a mortgage to buy our home doesn’t necessarily give where we live more stability, either, as then we’re financially tied to a bank instead of a landlord. And this option isn’t realistic for anyone unable to pull together the thousands of pounds needed for a deposit and solicitor’s fees. Capitalism turns where we live into a commodity, which shapes the way we relate to our homes. For the millions of people surviving on a low income, lacking the money (and the right) to make improvements, home doesn’t always feel like home. For the landlords, houses are likely to be seen just as sources of income, at least until a TV programme makes them think twice.

MIKE FOSTER