Rent Controls in the UK Are Not a Fantasy

With 445,000 UK tenants in arrears, it's clear the landlord class is out of control. Rent controls can rein in its exploitation.

For-profit housing is incapable of solving a housing crisis. (Pedro Ramos / Unsplash)

Earlier this summer, after months of screeching U-turns, the government embraced the worst of its nature — ending the eviction ban and exposing hundreds of thousands of renters to the capricious whims of their private landlords.

While the vaccine rollout has led to a blanket insistence that the UK is “over the worst of the pandemic,” around 686,000 renters remain on furlough. 445,000 are in rent arrears and many are facing losing their home. Keir Starmer, never one to let a national crisis get in the way of his avowed lack of politics, sits on his thumbs. That leaves individual MPs, city mayors, and tenant unions to take up the call for a sidelined policy: rent controls.

When rent controls last existed in the UK, the number of private renters fell by 80 percent. Quick to paint this as a dystopian development for tenants, landlords’ associations deliberately misrepresent the situation by equating the reduction in the private rented sector to a national housing crisis: they tell a story of venal populists poaching the votes of naïve serfs with simplistic, cosmetic fixes. Rent controls, they argue, drive well-meaning landlords out of the market and leave tenants with nowhere to turn.

We need only turn to Engels, who argued in The Housing Question that for-profit housing is incapable of solving a housing crisis, to see that their facts don’t line up. In reality, 4.4 million council houses were built under rent controls — an average of more than 126,000 a year between 1915 and 1988. Millions more people were able to buy their own homes because of the resulting expansion of mortgage availability.

Meanwhile, slum clearances killed off many of the worst abuses of the landlord class. This shrunk the private rental sector significantly, leading to the “shortage of homes” landlords now decry as a tragedy.

These rent controls are not a thing of the past. Last year, after three decades of increases in the cost of living, the city government of Berlin passed a five-year rent freeze — or “Mietendeckel,” meaning a “lid” on rents — making the cost of living more affordable for more than 1.5 million households across the city. The cap was overturned in April by the state’s constitutional court, but housing activists continue to fight for its return. In the United States, more than two hundred cities now boast some form of rent regulation. Research conducted since these rent controls were introduced — including a 2007 study by David Sims and a 2014 study by Autor, Palmer, and Pathak — pours cold water on the claim that regulation stems the flow of affordable housing.

The reintroduction of such controls in Britain is not a fantasy. A YouGov poll conducted at the height of the pandemic revealed that 74 percent of the public support putting caps on what landlords can charge, with only 8 percent unsupportive. Critics will argue polls like this only show the pandemic’s effect — the country’s famously conservative public panic-buying socialism — in a trend that will inevitably fade. But a similar poll from 2015 suggests enduring support for renter protection, with 60 percent of British people — including 42 percent of Conservatives — previously eager to introduce limits on what landlords can charge.

Politicians on the Left have long supported defanging landlords in this way. In the 1950s, Labour backed all-out municipalization as a solution to Tory plans to relax rent controls. But that radicalism was replaced by reform in the 1960s, when it became clear private tenants were not turning out in great enough numbers to give the party an electoral edge, before being abandoned altogether under New Labour.

Corbyn renewed Labour’s commitment to rent controls in his “private renters’ charter,” promising sweeping regulation in line with national inflation, as well as a “property MOT” that would force landlords to pay back thousands to their tenants if their homes were found to be substandard. But if Labour’s response to activists’ “cancel the rent” demands at the start of the pandemic is any indication, these commitments have been abandoned under Starmer.

COVID-19 has nonetheless revealed the urgent need for guaranteed shelter — and even some in the political center seem to be warming up to the idea of rent controls. London mayor Sadiq Khan took up the banner of regulation during his election campaign in an attempt to shore up votes by quelling the tide of greed that has made renting a house in a London suburb for less than £1,700 per month a challenge. Khan called on the government to hand him powers to implement rent controls in London, arguing the city “is different to the rest of the country in terms of its housing need.”

The Tories have always beholden to the interests of the rentier class. In fact, 90 out of 363 Tory MPs are landlords themselves, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson and health secretary Sajid Javid. They won’t give up the largest slice of the pie without a fight.

However, Khan’s calls for rent controls are a bellwether — one that calls into question why the national Labour Party has been so reluctant to shield its core constituency from the economic fallout of the pandemic.

“Sadiq Khan represents a constituency that has suffered disproportionately under a poorly regulated system,” explains Gordon Maloney, national committee member for tenants’ union Living Rent. “Khan feels the political pressure to do something about it. Others in the Labour Party do not. It’s up to the tenants’ unions like ours to make them feel the pressure.”

Far from being the domain of the left-wing fringes, Gordon argues there’s a centrist case emerging in favor of rent controls, particularly in big cities, bought into by the likes of Khan and Andy Burnham.

“You see this trend emerging in London,” Gordon explains. “Big tech companies are calling for rent caps because their staff can’t afford to live near their offices. If you’re investing in something other than property, you have a lot to gain from people being able to rent homes affordably.”

Gordon argues that in the struggle to achieve rent controls, there’s no substitute for an organized and committed tenants’ movement that understands the detail of what’s going on and can exert the political pressure to move the conversation in the right direction. Crucially, unions like Living Rent see rent controls as more than a means to achieve housing justice: for them, properly implemented regulation has the potential to be utterly transformative.

“Our current system incentivises the middle class to make unproductive buy-to-let investments which add nothing to society,” Gordon continues. “Nor is there any real incentive for them to make their homes more energy efficient, because they don’t live there and they’re not paying the bills.”

“If you disincentive buy-to-let and force landlords to pick up the tab for the environmental crisis, rent controls could reshape investment, transform climate justice, and make society, on the whole, far more equal.”

Gordon is right. The more heavily regulated the private rental sector is, the more we can counteract the power imbalance between tenants and landlords. Transferring power back into the hands of renters — by making rent affordable as well as predictable — can empower an entire generation of people to stand up to the ruling class, with consequences for politics, the climate, and our wider society.

Socialists must work with tenants’ unions and the broader left to fight for rent controls that provide real protections for tenants against abuses like deposit deductions, harassment and intimidation, and illegal evictions. And when rent controls finally come to pass, we must fight tooth and nail against the inevitable attempts to water them down. The stakes are too high for us to fail.