How to evict your landlord

How to evict your landlord

In partnership withVerso
In this excerpt from his new book ‘Against Landlords’, lawyer and campaigner Nick Bano sets out a road map to ending private landlordism.

The housing crisis is a tale of conflict. The system of housing wealth in Britain is characterised by conflict between renters and owners, conflict between generations, between regions, between racial groups. The simple fact that underpins the bitterness we feel about our housing situation is that, in each case, the more disadvantaged of each of those groups is transferring wealth to the better-off. Renters prop up house prices, as each month they justify the speculative value of housing assets by paying an ever-increasing amount to rentiers. Whiter, older people in wealthier areas benefit at the cost of everyone else.

Marx was at pains to point out that virtually everyone’s economic interests are aligned against those of landlords. Tenants’ interests obviously are, but employers, too, have tended to prefer lower rents (and a consequently lower wage bill). Historically, states have leaned against excessive land speculation and preferred to focus their policies on profitable industries, even where this comes at the price of diminishing landlords’ economic power. But the key to understanding our housing crisis is the realisation that housing assets are now at the core of the national economy. Because house prices are founded on ever-rising rents, landlords’ interests and homeowners’ interests have become elided. And because homeownership and housing wealth are so important to Britain’s post-industrial economy, renters’ interests are in conflict with the national interest.

In moments of economic flux, the state now routinely tries to stimulate the property market at the expense of the renting population. In 2022 the New Statesman published data showing that the Housing Benefit bill was so high that only three government departments – Health and Social Care, Education, and Defence – have budgets that are bigger than this single item of the Department for Work and Pensions’ spending.

But even that £23.4 billion annual bill does not come close to alleviating poverty or hardship. On the contrary: every time the government lowers stamp duty or underwrites mortgages or funds developers to gentrify working-class districts, it drives up housing costs. These costs, of course, are merely passed on to tenants and the state itself, due to the legal environment of unchecked rents. The City of London – which traditionally intervenes when social spending rises too high for its liking – has been curiously untroubled by these wasted billions.

But the legal framework upon which house-price capitalism was built has now become too successful for its own good. Homes are so valuable that ownership rates are declining. Rents and housing costs are prohibitive for local working populations, and the contradictions of capitalism are on full display. Labour mobility – one of the original aims underlying insecure housing – has been replaced with labour precarity, and with wage bills that are putting an unmanageable strain on employers. For the time being, though, government policy still seems to be aimed at squeezing as much wealth as possible out of housing, rather than undermining or changing the conditions that make it so profitable in the first place.

The crisis has now reached a point where there will need to be political responses, and the central question is what our aims and methods should be. Thankfully, a consensus has grown in recent years around the need to expand the stock of council housing. For some readers, this might seem like a timid and rather statist position, but there are two responses to that concern.

Firstly, rejecting Engels’s argument that nothing can be done about the housing question unless private property itself is abolished, we can make great strides towards alleviating the sort of housing misery that we see today, even assuming that capitalism endures. We can reduce the intensity of our exploitation and housing stress. Accommodating people more cheaply, securely and under good conditions is by far the best method of achieving that.

Second, pursuing a massive increase in council housing may not, after all, be such a moderate policy, because it chimes with some of the earliest thinking around communism. Marx and Engels’s 1848 Communist Manifesto calls not for the complete abolition of rent, but for rents to be paid as a form of taxation – which is effectively what council rents are. The first demand of the Manifesto is for the ‘abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes’. Council tenants pay their rents to the local authority, and the money can only be spent on the ‘public purpose’ of funding and maintaining the council housing itself.

While council housing rents are not exactly the sort of general taxation that Marx and Engels had in mind, mass social housing would mean more rents going towards public purposes rather than private landowners. In the last century, council housing began to knock some of the roughest edges off the capitalist mode of production. This is the remarkable thing about the mid-twentieth-century consensus around large-scale public housing, and the Tories’ impressive record in building it: there was a time when, to an extent, even arch-Thatcherites like Keith Joseph made common cause with the communists.

In an 1872 speech in Manchester to the International Working men’s Association, Marx argued that ‘the social movement will lead to this decision that the land can but be owned by the nation itself ’.4 A century later, the growth of the social state caused journalist Simon Jenkins to write: ‘It may well be that the days of private land ownership, at least in the central areas of a city like London, are over.’ But all of that progress was undone. We dismantled the council housing system, and replaced it with one in which £88 billion is paid to residential landlords every year.

This is the point about a mass council housing project: it does not benefit the tenants alone, but interferes significantly in the political economy of land. Even within a capitalist system, it ‘makes possible a rational and democratic system in which the allocation of housing services and housing costs is no longer left to the hidden, grasping hand of the market’.5 And beyond that, if Jenkins is to be believed, the twentieth-century social state was so staggeringly successful that it threatened the nature of private landownership itself. With this in mind, James Connolly’s famous remark, ‘For our demands most moderate are, we only want the earth’, begins to lose its sense of contradiction.

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In the 1980s, the state deliberately halted the terminal decline of the private landlord. It was within our grasp, and we reversed it. When we talk about abolishing landlordism, it is not pie-in-the sky. In fact it is probably more immediately achievable than, say, police or prison abolition. As far back as 1965, the Milner Holland committee felt the need to advise the Douglas-Home government: ‘We do not think that the role of private landlords is finished.’

Both the left and the right then spent the next fifteen years becoming increasingly convinced that the writing was on the wall for privately rented homes; today, we need landlords to regain that sense of peril if we are to fix this crisis. For the time being, however, the divine right of landlords is so deeply entrenched that there is a media panic whenever a political party moots introducing pet-friendly policies for tenants.

During the Victorian experiment in ‘5 per cent philanthropy’, there was a complaint among the ‘ethical’ investors that the better social landlords (notably Peabody Trust) were undercutting the competition, thereby rendering the 5 per cent investment schemes unprofitable. The secretary of the Metropolitan Association was anxious that Peabody was ‘at least 30 per cent under the market, and they are working a serious injury against us’. This is precisely the point. Large-scale, non-profit-seeking models of housing provision are capable of driving rent-seekers out of business, and that must be our aim.

This may be the perfect moment for revisiting municipalisation. A collapse in housing values both after the Second World War and again in the 1970s meant that public authorities were primed to take over ownership of land and housing. Where preferential loans and public grants are available, and falling values mean that landlords are keen to sell, conditions are perfect for replenishing social housing stocks in the form of existing buildings. And housing, of course, tends to pay for itself in the longer term.

The only concern is that new-build construction standards in Britain are so notoriously bad that local authorities may end up with expensive, and possibly dangerous, privately built stock. But rebuilding council housing as a move towards the decommodification of housing must be at the heart of our project. The worst thing we could do after any house-price crash would be to wind the housing crisis back up again.

The problem faced by opponents of rent controls is that their main public-relations tactic is the scare story. They borrow disasters from other times and places, and attempt to make us worry about ‘shadow markets’ or ‘disappearing landlords’. But in the context of such a severe housing crisis, these counterfactuals sound like something of a relief. It would be very difficult for the landlord lobby to come up with a situation that is much worse than what we have today.

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. Again, the experience of the 1970s shows us how rent controls can work to partially decommodify housing markets to great effect. It was only fifty years ago that political parties and activists were making serious plans for a post-landlord society, and we should welcome any step that brings us closer to that situation.

This is what is so frustrating about so much of the housing policy debate over the last few years. Today’s accounts of the housing crisis are invariably based on neoclassical economics. This has led to elaborate debates about the precise effects of housing supply, a confected conflict between NIMBYs and YIMBYs, and a universal acceptance that there is a housing shortage. And – while everyone acknowledges that things are very bad, and that there is a need for drastic intervention of some kind – political parties wring their hands and claim that pandering to property developers is the only viable solution. This displays a complete ignorance of the history of housing and land policy. It shows that we have forgotten about the price controls that dominated housing policy throughout the twentieth century, and that their strategies were far more successful than our own. We used to know about the ways in which laws had an effect on land and housing provision; it now seems as if we have even forgotten how to talk about these ideas.

Consider, for example, the 100 per cent development charge This was specifically designed to dampen a frenzy of post-war commercial property speculation, and it was very effective. ‘Land values are being, by this Bill, substantially deflated’, boasted Hugh Dalton, Attlee’s chancellor of the exchequer; ‘this source of land speculation will be stopped for ever’. Dalton claimed, over-ambitiously: ‘we are moving towards the nationalisation of the land, and not by slow steps’. Indeed, he described the measure in parliament as being ‘the workers’ revenge for the enclosures’.

Imagine how a serious government could put such a dampening measure into force today. A simple, radical tax measure could bring an instant halt to a system predicated on price speculation. If there were a 100 per cent capital gains tax, it would be in no one’s interest for house prices to go up. If we wanted to, we could end house-price speculation instantly, as the tenants’ revenge for the immense wealth that the housing crisis has prised from them.

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Realistically, though, reform is unlikely to be as dramatic or sharp as that; but there is cause for optimism. Years before I started writing, no-fault evictions had been something of a hobby-horse of mine, and I had been trying hard to persuade people of the economic consequences of unstable tenancies. But there was no appetite for reform in England. National housing charities seemed to treat a campaign for private-sector security as politically naive, and even a Corbyn-led Labour Party started out by recycling Cameron- and Miliband-era pledges of short ‘family friendly’ tenancies.

A 2018 opposition Green Paper, Housing for the Many, contained some fairly tired material focusing on the social sector. Some colleagues and I drafted a response on behalf of the Society of Labour Lawyers explaining the need for the abolition of section 21, and in late 2018 it felt like a demand that was outrageous and obscure in equal measure. But – to our amazement – the Labour front bench suddenly committed to the policy a few months later, in March 2019. While we will never know whether anyone at the Labour Party had even read our pitch, what is certain is that each of the other major political parties felt the need to match Labour’s pledge at that year’s general election, and we went into the 2019 parliament with an unimpeachable political consensus in favour of dismantling a key element of Thatcherism. The effects of that change are likely to be felt in the medium and long term rather than immediately. But we may be heading towards the sort of legal framework that was in place before the present housing crisis started to take shape.

Many of the proposals for housing reform that are advanced today focus on tax reform. Commentators see the vast wealth that housing generates, and consider it to be an important, radical measure to capture some of that wealth and deploy it for socially useful purposes. But these methods can be quite difficult to put into effect. Despite the enthusiastic efforts of movements like the Georgists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, tax advocates routinely come to find that land is only easily taxable at the point of sale – which happens rarely – and that efforts to impose ongoing land taxation require both a sophisticated apparatus for valuing land and liquidity on the part of the landowner, which is not always feasible when land has quickly appreciated in value.

But, more fundamentally, there is something of a tension between measures that aim to capture landed wealth and policies that seek to undermine its value in the first place. We can be intensely relaxed about house-price growth as long as the speculators pay their taxes; or we can take the Hugh Dalton line of using the law to deflate property values. The latter aims to solve the housing crisis, while the former seeks merely to offset some of its effects. There seems to be little point in maintaining a situation in which people face very high housing costs but some of the money is recouped by the state, when we could aim instead to lower those housing costs drastically in the first place.

A few years ago, a friend of mine was looking after a cat as part of a scheme that fosters pets belonging to families who are temporarily homeless as a result of fleeing domestic violence. My friend had a week’s holiday booked, and asked if the cat could stay in my shared flat. I made the mistake of running it past our letting agent, who refused outright. There was an increasingly bitter exchange of emails in which I asked whether they had even bothered to ask the landlord (they had not, but it was policy). I tend to pride myself on maintaining my cool, lawyerly demeanour in almost all of my dealings, but a red mist began to descend. Shane McGowan’s lyrics from ‘The Bastard Landlord’ echoed around my head and raised my blood pressure. I ended up sending some replies that I am now too ashamed to recall.

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Leaving aside for a moment the more direct harm of evictions, rent increases and tenancy churn, landlords and their agents have an extraordinary degree of day-to-day control over society: 2.5 million totally unremarkable people dictate the behaviour of 4.4 million households. Can I have a pet? Can I hang a picture? Can I replace the lumpy ‘landlord special’ mattress on the ‘landlord special’ double divan, on which I am required to sleep every night? Our thoughts turn to the deposit whenever something happens to the physical space, and we spend thousands on utility bills rather than bothering our exploiters with complaints about leaking pipes and ancient boilers.

Renting in Britain is so deeply infantilising that – where it does not build resentment and rage – it is bound to feed into a sense of individual inferiority towards the landlord or their twenty-year old property manager. We have, I suspect, also seen the de-skilling of a generation, as millions of people have no experience of carrying out works on their own homes. And we are paying well over the odds, in international or historical terms, for the privilege.

Engels’s argument that there is always a housing crisis under capitalism was predicated on the idea of constant and acute housing shortage. But that is not the crisis we face. We are the heirs to record-breaking amounts of municipal construction (much of which still physically exists), and to an economy built upon property development. The vast majority of homes in England and Wales – about 70 per cent – are underoccupied. Scarcity of buildings is not the problem. We have a relative abundance, in historical or geographically comparative terms, but a crisis of price. And crisis, as explained in the previous chapter, tends to reach a point at which it needs to resolve itself. House-price capitalism may finally begin to enter a phase of decline.

What has struck me most while writing this book is how Marx’s point about urban rents being, in effect, monopoly prices has been proved right over and over again. It seems astonishing that the point is not made more often. We have seen examples from Victorian Britain, from fin de siècle Naples, from colonial Mumbai, from Hong Kong, and elsewhere: throughout modern history, unregulated land markets have led to deteriorating conditions and soaring rents, even where wages have stagnated or fallen. To those I would add probably the most pertinent example from a contemporary British perspective: 1990s Cairo. In that decade, a land boom overtook both tourism and manufacturing, making it Egypt’s third-largest non-oil investment sector, and vast amounts of housing were built. But the glut of new buildings only made the housing crisis worse. Squalor intensified, and lower-waged workers were pushed into a distant peri-urban sprawl. ‘Upwards of a million apartments stand empty’, wrote a contemporary observer. ‘There is no housing shortage per se. In fact, Cairo is filled with buildings that are half-empty.’

The simple fact is that, where rents are unrestrained by law, they can reach monopoly prices – and those monopoly prices determine land values. Building more housing is an article of faith, but there is little point in increasing supply if the legal and economic conditions will always allow the grasping hand of the market to feel around for the limits of people’s means.

Housing is, of course, one of many interconnected issues. The housing crisis – the need to maintain housing value and extract wealth – rests upon inadequate systems of pensions, wages and public services. A common interest is shared between those who intend to retire and the maintainers of the housing crisis, so it is difficult to unpick the relationship between the two. But, on the other side of the equation, a common interest is also shared between housing crisis opponents and other groups. The class of homeowners is shrinking, and the needs of renters and homeless people are becoming more urgent than demands for pensions. But, perhaps more importantly, there is a growing convergence between housing and environmental concerns.

When future generations come to study the beginnings of the end of the world, even the most unobservant and ideologically minded will have to concede that its causes began with capitalism. A system predicated on private accumulation, and wilfully blind to social need, is at the heart of climate breakdown. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the built environment.

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On a routine basis, we see the ritual tearing-down of viable buildings for redevelopment. Large publicly built estates like Central Hill in south London are being demolished before our eyes, then rebuilt for sale at a higher price – raising costs for every one locally, and driving poorer people away; and even based on the local authority’s case, the net gain in the number of homes is slim. This is a gross act of ecological vandalism and social violence, masquerading as a solution to the housing crisis. There is an ever more pressing case for winding down house-price capitalism on ecological grounds, as we continue to exceed our planetary boundaries.

With each passing year, the growing generation of renters has less to lose. By definition, it has no assets. Its rented homes are not particularly worth fighting for. The pace of planetary destruction increases. The forces that drive its political commitment are becoming ever more powerful. Both Black Lives Matter and the Stansted 15 protesters took direct action to block runways because they wanted to draw attention to the intertwined nature of climate breakdown, colonialism, deportations and fossil fuels. In a similar way, the housing movement would do well to combine its energies with climate and anti-racism activists to ensure that property development loses its central role in the debate over the housing crisis. We must draw attention to its inherent racism and its ecological destructiveness, as well as its impoverishing effects.

The system of house-price growth was not designed to be wound down gently or peacefully. As a country, we have bet the farm on house prices, and successive governments have been understandably cautious about altering the laws designed to encourage homes to become more expensive. But the scale of the harm of this system can no longer be denied. We owe it to ourselves to change things. We owe it, in particular, to the deceased and survivors of Grenfell. We owe it also to people like Daniel Gauntlett, a homeless man who died of cold outside a boarded-up bungalow a few months after squatting was criminalised, sacrificed to a temporary moral panic about property values; to Mizanur Rahman, who died from a fire in an East End slum in 2023, within a mile of a major world financial centre; to Awaab Ishak, who died, aged two, after his social landlord blamed his parents for the dangerous mould in their rented home; and to the homeless people dying at a rate of one every six-and-a-half hours. We owe it to the countless people who have suffered psychological and physical harm or distress as a result of housing instability, or were driven away from their homes and communities by ever-increasing costs.

By methods as prosaic as law reform, we can work towards decommodifying housing, and drive landlords and house-price speculators from the face of the earth. We have done it before, and we must do it again.

Against Landlords is published by Verso books and is out now.

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