What’s going on with the London rental market?

What’s going on with the London rental market?
Flat broke — With skyrocketing rents, packed out viewings, bidding wars and more, renting in London has never been harder. We spoke to those at the sharpest edges about their experiences and how to fight back.

Trying to rent a flat in London right now is like competing in The Hunger Games – just ask anyone who’s been looking this summer. Tactics are increasingly desperate to secure somewhere to live, no matter how bad the conditions, with people bidding against each other for places they haven’t even seen. What the hell is happening?

Ana Oppenheim, a 28-year-old Parliamentary Assistant originally from Poland, has been trying to find a flat to rent for more than two months. She’s lived in six different rented homes in London over the last ten years. “There’s always been a lot of instability, and rent going up every year was standard,” she says. “But finding a place never took more than a few days. You’d put in a few offers, and get something back.”

 Now, she says, “it’s an absolute nightmare”. She and her two current flatmates, who live in New Cross, were confronted with a Section 21 ‘no-fault’ eviction one year into a two-year contract. They started looking for a new place together in June, and found every place they requested a viewing had already been let before they could book one. 

At the viewings they did manage to attend, people were offering to pay multiple months’ rent upfront and offering hundreds over the asking price. “I’ve seen prospective tenants trying to charm and flirt with the landlords to try to get them to pick their offer over the others,” says Ana. The flatmates tried to sign leases on flats without seeing them first, putting in offers as soon as a listing went up. “By the end of July, [flat-hunting] had become a full-time job for three people. I’ve never seen anything like this. If it wasn’t for the fact that I recently started a job I really care about, I absolutely would be leaving London.”

Ana’s experience isn’t an anomaly. Renters across London are faced with an increasingly desperate situation with stark rent increases, bidding wars, and attempts to bypass new rules around Houses in Multiple Occupancy (HMO). 

Will has had to deal with this increasingly desperate situation first hand. Upon arriving at a viewing for a two-bedroom basement flat in Tufnell Park, he was told to queue up alongside 25 other people. When he entered the flat, he was asked to enter his phone number into the letting agent’s phone and instructed to text his offer per month after the viewing. He was told the base level was £1,800 pcm. 

“They let us into the property all at the same time to look around,” Will told Huck. “It was disgusting – no mopping, hoovering, mould everywhere. The garden was full of dogshit and the power was off, so you could barely see anything except by phone torchlight. I asked if the power could be turned on and got given a raft of excuses. We left the viewing pretty quickly, and I was worked up enough to tell the letting agent he should be ashamed of himself.” 

Rightmove figures for April to June 2022 showed average monthly London rents are up 15.8 per cent on last year – “the fastest ever [increase] of any region,” reaching a new high of £2,257. A Zoopla report from May 2022 finds that the number of available rentals in London is currently around half of the five-year average. Various reasons are being hazarded for this low supply, including people returning to the city for work and study post-pandemic, buy-to-let landlords selling off their properties before an expected price drop, and increased taxes and restrictions for landlords. 

In early August 2022, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan shared a map on Twitter showing the way that rents had changed in different parts of London during the last two years. There were small declines in central, high-income areas like West Kensington and Bloomsbury, but big leaps in some poorer, outer districts. Rent was up 14 per cent in East Ham, 19 per cent in Lower Edmonton and 20 per cent in Eltham and Mottingham. Khan commented “this is a disgrace,” pointing out that he has repeatedly asked the government to let him freeze rents.

Jules in Tooting tells Huck that their landlord “tried to up our rent by £500 between 3 people for a shabby 3 bed”. Other renters Huck spoke to reported rises of £1,000 in rental asking price after they’d moved out with no improvements to the property. 

Sally tells Huck that after moving out of her flat the rent for the next tenants went up “from £2100 to £2850 pcm and the ceilings were crumbling as we showed them round”. She adds: “Meanwhile, I have been unable to find somewhere I can afford. Rooms I message that are within my price range have received hundreds of enquiries within hours of being posted. I am lucky to be able to live with my parents up north and sofa surf with friends when I need to be in London, otherwise I’d be without a home.”

Other cities have stronger protections against out-of-control rent rises. In Berlin, there are caps on how high rent can go, and in New York, more than a million apartments are rent-stabilised, with rises controlled by the Rent Guidelines Board. Even in the UK, rent controls were in place for most of the 20th century, after being introduced during WWI to stop profiteering during the war years, when demand for housing exceeded supply. Regulations remained until 1989, when they were axed under Thatcher.

Roz Spencer is Head of Service of Safer Renting, part of the social justice charity Cambridge House, which aims to keep vulnerable, low-income people off the streets. She points out that the top, middle and bottom end of the rental market don’t always move in tandem. Her work involves protecting the bottom end, “which was at a floor,” she says. “It couldn’t get less affordable.” But there are other ways the market can shift, she says, such as by declining quality and by reducing security of tenure. 

“In the areas where we operate,” she says, “Brexit and the pandemic together have reduced the supply of people who will take the bottom end of the market. A lot of people have gone back to Eastern Europe because it’s just so bad here in so many ways. I’m not sure we’ve established who the new ‘desperate’ are.”

Scroll through the online forums dedicated to London housing, and “desperate” is a word that recurs, by people bewildered at having to lower their expectations, even as they hand over more and more of their pay cheque.

There are many who are being forced out of the city. Nick Stone has lived in his flat for over two decades. “After 22 years of living in the same rented North London flat, my landlord is selling the property. I have to move again.” Having looked around at the offerings on the market, Nick had to take drastic action. “I’m over 55 so I’m cashing in much of my occupational pension to cash-buy an affordable flat near Bradford. It’ll mean less pension when I’m too old to work but I’ll now have security of tenure.”

The case for rent controls is “overwhelming,” Roz says, “but our banking institutions have more than 50 per cent of their loan portfolios secured against property. If anything had an impact on property value and created a crash — the establishment wouldn’t let that happen, because of what it would do to our banks. You could and you should [impose rent controls] but I don’t think we’re going to see it in my lifetime.”

 In May 2022, the government announced plans for a Renters Reform Bill, which is expected to be voted on before the end of the year. It doesn’t include any rent caps or freezes, although it does prevent automatic increases being added to tenancy contracts, limits rent raises to once a year and doubles the required notice period. These raises could then challenged at a tribunal, where the going market rent would be used as the basis for decisions. Various other protections for tenants are part of the bill, including an end to no-fault evictions.

Campaign group Generation Rent is asking people to email their MPs to  help the bill pass, and ensure it is genuinely effective in rebalancing power in favour of those renting. The organisation’s Deputy Director, Dan Wilson Craw, wrote in June that even if the bill passes with its ban on no-fault evictions intact, there could be loopholes that could be exploited to kick out tenants. “The big test,” he says, “is how easy it will be for landlords to claim they need to sell or move family in then simply re-let the property or raise the rent to an unaffordable level.”

 Pressuring MPs as the bill moves through parliament is one way that people can join the fight for fairer housing, but it’s not the only one. Becoming better educated about tenants’ rights is a way of gaining some power; in September, Generation Rent will be sharing information via webinars as part of its “Renters’ Rights Awareness Week”.

Joining a renters union can also make a difference. The London Renters Union puts on training sessions and talks and pushes local councillors to create tenant-friendly policies. They have helped residents of an east London housing estate negotiate better living conditions with their landlord and organised eviction resistance events.

Griff Ferris and his housemates sued their landlord in early 2022, with the help of the LRU, and won back six months’ rent. In a Twitter thread that went viral, he explained how their five-bed house share in south-east London had holes in the walls, damp, rotten window frames, leaks, no central heating and sockets that sparked. Just before Christmas in 2021, the landlord told them they had a couple of months to leave.

Instead, Griff and his housemates did some digging. They found that the landlord hadn’t registered the house as an HMO, and that other licences and safety requirements were missing. This meant he couldn’t serve them with a Section 8 or Section 21 eviction. They stopped paying rent, and with the help of the LRU, wrote him a letter explaining that they had drafted a Rent Repayment Order. He offered them a settlement of £13,000. The LRU, he says in the thread’s conclusion, “were helpful and gave us confidence we were doing the right thing. Don’t take shit from landlords.”

While organisations like tenants unions fight to help tenants survive in the here and now, others have longer-term, more ambitious goals. The recently-launched ‘Enough is enough’ campaign, launched by MPs Zarah Sultana and Ian Byrne among others, calls for “decent homes for all” among its five key demands. More specifically, its proposed protections for tenants include a rent cap, 100,000 new public and council homes a year, an end to right-to-buy, and limitations on holiday homes and Airbnbs. 

The campaign links housing precarity to other issues tipping people into poverty, like the cost of living crisis and the energy price hike. These spiralling costs are making the issue of tenants’ rights “harder to ignore,” Dan Wilson Craw says. “More people are going to be hurting because of this, but it means the calls for action will get harder. People are asking which politicians are going to do something about this. There’s a growing appetite for change.”

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