A dysfunctional housing market gives landlords undue power

Moving back to Glasgow from university, some twenty-odd years ago, I was in the same position as most people of my age in knowing that the private rented sector was my only option. With social housing unavailable and owner occupation unaffordable, a private tenancy was already the only housing choice available to a great many people. There was some pretty shoddy housing out there, and some pretty sharp practice too, as I found to my cost when I was harassed out of one flat by a landlord who refused even to give me a written lease.

But the provision was there, and even on a low wage it wasn’t out of reach. Since then of course we’ve seen dramatic changes in the housing market. The private rented sector has grown dramatically, but owner occupation has become even further out of reach than it was in those days, and private rents have also soared. Regulation has improved in some areas, but still lags way behind the social rented sector. Good landlords certainly exists, but the sharks are still out there too.

The great many people still faced with the PRS as their only option are not only feeling trapped, but fleeced. Housing supply has become even more dominated by speculative investment, instead of social need. Landlords and letting agents hold all the power in this transaction, and for many young people both in and out of work even the prospect of a private let is unaffordable. For a lucky few there’s a Bank of Mum and Dad. For many more, the chance of an independent life feels like a distant dream.

These days, according to statistics released this week by the Scottish Government, the average one-bed flat in Glasgow costs tenants £549 per month. The increases have been dramatic over recent years, even in a period when the landlords have enjoyed historically low interest rates.

Across the country the latest figures highlight that we are in the midst of a housing crisis. We have to seriously reconsider our priorities when the average worker is forced to hand over up to 45% of their take-home pay to their landlord.

This is of course just one example of intergenerational injustice. Massive debts after studying (worse down south where tuition fees apply of course, but student debt is still a huge problem in Scotland too), low wages and precarious work, while the last generation sit on growing nest-eggs.

To add insult to injury, a leading London estate agent recently chided “millennials” to stop buying sandwiches and use that money to finance a mortgage instead. This brought out a wonderful backlash online as commentators estimated that if prospective house hunters were to follow this sage advice then they could settle down in their first home at the age of 93 and with a serious appetite.

But leaving aside that kind the ignorance of such comments, this is merely a response from the market deflecting from the real political issue.

Young people in Glasgow in shared rental accommodation have seen their rental prices increase by up to 45% since 2010. That is simply not sustainable. I applaud the work of my Green Councillor colleagues in both Edinburgh and Glasgow who are working hard to make real changes to how we house our citizens.

In recent months they have put pressure on the councils to introduce Rent Pressure Zones that would limit rent increases. It’s based on legislation we managed to get into the housing law, after a long campaign by Greens and many others. The first time we took the proposal to Ministers, we were told quite simply that there was no case for rent controls, and it wouldn’t be happening. It took time, but the power is there now, on the statute books. It’s time it was put into practice.

Already we know that many renters live in fear with the insecurity that landlords will push them out of their home with rent increases. We have a duty to ensure that people’s rents don’t keep growing beyond a fair proportion of incomes.

As Cllr Christy Mearns, our spokesperson for communities and neighbourhoods in Glasgow, noted: “With the shortage of affordable homes in the city continuing, we cannot afford to allow the private rented sector to continue this way.” In Edinburgh, Green councillors have published a report modelling the positive impact that a Rent Pressure Zone would have had on rent rises since 2010.

In Scotland’s towns, cities and in many rural areas the private rented sector has grown dramatically in size, and the dysfunctional housing market gives landlords undue power over people in housing need. Rent control won’t solve everything, but it’s a necessary start.

There’s a great deal more to do if we want a society where everyone has a warm, safe and affordable home to live in.

This article first appeared in The National.