Quintin Bradley: Anger of Generation Rent echoes protest of the past

THERE are growing signs of popular protest in this country against the injustices of what the housing charity Shelter calls a “broken” housing market.

House prices are rising seven times faster than wages and an increasing number of households now find themselves shoehorned into private rented accommodation that is substandard, overpriced and largely unregulated.

For “Generation Rent” there is little hope of anything better since house price inflation continues to force them out of ownership and the number of quality, well-managed homes in the social rented sector keeps on declining.

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The campaign group Priced Out expresses the anger of a generation that has had the housing ladder kicked away from under them. Protests and demonstrations have been held outside rental agencies that appear particularly exploitative.

These campaigners point to government policies that promote speculation in housing as an investment rather than supporting the development of affordable family homes. Despite the declining percentage of home owners, this country’s economic strategy is totally focused on rising house prices as the engine of growth and consumer spending.

Rather than investing in affordable house building, it channels public spending into housing benefit payments that feed inflationary rent increases and further fuel the over-heated housing market. House builders in a development business dominated by just 10 firms, all with huge land banks, seek the high profit opportunities that come from supplying luxury homes on green field sites rather than build the starter homes that are really needed.

Estimates of housing need suggest we should be building at least 250,000 homes a year. The private sector has never supplied this number of homes and we should not expect it to do so. The only time in recent history when this country actually provided the number of homes its population needed was when we were building new council housing.

Back in the 1970s, one third of the population lived in decent affordable homes rented from the local authority and this country was building over 300,000 homes because over half that number came from public investment.

In 2013, only 29,000 homes were built by housing associations, and since borrowing restrictions were imposed on councils in 1989 we have never built much more than 30,000 affordable homes. Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy skimmed off over 2.5m council houses without replacing them, and many of those homes privatised at huge public discount are now owned by private landlords.

Almost a third of households renting in the private sector are families with children; another third are over 35. Generation Rent is not just young people. It is nine million strong and every six months one third of this population is forced to move as their short-term tenancy agreement – standard across the private rented sector – comes to an end.

The biggest cause of homelessness in this country is now tenancy termination. Homelessness has increased by 26 per cent. We have reached a 10-year-high in the number of families with children housed in temporary bed and breakfast accommodation. The reduction and capping of housing allowances in England from 2013 has rendered central areas of London and a third of most other cities entirely unaffordable to anyone on low to average incomes and created a swaggeringly unequal landscape.

To secure the tenancy of increasingly inadequate and sub-standard property, private renters are expected to pay exorbitant administration fees, undergo background and credit checks, produce references, advance rents and fork out deposits to rental agencies described by a Select Committee of MPs as little better than cowboys. Parliamentary calls for the regulation of lettings agencies and the extension of municipal licensing powers over private landlords are signs of a mounting frustration that has already inspired private tenants to take direct action against property market monopolies.

The housing charity Shelter calls for a standard five-year tenancy for the private rented sector, with rent increases pegged at inflation. Similar policies are already in operation in France, Spain and Germany, while in England we used to have rent officers who could prevent exploitation.

The European housing model has traditionally seen a strong and openly accessible social or public housing sector as essential to prevent boom and bust in the housing market and keeping prices stable. In the Netherlands, for instance, social rented housing is home to 30 per cent of the population and carries none of the stigma fixed on council housing here.

A wave of collective action against a broken housing market at the end of the First World War led to the development of the first council housing in Britain.

Tenant rent strikes against exorbitant housing costs forced the government to impose a rent cap on private landlords. It was the mass squatting of demobbed soldiers and their families after the Second World War that spurred on the Labour government to build 300,000 high quality council houses in the years after 1945.

Conflict in housing policy will continue around issues of affordability and supply as governments fail to tackle price inflation in the housing market and refuse to regulate the private rental sector. It is likely that new mobilisations of tenants and new demands for affordable decent housing will emerge from the protests of Generation Rent.

Dr Quintin Bradley is a senior lecturer in housing studies at Leeds Beckett University and the author of a new book about the Tenants’ Movement.