Owen Jones: Dark days for those who rent

I already knew that Britain was in the throes of an escalating housing crisis, but, on the move for the first time in two-and-a-half years and, having been protected from soaring rents by a benevolent landlord, I was in for an unwelcome meeting with reality. Looking for a modest two-bedroom place in London's Zone 2 – with a housemate who, appropriately enough, works for a housing charity – I found that a standard monthly individual rent was £800, even £900.

One estate agent asked what our maximum budget was: when I suggested £700 each a month, he spluttered down the phone. How many can actually afford – and I mean "have sufficient money left over to have a decent existence after paying the landlord" – these sorts of rents?

Private landlords can do as they please, of course. Having a roof over your head is a basic human requirement and, when there is a lack of houses to go around, it is a need that can be exploited. According to Shelter, annual rents in inner London went up by 7 per cent last year – or just under £1,000 for a two-bedroom house. When people's wages are flat-lining, that's a big hit.

I'm no victim. I can afford a high rent, even if it rankles. That is not the case for most. The number of us privately renting has soared: One in six households now have private landlords. And it is no longer largely the preserve of students and young people. Indeed, the number of families with children forced to privately rent has nearly doubled in just five years to more than a million. They face the prospect of having to repeatedly move, disrupting the education and overall wellbeing of their kids.

Here are the consequences of Thatcher's ideological war on council housing. Her mentor, Keith Joseph, argued right-to-buy would spur on "embourgeoisement". Instead, it has left five million people languishing on social housing waiting lists, and millions at the mercy of private landlords. But rather than leave millions at the mercy of the mini-autocrats of the rented sector, a new wave of council housing would offer accountable landlords, without the absurdity of market rates. Instead of wasting billions on housing benefit, we could spend it on building housing, creating jobs, stimulating the economy.

We could learn a lot about private renting from Germany. Local government sets the maximum rent for flats. The landlord cannot arbitrarily impose dramatic hikes; increases can only come in regulated steps. Such a solution would be good for the British taxpayer, bringing down the housing benefit bill without kicking the tenant. This ever-worsening housing crisis is just a striking example of a society based around the needs of profit, rather than people.

We were told the free market would liberate the individual: instead, it leaves them trapped by the whims of landlords, financially less free, and banished from entire communities. It is a con – and an expensive con at that.