Owen Jones: I can afford to pay the rent – most people can't

To get a two-bed place in Tower Hamlets you need more than double the median household income

Share
Related Topics

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?

Inevitably, I took to Twitter to vent. I was stunned by the response. Hundreds of furious Londoners bombarded me with their renting horror stories. One had a 35 per cent rent hike imposed on them at Christmas; another was forced to desert their Stockwell flat after a 40 per cent increase. "My tiny flat in the East End went up by £200 a month for the next occupants when I left," freelancer Scott Bryan tweeted me. "It was £600 already. Eyewatering." Another abandoned their own "tiny flat" in Zone 3 after their monthly rent went from £720 to £950.

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. A landlord knows that, if their tenants don't like an outrageous rent hike, their only option is to put themselves back at the mercy of the ever more pricey private renting market.

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. Of course, some landlords – like mine – can be benevolent; others ruthlessly profiteering. It is a complete lottery.

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.

Greedy landlords are fully aware that most cannot afford to pay their extortionate rents. But they also know that the taxpayer will step in and subsidise them with housing benefits. According to the Homes for London campaign, to get a two-bed place in Camden, you need an average monthly household income of £5,324; in Tower Hamlets – one of the poorest boroughs in Britain – it's £4,333, way over double Britain's median household income. It's the state that tops up the difference. Back in 2002, 100,000 private renters in London were claiming housing benefit; it soared to 250,000 by the time New Labour was booted out.

But Cameron's Government has decided to punish the tenant, imposing a housing benefit cap that will force many out of their homes. London is on course to be more like Paris: with a centre that is a playground for the affluent, while the poorest are confined to the edges.

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. Council housing has been intentionally demonised as something to escape from, and the lack of stock to go around has left it prioritised for those most in need. We've come far from Nye Bevan's vision of council housing supporting mixed communities, replicating "the lovely feature of the English and Welsh village, where the doctor, the grocer, and the farm labourer all lived on the same street".

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 and 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.

twitter.com/@OwenJones84

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

Mike Read’s Ukip calypso is mesmerisingly atrocious — but it's not racist

Matthew Norman
Shirley Shackleton, wife of late journalist Gregory Shackleton, sits next to the grave of the 'Balibo Five' in Jakarta, in 2010  

Letter from Asia: The battle for the truth behind five journalists’ deaths in Indonesia

Andrew Buncombe
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London