In this article, James Gill tells us why Young Labour should get serious about rent and what the practical steps that we can take are. James has been a Labour member since May 2015. He works in the NHS, is a member of Unite, serves on the Central Council of the Socialist Health Association and was a delegate to Young Labour conference.
The proportion of under-34s owning a house halved in the ten years between 2001/02 and 2011/12. Correspondingly, numbers living in private rented accommodation or with their parents have rocketed. Young people across the country and political spectrum are passionate about rent, and Young Labour should not ignore this opportunity to engage them. As activists, we should discuss the intervention in the private rented sector that we would like to see after 2020, and start making an impact now by involving ourselves in tenants’ networks and university rent-setting structures.
Labour Students groups have the clearest opportunities for action. Student involvement in the rent-setting process has a proven track record. The cost of halls at Oxford and Cambridge colleges is commonly negotiated with student representatives, and many rents have been held down below four thousand pounds per year. By contrast, those at non-collegiate Russell Group universities often exceed five thousand pounds per year. Labour Students groups should share knowledge about rent-setting arrangements elsewhere, and push for student involvement on their own campuses. In addition, many students’ unions now provide a mechanism for direct democracy, for example by an all-student vote. These processes can be used to create pressure and publicity.
The UCL Cut the Rent campaign has successfully used the Freedom of Information Act to probe the rate of rent rises and the size of university profit margins. The most interesting feature of their campaign is not the tactic of withholding rent, clearly a last resort precipitated by the extreme circumstances, but use of information to build a broad base of support. Bringing more facts about the cost of halls into the public domain could prompt university leaders to include students in rent-setting before it is too late. Again, this could form part of a Labour Club’s campaigning activities.
Even the most apolitical student knows that rent exceeding £3,821, the standard “not-means-tested” student loan rate outside of London, leaves their classmates with tough financial decisions. Our party, in contrast with many others, fully understands that – let’s capitalise on it.
The wider private rental sector also presents campaigning opportunities. The difficulties of the London property market are well-known. Rent controls or a land-value tax would surely please many more people than it would annoy. However, we lack a precise and concise line on rent. There’s no time like the present to work out the details so the policy can be campaigned upon. We should not be afraid to borrow ideas from outside the party, from groups with practical experience, like the Radical Housing Network. Equally, Sadiq Khan’s London Living Rent could be generalised to the rest of the UK.
Young people outside of London also face challenges in the rental market. Increasing numbers are living in Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs). These are often average-sized terraced or semi-detached houses with three to six adults crammed in. Some areas have very dense concentrations of HMOs managed by the same letting agent or landlord – that could mean thirty or forty voters in the same few streets. It could be worthwhile for local campaigners to keep an eye out for sharp practices, such as exit fees or very high non-refundable application fees, or even consider mail targeted at tenants of certain agencies.
Excessive and unfair profit margins could also be of interest. Information about sale prices of houses is often available on the internet, so these can be calculated quite accurately. Some letting agents, for example this one in Leeds, may even do the hard work for you. Few people consider a yield of over 10% for a few days work each year to be a fair reward.
Party policy on housing focuses on house-building and the right-to-buy. However, most young people realise that they will be renting for many years before buying a home becomes a possibility. Young Labour should get serious about rent – an area in which we could really make a difference.