The fight for rent control: a question of power

Credit: Richard Sutcliffe

Here in the UK, you could be forgiven for thinking rent control proposals were a fringe far-left idea. But zoom out a bit, and almost every other country in Europe has some sort of regulation on what landlords can charge. We had them here too, for almost 80 years, until the Thatcher government abolished them in the 1980s. Far from being a radical and far-fetched notion, rent control is a standard of common sense.

In Scotland, the tenants’ union Living Rent has been campaigning for the reintroduction of rent control for eight years. At that time, their need was reinforced by events at all levels.

Rents continued to soar as wages stagnated. The coronavirus lockdowns have revealed the stark disparity in living conditions – from the comfortable, spacious homes of wealthy upper-middle-class people, with gardens in which to relax and spare bedrooms in which to work, to cramped, damp and cold apartments. which tenants have been trapped for months. The cost of living crisis and runaway inflation have left tenants, already on the brink, facing economic disaster. And ordinary people clearly see the crisis around them – which is why poll after poll has shown overwhelming and growing support for rent control, across Scottish society – including a clear majority of landlords.

It was against this backdrop that the Scottish Government finally gave in to tenants’ demands for rent control. But the devil is going to be in the details.

reactionary forces

While opponents of rent control have seen the writing on the wall, they are now doing everything they can to make sure any new measures are as thoughtless as possible – and to delay their introduction for as long as possible, giving them the ability to walk up rents before any limits are put in place. A range of landlords, letting agents and self-proclaimed “industry experts” are stepping up to prevent any meaningful jeopardy of their profits.

We are not interested in half-hearted reforms that only curb the sector’s worst excesses – we need fundamental and permanent change

They pretend there is no problem, while tenants are pushed deeper and deeper into poverty. They claim there is not the necessary data, while calls from tenant organizations for better data collection have been ignored for a decade. They claim that the government would be wrong to intervene in the housing market, while willingly accepting billions of public money for unaffordable rents in the form of housing allowances and other forms of subsidies.

The Scottish Tenants’ Union is fighting back – doing the hard work of organizing to counter the voices of right-wing landlords and think tanks, and build the power of working-class tenants to win not just rent control, but a fundamental and radical transformation of housing. In response to the Scottish Government’s consultation, Living Rent members organized on doorsteps and on campuses, at rallies and events, on street stalls and in unions, to leave no choice to the government. The demand is a radical model of rent control which, if we win, will lower rents and raise quality.

This is not a third sector lobbying effort. With a relentless focus on developing leaders in working-class communities across Scotland, Living Rent builds confident and assertive local groups in every corner of the country.

Power, not influence

At times, the campaign has sacrificed the polished public affairs professionalism of large NGOs. But that’s because our goal isn’t influence, it’s power. We will win rent control not by appealing to the goodwill of those in power, but by leaving them no alternative.

That’s why Living Rent, in common with a new wave of tenants’ movement radicalism sweeping Europe, is structured as a union, not an ad hoc campaign group. It is understood that it will take some sort of movement infrastructure not only to win a specific request, but to protect what we win and, above all, to go further.

When we win, it will not be because of the strength of our arguments – even if we trust them of course – but because we have built real workers’, tenants’ power.

We know it will take a movement to see through these changes, and all the other changes the housing sector in Scotland needs next. We are not interested in half-hearted reforms that only curb the sector’s worst excesses – we need fundamental and permanent change. Rent control is just the beginning, but the goal is a system that treats all housing as the crucial public service that it is, not an asset that speculators can exploit and play with.

When rent control was first introduced in the UK in 1915, it was not the result of a glossy report. On the contrary, an unstoppable wave of tenants on rent strike terrified the government into action. This not only ensured rent control, but truly launched a wave of social housing construction that saw the construction of millions of public homes. The demands of the tenant movements – and revolutionary anger – are no less ambitious today.

Gordon Maloney is a member of the National Committee of living rentthe scottish tenants union

This article first appeared in issue 236, summer 2022, The racket of war. Subscribe today to receive your magazine fresh off the press!

James V. Hayes