Some of my best friends are landlords. There, I said it. I admit to being deeply fond of several people who own more than one property, and I have thus far resisted grabbing a firebrand to raze their properties to the ground.
The ‘some of my best friends are [insert marginalized group]’ line has typically been uttered by the un-self-aware, right before they say something barbarous. But I’m deploying it here about a group that’s far from marginalised – a not insignificant minority comprised of colleagues, neighbours, friends and family members.
Before I go on to explain why I feel the need to justify such connections, first, for the sake of transparency, I will say that I’m one of the lucky ones who got onto the property ladder. This came about thanks to the combined incomes of my then teaching salary and my husband’s local government worker’s salary, as well as a Help to Buy government loan (the combined income of two full-time workers wouldn’t cut it), plus a loan towards a deposit from parents who recognised that they had enjoyed an easier run of things property-wise. Yes, graft and careful saving were involved, but also luck. I certainly didn’t get a mortgage based on virtue and gumption and I would suggest that the acquisition of any property is not a result of either of these two things.
For decades I’d paid thousands of pounds into other people’s pension pots, even while my own diminished, renting from the bumbling and benign landlords, and the indolent and negligent ones before getting my own place. Nevertheless, it’s from a place of comfortable good fortune that I write.
What do the stats say?
In 2016 HMRC data revealed that around 1.75 million people declared income from property. That’s a fair few landlords right there. Some of these are ‘accidental landlords’; those who ended up with a property to spare having moved in with a partner, for instance. Often accidental landlords feel it is cheaper to let out a property rather than sell it. Others are ‘professional’ landlords: those with one or more buy-to-lets for the purposes of making profit. Then there are those with a bit of cash who have bought a property as a pension investment; with pensions being so inadequate a little bit of land banking for the future might seem to make good business sense.
Excluded from this statistic, but significant where property investment is concerned, are the land-banking gagillionnaires, who snap up UK properties just to watch their value skyrocket as resources become ever more concentrated into the hands of a handful.
Surrounding all of this is a vast industry established to perpetuate itself by continuing to make money out of what is a finite resource: land.
The government has recently 1 submitted that London’s ‘affordable’ homes will have a cap set at a maximum of £450,000, which is aimed at people earning up to £90,000 in London. That’s 3-4 times the average income of someone working in a constituency like Tottenham. The disparity between income and homeownership is even greater in other parts of the UK – not least those regions that also make desirable shopping for wealthy would-be second, third and fourth homeowners.
Some more stats. More than 120,000 children are currently living in temporary accommodation in England – that’s 37% more than three years ago. Furthermore, ever-greater numbers of families are being evicted from their homes because they are struggling to pay rising rents.
But present almost any landlord with these facts and there is a tendency to offer the responses below, which vary from a desire to be perceived as different from the archetypal crooked Dickensian landlords of the press and reality TV, to someone who would happily set the hounds upon you.
But I’m a ‘good’ landlord. I charge less than the market rates and I look after my tenants.
You can be a landlord who cashes in on a broken property market by driving up prices at the same time as being a doctor who saves lives, or a kind-hearted businessperson who charges less than the going rate.
Own a holiday home and you are actively sucking the life out of an area for more than a couple of months of the year – see the outcome of the referendum for St Ives residents who keenly felt the impact of second home ownership. In these locations jobs are frequently part time and low paid, and young people are forced to flee to cities to find work and the chance to be able to afford to live anywhere at all, given that so many homes in their own towns and villages are owned by absentee landlords hundreds of miles away.
I pay tax on my rental income, which pays for the NHS / your wages.
Many landlords feel they are doing everyone a favour by paying tax on their income. Some even take personal responsibility for propping up the NHS in its entirety by flogging rooms to junior doctors.
There are support groups set up for ‘professional’ landlords who feel persecuted by changes such as adjustments to stamp duty, which some see as a slap in the face for ambition. The word ‘professional’ amuses me. I’m intrigued by the qualification or skill that engendered the professionalism required to buy a property. ‘We are providing essential housing,’ some say. Essential for their own economies perhaps, while serving to diminish the possibilities of others owning their own property too.
The fact is, if you make money, you should pay tax on it without being applauded – and then everyone wins. And yet many landlords – with spokesman and benefit-cut cheerleader-in-chief Iain Duncan Smith at the helm – are whimpering about the forthcoming buy-to-let tax changes. The change basically means that over the next three years buy-to-let landlord tax relief will taper down from the marginal rate of tax to be replaced with a 20 percent tax rate.
Well, how else am I supposed to secure myself in my old age?
If everyone had the chance to plan for the future, to build savings and create decent investments then it would be easier to be sympathetic to someone who is in a position to put aside a little nest egg for their senior years. But let’s face it, pensions are crap and many people simply can’t afford to save against the rising cost of living and renting. Logically, with the way the market is, property continues to appear ‘safe as houses’ for those with a bit of cash to spare. But at what cost to others does that security come?
I worked hard for my money. The world doesn’t owe you anything.
The ‘I work hard’ refrain is touted by anyone who feels entitled to their money when it comes at the cost of other people, whether that’s off the back of workers or off a market that exploits those who can’t possibly hope to ‘join in’. A nurse or classroom assistant ‘works hard’ for their money too – but they are a lot less likely to be able to afford a modest mortgage on just the one property.
Well, they could have made another career choice.
The expectation here is that other people should plan solely for the ownership of property at the cost of doing work that has value to our society as a whole. We know our essential public and social services do amazing work, not least in healthcare and education, but astonishingly, a number of those who enjoy a position of material security and comfort believe such workers should not have kids if they expect to own their own home. A high cost to pay indeed. Never mind the most vulnerable among us who can’t afford to put even a rented roof over their heads.
In a scenario in which workers should forgo families and essential jobs to afford their own property, there would be far fewer educators, nurses and carers – the very people who enable the material acquisitions of the lucky few, often at significant personal cost and sacrifice.
The bottom line is, most young people, many older people, and many, many very hardworking people, can’t afford to buy their own homes, even though they may pay more than a mortgage would cost each month in rent. Not only this but private landlords get £9.3 billion in housing benefit from the taxpayer – almost double the amount paid ten years ago.
Imagine if we saved on housing benefit by the state renting out that property instead. Imagine if that income went back into the systems that benefit the old, the young, the vulnerable – our health and our education systems; those systems we depend upon to function, much of which is currently powered largely by the invisible economies of unseen domestic and caring labour, sheer good will and personal sacrifice.
At this point I usually invite my interlocutor to participate in a little thought experiment: What if we only had one property each? Wouldn’t that be fair? To which the reply is usually something along the lines of:
Why don’t you go and live in North Korea if you hate it so much here?
Right, because a desire for a little more economic fairness is equitable with a desire to live in a brutal totalitarian regime while neglecting inequality in one’s own country because ‘that’s just the way it is’.
I suppose property is theft then.
To an extent, yes. Too much property it theft. If you steal the chance for someone else to get a property or indeed, any accommodation at all, and then hoard it for yourself, it is.
But we need rented property – not everyone wants to be a homeowner.
True, many people do not want to own a home. They’d prefer the freedom and flexibility of a rental property. But let’s just do another quick thought experiment: what if that rental property were state owned? What if income from it could go into improving living conditions for inhabitants (let’s not forget that Tory landlords voted against the amendment that would make properties fit for human habitation, the impact of which has been felt keenly and painfully by many – not least the most vulnerable). What if the wealth created from rents could go towards the state pension and looking after our elderly? Then surely there would be no need for people to landbank in miniature to look after themselves in their old age, the state would have you covered.
However, with parliament comprising almost 1 in 5 MPs, each earning around £10k per year as a landlord, on top of £76k salaries (28% of whom are Conservative MPs, 25% Lib Dems, 11% Labour), there aren’t enormous incentives for a good chunk of our politicians to give that much of a monkeys about the lack others face.
Our politicians’ links to the housing sector also go far beyond this as figures exclude those who run property firms, have shares in estate agents, or work for firms with clients in the housing sector. Let’s not forget too that MPs are expected to be honest about their financial interests, though there is no regular audit, and – whadayaknow – failing to declare their property is not illegal.
You’re just jealous and you hate aspiration.
At this point it’s difficult to engage in rational discussion because the discourse has taken an emotive turn. The accusation of envy is the go-to stance some take when their sense of entitlement and material comfort is challenged. For many, the prospect of making a lifestyle adjustment that might more fairly benefit others legitimises the accusation of jealousy and a disdain for ‘success’. One landlord I was chatting to said I should congratulate him for owning a second home, and indeed a further holiday home.
To those people I would say there is a difference between being envious of and being furious about the grotesque inequality powered by the self-serving. Should congratulations be due to those who have acquired material wealth at cost to others? I’d rather congratulate the aforementioned nurses, educators and carers who give of themselves to facilitate others – though of course their giving absolutely should not come at the personal sacrifice that it generally does.
It’s not illegal. I’m doing what anyone in my position would do.
True, hoarding property, whether singular or several, is not illegal. But neither is tax avoidance, which, thanks to ‘legitimate’ tax loopholes, means that a great deal of wealth is similarly hoarded, thereby diminishing the facilitation of services that are beneficial to all.
Are you telling me you wouldn’t do exactly the same in my position?
Unlike the statement on envy, this question genuinely interests me. What would I do if I had enough cash to put into a second property to help safeguard my future and that of my kid? After all, his prospects don’t look that great in the current climate.
It’s difficult for me to engage with this question as any kind of reality. I am lucky enough to be able to afford (at the moment) a mortgage for the next 40 years, but there are no savings. I have a few years of a former teacher’s pension and a state pension, assuming I retire at 68. With this in mind I can see the appeal of a guaranteed month-to-month income from a rental property. Can I say for certain that I wouldn’t be tempted to lord it over some land? I’d first have to ask myself whether I can reconcile the cost to others that this privilege would afford me… and the answer is I really don’t think I can. So, without cutting off our noses, what can we do to make things a little bit more fair?
Our inevitable bias towards securing our own happiness
As humans we have a perception of our ‘selves’, which is informed by every second of our own experience. We’ve been the main player in our own play since birth and have been shaped by every adversity and piece of good luck that befalls us. Bottom line, we are sympathetic to our own perspectives – how can we not be? And arguably, while each of our beliefs and behaviours might be understood were a third party to get a first-person perspective of our lives, that doesn’t exempt us from taking responsibility for the part we play once we become aware of the fact we are part of a wider narrative. Here’s an example.
Until fairly recently I had the feeling that eating meat was generally not a great thing to do. I actively avoided the information out there about mega farms, big dairy and animal suffering simply because I knew it would challenge too much something that I was very much attached to: the consumption of delicious meat, yummy dairy goodies and the purchase of handsome leather products.
I didn’t lack empathy – indeed, I suffered a lot from my own character – but I sought to avoid information that would make me confront the reality of my choices. Gradually it became more difficult to reconcile my values with my behaviour than to change it. I didn’t like that animals suffered and died so I could eat them or get the benefits of their produce. But animals were delicious, or so I kept saying. Eventually all I could hear was myself weakly muttering ‘cheese’ when the topic came up (which was surprisingly often).
Only when I was eventually willing to consider a change in my behaviour (significant perhaps only to me – as well as maybe to a fair few animals), could I adopt a more integrated, and therefore, harmonious, position. I don’t expect to tackle the entire meat and dairy industry as a result of that decision; I’m simply using this example as an illustration of a shift in behaviour from which we might extrapolate, individually, and perhaps collectively.
In other words, how about we, as individuals and then as a society, make a similar paradigm shift with housing?
I challenge any landlord to find it acceptable that child homelessness is an increasing problem in this country. I doubt many would, because, a) it’s a fact, and, b) it would be like admitting you were a social Darwinist, happy to trample the weak so, indirectly you, floater-like, can rise to the top. No one I know – among them some of my loveliest landlord friends and relations – would find that position acceptable. So what this situation needs is a wholesale, widespread integration of our values and behaviour. And here are some suggestions to help get us started.
What you can do if you’re a landlord with a social conscience.
- Lobby your MP about fairer pensions for all so that you, and others like you, don’t feel the need to bank land for your future security. Tackle them too about dignified and well-funded care for the elderly
- Vote for a party that doesn’t perpetuate a system whereby the security in old age of a few comes at the cost of those who can’t afford security even while young – or especially while young.
- Actively participate in movements that support renters and improved rental conditions.
- By all means, fight exploitation and injustice at every turn, like this crooked charity boss who ripped off thousands of pounds from a homelessness charity. BUT, be aware that such villains can be distractions from the more established thefts legitimised by our system.
- Lend your signature to initiatives to protect some of the most vulnerable people temporarily housed in hostels – among them many children.
- Get to know people outside your usual social circle. Do some charity or voluntary work with those facing homelessness or with the homeless, but take it further by asking, ‘Why is it that this charity needs to exist.
- If you have a pied-à-terre in the city for your convenience, maybe have a little think about whether that’s convenient for everyone and whether there’s an alternative solution for you so you can get the same job done.
- If you have a spare property in a quaint village or seaside town, maybe also have a little think about the impact owning that property has on people growing up and trying to live and work in that area.
- Use your powers, whatever they may be, to influence the market so that everyone has access to good, affordable (in the true sense of the word), secure housing that meets their needs in the long term as well as in the short term.
- Ensure tenants are treated with respect and honesty. Be sure to understand the full extent of your tax and legal obligations and enable tenants to enforce their rights without threat of penalisation.
- Ensure your rented property is of a high standard, that it meets your renters’ needs and you don’t charge over the odds. Although having a spare property is an income to you, it is a home to your tenants: acknowledge that you are not being beneficent by supplying it. You are in the business to make money, so be honest about that.
Not convinced you’re one of the lucky ones? Why not check?
Are you a landlord that wants to go a bit further?
- Consider alternative, legitimate, ethical ways to generate an income when you retire that don’t mean exploiting a market that is heaped in the favour of the very wealthy few.
- Sell your property or properties to first time buyers for a fair price. While it might elicit a feeling of magnanimity, keeping rent low so people can better afford high deposits for their own property is not really a solution.
- Educate yourself about how markets actually work and consider whether you really want to prop up that system, or fight for a fairer one.
Things you can do if you’re anyone else:
- Lobby your MP for fairer pensions for all, as well as the provision of dignified and well-funded care for the elderly.
- Lobby your MP about empty homes, land banking and the resulting inflation of house prices.
- Be proactive about rental conditions and lobby your MP about that, too.
- Join grassroots movements like Hackney Renters or set up a group in your area to call for change, share information, and get and give support in your community.
- Lend your signature to initiatives to protect some of the most vulnerable people temporarily housed in hostels – among them many children.
- Give your vote to a party that understands the housing crisis and is willing to take meaningful steps to tackle the problems we face.
Want to go beyond your own front door as a renter?
Join a group like Homes Not Borders, a growing collective that aims to provide a strong platform for taking action against racist and anti-migrant housing policies and practices, and to spread awareness of the consequences of such policies in Britain.
Things you can do if you’re a parasitic landlord who doesn’t give a shit:
You probably won’t have got this far in the article. If you have, hopefully you’ll get some degree of insight eventually, and somehow, Ebenezer-like, you will see the error of your ways.