INTERVIEW: Living Rent

Living Rent activist Gordon Maloney talks to the Red Robin about their campaign to bring in a rent pressure zone to Edinburgh, and where the housing justice organisation and tenants unions is going next.

Can you tell me a bit about the situation for renters in Edinburgh at the moment? Why do they need a rent pressure zone?

Look, rents have gone up 40% over the last seven years and they’re projected to rise another 20% by 2020. The number of people classed as living poverty in the private rented sector has tripled in last decade. This isn’t abstract, people are suffering. It’s more than just an inconvenience -  it’s critical for people’s lives.

And there’s also knock on effects, A combination of the collapse of social housing, and the  explosion of house prices has left more and more people with no other options. Whereas in the 80s (when rent controls were first repealed), the proportion of people in the Private Rented Sector was 8% or 9%, now numbers are spiralling through the roof. Rents are so expensive, people can’t afford to save for a deposit. A Santander report from a few years back showed that around 50% of tenants had just given up completely.

More people are having to raise kids in a housing system built up around precarity. It’s not suitable for anyone, but it’s impossible for families. The situation is out of control, but there’s no escape. Rent controls are a compelling policy in part because they could be implemented overnight at no cost to the government - actually they’d save 100s of millions of pounds. It’s a common sense solution to a desperate situation.

How have you gone about building support?

The support is already there. Poll after poll shows that it’s incredibly popular, and each poll shows an increase on the one before it. It’s even more popular in Scotland than down south. When we started, it was a policy that politicians had ignored for a long time. Now they’re falling over themselves to endorse it. Within 4 months we had organisations formally representing over a million people - student unions, trade unions, women’s charities.

That reflects the fact that ordinary people recognise the housing crisis even when politicians don’t. This is our lived reality - you can’t ignore it when you go home and see damp rising up your walls. So, support wise it was like pushing at an open door.

Do you think the council is likely to go ahead?

I do, because Edinburgh one of the most expensive cities to rent in across the UK, and it’s only getting worse. If you’re a councillor, with that crisis on your doorstep, you can’t ignore that - at some point it becomes a question of realpolitik.

The question is, to what extent will they do it?

What opposition have you had from landlords?

The classic stuff. There’s different types of landlords of course - there’s big monopoly landlords, and small scale landlords who only rent out the odd flat. Well from day one we’ve had landlords giving out doomsday warnings - saying rent controls would actually increase rents. It’s just nonsense. And of course they’ve had right wing think tanks like the Adam Smith institute to back them up. Let’s not forget - these are the people who opposed the minimum wage and who fought against capping bankers bonuses.

There’s two key things here: first off - it’s just not true - there’s no evidence that rent controls hurt tenants, they exist almost every country in Western Europe. The second argument is almost more potent - this just isn’t the way we should conduct politics. We can’t allow powerful vested interested to blackmail politicians. We shouldn’t listen to them.

One thing we should keep an eye on is we can’t regulate housing in a piecemeal way - if you increase regulation in the private rented sector, some landlords will just shift to AirBnB. There’s been a particular explosion of that in Edinburgh recently. You can’t do this half-heartedly, we’ve got to make sure there are no loopholes left open by the councils through which landlords can escape regulation.

Rent Pressure Zones and rollover tenancies were two big victories for Living Rent - what’s the next step, policy wise?

Rollover tenancies were an unmitigated victory. We might need better enforcement, but when I speak to people down south they’re taken aback that we’ve managed to abolish short term rental contracts.

Rent pressure zones on the other hand - they’re a symbolic victory, and they’re an improvement but they have huge limitations. Firstly, they only regulate increases, but rents are already too high. We need a system that reduces rents. Secondly, they only regulate within and not between tenancies. In Germany, it was the conservative party (the Christian Democratic Union) which recognised this wasn’t working and changed it. We’ve always said regulations should be tied to the property, not tenancies. Thirdly, there’s lots of problems with housing and rents are only one of them. Rent controls could be one of the most powerful tools to increase the quality of rented accommodation. In Glasgow especially, where rents aren’t as high as in Edinburgh, there are properties that are literally slums. That’s where the Scottish Government missed a huge opportunity.

Because we haven’t fixed the situation, people are going to die this winter - they are going to freeze to death because their homes are so poorly insulated. This simple policy solution would fix that, unfortunately it hasn’t been implemented.

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