Rent control poses a real threat to the UK’s buy to let landlords.

Scottish Labour are now proposing further rent controls. The Fair Rents (Scotland) Bill, proposed by Pauline McNeill MSP, is under consultation until the 6th of August.

The Bill, known as the ‘Mary Barbour Bill’ is proposing to enforce fair rents on a points-based system which links local rents to average local wages.

Mary Barbour was a socialist campaigner and political activist, a heroine of the Scottish Labour movement who was the main organiser of the women of Govan who took part in the rent strikes of 1915, and she actively opposed evictions.

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In England, rent control is now mainstream Labour party policy.

If rents keep on rising, pressure on politicians will increase as struggling tenants get more public support for the idea. There are far more voting tenants than there are investor landlords.

The move is very unlikely under the current administration, and perhaps in the next, but a Labour government could conceivably be a different matter.

For those who have not experienced rent control in their lifetimes, most people, those not old enough to remember life in England under the Rent Act, or know about the experience of this in other countries, rent control may appear to be logical step towards a fair way of solving the housing problems in London.

After all, isn’t it about time those greedy buy-to-let landlords got their comeuppance?

That’s certainly not what those in the know, those old enough to remember our Rent Acts, those who live in several rent controlled cities in the US and Sweden, and most economists, would say.

Allister Heath, editor of City AM, writing recently in the Daily Telegraph, said:

“while something drastic needs to be done to tackle Britain’s housing crisis, rent controls would be complete madness: they are one of the stupidest economic policies known to man.”

Likewise, left leaning Swedish economist Assar Lindbeck has asserted,

“In many cases rent control appears to be the most efficient technique presently known to destroy a city—except for bombing.”

Chairman of the Residential Landlords Association, Alan Ward, thinks rent control will do “untold harm” to the rental market and asks if we have learned anything from history, referring to the days under the Rent Acts when security of tenure for life and rent control pervaded and virtually destroyed the rental housing market in Britain.

There is without doubt a need to do something about housing in London.

The success of the capital relative to the rest of the UK (London’s share of Britain’s economic output is put at 22% by the ONS), and the attractiveness of London property as a safe haven for foreign investors’, are putting increasing pressure on housing for the middle and working classes in the capital.

The cost of renting has risen to over half the average wage in two thirds of London boroughs, putting many workers under intolerable pressure.

The so called “Generation Rent”, the majority of 20 and 30 somethings, professionals working in London, and around 16pc of all households, is being spiked by a two pronged attack: the average rises wages for many years have failed to keep up with rents in London and in many parts of the UK. This balance is beginning to change but its a slow process.

Little wonder then that the politicians and others are making noises about rent control. What is clear is that those making noises either have little or no concept of the basic principles of economics, especially in relation to the housing market – it’s an issue of basic supply and demand – or else they have a political agenda.

There is only one sure way to tackle the London housing problem: either demand must be reduced or supply increased, or a combination of the two. As tenant demand continues to rise, other solutions must be found, but rent control should not be one of them. All that rent control would achieve is the exodus of responsible landlords over time, exacerbating the housing shortage.

Again, Allister Heath says in a past Telegraph article:

“The policy has failed with horrifying consequences everywhere it has been tried, including in New York, and is the perfect embodiment of the adage that no problem exists that cannot be made worse through government intervention.”

Once investors get wind of the fact that rent control is a possibility, and even now with these very musings about the London market, landlords will begin to think twice about investing their hard earned cash. Some will already be adjusting their future plans! So, just by the very fact of Corbyn and Sturgeon intimating that a rent control policy, or as some have phrased it “rent stabilisation”, is possible, potential supply may be being reduced as you read this.

Introduce the full blown policy and landlords will begin to take fright, if not downright flight.

Wherever rent control is introduced a fresh army of bureaucrats will start to enforce a rent ceiling on a large section of the property market, leaving the expensive end properties uncontrolled. The immediate effect is rents start to increase in the uncontrolled sector as landlords dispose of properties on the margin, fearing they may also come under control.

Landlords with lower to middle end properties, no longer able to charge a market rent, will start to feel the pinch: there’s no longer much surplus from letting, or any incentive to invest further, so what surplus there is will no longer be spent on maintaining the properties. Over time properties begin to fall into really bad states of repair, some to deliberately force out tenants, but all resulting in only the worst properties being offered for rent.

The protected tenant is sitting pretty, by dint of being in the right place at the right time, or through their “political connections”, the protected tenant gets a real bargain under rent control, and therefore never wants to move out.

But over time this bargain can turn into a nightmare as the areas under control start to deteriorate, because of the poorly maintained properties. The enjoyment the tenant derives from her dwelling space is ultimately reduced to a level which is commensurate with the rent being paid – in other words, a doss-house on an uneconomic rent.

This process can take years. But in the short-term the lucky ones are benefitting from the reduced rent, whilst their opposite numbers in the uncontrolled sector are paying through the nose. As someone once said to me, to live in Manhattan you have to be either extremely rich or extremely poor – there’s no in-between.

There’s no incentive for those living in the controlled sector to move out when their family moves away, and the space becomes too big for them, as they would if they were paying a market rent.

Rooms lie empty while other people remain homeless on the streets. Furthermore, employment mobility is stifled when those no longer contributing to the working economy stay put, whilst others who are productive have far longer commutes.

Surprisingly, homelessness increases under rent control, and the housing shortage gets worse, not better.

The argument that rent control is a temporary or short term measure to be brought in because the housing market is not in the economists’ terms “elastic”, because a shortage cannot be made up quickly – just does not wash.

Once Government gets involved with controlling rents, they become a political issue at elections and the longer rent control remains in place, the more difficult it is to remove it: inflation ensures that controlled rents fall further and further behind an economic level, until it becomes politically
impossible to remove the controls without a public outcry.

All these negatives will still have little or no impact on the advocates of rent control: as Allister Heath again says, “… you are met with a mixture of economic illiteracy, an antiquated, quasi-Victorian class hatred of landlords, generational strife and downright incomprehension.”

For those interested in an economist’s technical explanation of the non utility of rent control, I recommend you watch this excellent Khan Academy video: http://goo.gl/ZTcW2

Pressure from those who advocate rent control comes from people who see only its imagined benefits to one group of people in society. They fail to see, or simply don’t want to see for political ends, the devastating long-term consequences it brings for everyone, including the tenants who it is intended to benefit.

Blaming buy-to-let landlords who risk their own capital to provide a valuable public service will not solve anything. It goes far beyond that. The housing shortage which is pushing up prices and rents is caused by restrictions on building and antiquated planning rules, among other things.

The politicians should be focussing their efforts on getting the housing market moving; encouraging more investment, both public and private, by providing incentives and relaxing planning restrictions where it is appropriate and sensible to do so.

Some moves in the right direction, included the conversion of office space into residential without the need for planning consent is some locations. In the light of the decline of many high streets, this could perhaps be extended to retail shop conversions in secondary locations as well? However, Labour are now opposing this measure.

Building more council housing is not necessarily the answer: people want to be living in reasonably priced private housing, either to buy, or to rent. Building more of these quickly should start to have the desired effect on prices.

The solution to the problem, as has been proved in practice, time and time again, is not one of political control and central planning; it all boils down to basic economic principles of supply and demand.

By Tom Entwistle
Editor of LandlordZONE®

An earlier edition of this article by Tom Entwistle, editor of LandlordZONE first appeared in the August 2013 issue of Property Investor News www.property-investor-news.com

If you have any questions about any of the issues here, post your question to the LandlordZONE® Forums – these are the busiest Rental Property Forums in the UK – you will have an answer in no time at all.

©LandlordZONE All Rights Reserved – never rely totally on these general guidelines which apply primarily to England and Wales. They are not definitive statements of the law. Before taking action or not, always do your own research and/or seek professional advice with the full facts of your case and all documents to hand.

4 COMMENTS

  1. If that well know ‘ugly face of rent control’, Jeremy Corbyn does eventually rear his head and crawl into power and initiates Rent Control in Britain, things may get interesting.

    Let’s say you have a quality 2 bed flat in Chelsea and the market rent is £4000 pcm (who knows!) but the drones at the RBKC decide it should be say £2200 pcm, how will you decide between the huge number of tenants literally begging you to let them rent it?

    You could (if you are a heterosexual male) go all sexist and let it to the woman you fancy the most. Same would apply whatever gender or sex you happen to be. Or perhaps you could let it to the fittest (no I mean the actual fittest) by organising a round the block race – first one home gets the flat. After all, you don’t want a tenant who’s likely to keel over after 6 months, do you. And what about a lottery? Just sell tickets and the winner gets the place. Perhaps you might be a Chelsea fan – well you could whittle the list down to only Chelsea supporters who can offer £2200 pcm for a 2 bed quality flat in Chelsea. Problem solved, Jeremy.

  2. “how will you decide between the huge number of tenants literally begging you to let them rent it”
    First come first serve. There are over 1,000 empty homes in Kensington and Chelsea, if the owners of those homes weren’t so selfish and rented them out, the rest of the hundreds can move into them leaving some homes available. There are 320,000 homeless people in the UK, there are 462,000 homes lying empty in the UK. There is more than enough housing to go around at fair prices for everybody, but the cost of housing is being artificially increased.

    It starts with the estate agents all losing business to the cheaper to use internet. These guys are trying to convince everyone that “Brexit uncertainty” or supply and demand is to blame for the current and coming trends in rising housing costs, but the truth is, they’re losing business to landlords who are going in it for themselves via online services and competition. In order to keep their lights switched on and petrol in their fancy cars, they had two choices: 1. raise how much they charge home owners and landlords or 2. inflate the cost of rents and house prices. By taking the second choice, they get to do both.

    The biggest problem is, 1. landlords who are in business for themselves aren’t passing their savings (which is anywhere up to 20% of the rent they’re charging) on to tenants. Instead, they choose to charge the same as the estate agents and pocket the difference for themselves, which is a massive amount of money.

    2. The price of houses are being plucked out of the air. According to Zoopla, the property next door to my last place was sold for £95,000 at the end of 2013. A lovely house, but no work what-so-ever has been done to it since it was purchased, it’s even been taking money from rent. For absolutely no reason whatsoever, 5 years later Zoopla believes that house is worth 41.1% more than what it was bought for. There’s no huge supply and demand in that postcode, there are hundreds of houses up for sale. There’s no real “Brexit uncertainty” because there are plenty of inland landlords waiting to get some more cash in their pockets. Yet, the house is supposedly worth more. Estate agents then go ahead and list houses at this price, again to recoup lost income.

    Now tenant fees have been passed on to landlords and if estate agents charge them anything like they used to charge tenants, more and more landlords are going to walk away from them to save money. The estate agents will continue their trick of trying to recoup costs by inflating prices and unless landlords start charging fair rents, the cost of rent is going to reach ridiculous proportions.

    Unfortunately, landlords have proven themselves to be completely out of control. They refuse repairs, steal deposits and charge the extortionate prices estate agents are telling them to charge and people are feeling it. There are people who are currently forced to pay nearly a whole single wage out for some stinking, small closet of a room n the attic of houses in London because of this selfish greed and some of these landlords have the nerve to come on a site like this and preach how good of a landlord they truly are. How they shouldn’t be upset by the tenant, how life is so hard for them, the poor souls having.

    So what are tenants supposed to do? Landlords obviously can’t control themselves, they need laws in place to control them. It doesn’t matter if it’s them abusing the price of rent or abusing something like section 21 to force evict people because they don’t like being told to do their job.

    One thing is for sure, something drastic needs to change with landlords because people are getting tired of being treated like poop by them while handing over more of their hard earned cash than an other bill they pay.

    • “Unfortunately, landlords have proven themselves to be completely out of control. They refuse repairs, steal deposits and charge the extortionate prices estate agents are telling them to charge and people are feeling it.”
      I know that life is tough for tenants. After paying rent, some people will be unable to save any money and despair. But you need to recognise that prices are controlled by supply and demand, instead of talking about greed. Stealing deposits is illegal and should not be possible these days. Tenants should exercise their rights if their deposit has been stolen. The law offers a lot of protection for tenants.
      As a landlord, I can tell you that there is not much profit from letting (rent), especially after paying taxing and other compulsory expenses. People like me often consider selling up or going into the short term lets market. If you are not convinced, use a spreadsheet to list the costs needed to finance the purchase of a property (check the rules about mortgage interest tax relief), then maintain it and pay tax. However there is long term profit from capital gain, but it takes years and is not certain. I also do it because I like providing accommodation to others and have a spare home in case I need it one day.
      Landlords should do necessary repairs and there is a new “Fitness for Human Habitation” bill to enforce this.
      But if tenants are still having to move into, or remain in bad properties, then why do they do it?
      It is because there is a shortage of choice for them. There needs to be greater supply and choice. That will only come from investment in the housing sector. Price controls will only deter investment. They might seem attractive to the tenant, but they will only benefit a minority of people in the short term. Look at Venezula for a good example of what happens when the government seeks to control prices. You reduce supply and increase queues. Then the black market and illegal practises will increase.
      Please understand that blaming and going tough on landlords will only increase unfairness and ruin the market for everyone. We need fair regulation to protect tenants, incentives for investment in housing and help for tenants to save money long term and eventually buy their own properties if they wish.

  3. @tenant83
    Mate you are a clueless idiot who has no idea what you are talking about.
    It is idiots like you and your bonkers ideas that is causing bonkers Govt bonkers policies which is causing LL to leave the PRS.
    You won’t have to worry about rent controls as there won’t be many LL remaining.
    Then where are you going to live!!??
    Idiots like you are causing devastation to many lives.
    No tenant was ever forced to sign an AST.
    If a tenant wishes to rent a broom cupboard that is their CHOICE.

    The most stable firm of tenancy is ONE where the tenant complies with ALL contractual obligations and where the LL is not penalised for using his private capital and leverage to provide rental accommodation.
    Unfortunately for all concerned this DOESN’T happen.
    The PRS is doomed.
    When it has reached the low point as it did in the 60 and 70’s then it will be realised that a new S21 and AST will be needed to restore the PRS to viability.
    This will take about 20 years during which period it will be a nightmare for tenants.
    You reap what you sow!!

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