This came out of a discussion at SLRURG (The South London- formerly Southwark and Lambeth, but now we have members from Lewisham and Croydon- Radical Urban Reading Group). Thanks to Kathryn, Dan, Christine and Robert, who contributed to the discussion.
Various London councils (as well as some outside London) are proposing to follow Newham in introducing systems of landlord licensing. Whilst Shelter and some private tenants groups believe licensing will improve conditions for private renters, it may be the case that landlord licensing will harm tenants, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable under current conditions.
Councils are only able to introducing licensing in situations where there is low demand for private renting (irrelevant in London) or where private renting in a particular area is linked to antisocial behaviour. To a degree, councils proposing introducing licensing are using antisocial behaviour as a pretext but the impact of linking licensing to antisocial behaviour still remains. Waltham Forest’s stalled licensing scheme, for example, demanded that landlords obtain references from all potential tenants. Ultimately, what the antisocial behaviour provision means is shifting the burden for disciplining tenants and ensuring their good behaviour from a distant, underersourced state with relatively limited possible punishments to landlords, who are able (indeed will be required by licensing) to make tenants homeless easily.
The shift and intensification in discipline and law enforcement from state to landlords is also likely to intersect extremely negatively for many tenants with racist legislation and bigoted cultural attitudes. Landlord licensing will intensify the already malign effects of the provision in the Immigration Act that landlords must check the immigration status of potential tenants. As Martha MacKenzie of Shelter has pointed out, regarding the 2014 immigration act, “The hassle of verifying less familiar pieces of documentation (necessary to prove immigration status), and the risk of penalties to landlords, will prove a serious disincentive to let to some groups – making it even harder for people to secure a safe and decent private rented home”. The already toxic mixture of landlord laziness and racism, will be intensified by both the immigration act and the demands of licensing. It is both telling and obscene, given this, that Shelter have praised Newham’s licensing scheme for helping to catch immigration offenders.
Furthermore, with landlords already increasingly unwilling to rent to housing claimants, the stigma that suggests those in receipt of housing benefit are more likely to engage in antisocial behaviour may make it even more difficult for benefit claimants to secure private rented accommodation.
How will we afford to live?
For Shelter and for London councils like Southwark and Islington, the real justification for landlord licensing is to, “drive up private rented standards”. This entails a stretching, albeit a not unreasonable one, of the antisocial behaviour provision in particular to link antisocial behaviour to overcrowding. However, the focus on the quality of the home says nothing about the lives of the people who were living there or their ability to afford this home. Poor Londoners “choose” to live in overcrowded, inadequate, even dangerous homes because they can afford nowhere else. As Engels says in The Housing Question, in the capitalist city, “there must always be tenants, even for the most infamous pigsty”. The removal of the infamous pigsties will not see poor Londoners living in better quality homes, it will leave them nowhere to live. If one were being cynical (and cynicism tends to pay when considering Southwark council’s housing and regeneration policies), the likelihood of licensing tending towards social cleansing (a better class of property for a better class of tenant) may not be an unfortunate side effect of licensing but part of its intention.
The forced choice of a squalid or dangerous home undermines the distinction which landlord licensing is based on between “rogue” landlords who “give the sector a bad name” and the majority of apparently blameless “good” landlords. Londoners live in overcrowded death traps not only because of the “rogue” who rents it out but also because they cannot afford to rent a decent (and decent may be generous) one bedroom flat in Peckham at £1,195 a month from a “good” landlord and because there is no available council housing.
Without strict rent controls and secure tenancies (as the most moderate interferences in capitalism for the benefit of tenants), licensing, by removing the cheapest homes from the market will lead to a situation where, either, (Engels) “the breeding places of disease, the infamous holes and cellars in which the capitalist mode of production confines our workers night after night, are not abolished; they are merely shifted elsewhere! The same economic necessity which produced them in the first place, produces them in the next place also”, with the infamous holes shifted to where there is no licensing, or, if licensing is imposed and properly enforced over the whole city, the poor, especially the poor whose immigration status irregular being forced out of London. Without a break with capitalism in housing (at the very least), the choice is not between living in squalor and living in decency, it is between living in squalor or not living in London at all.
Cover for other failings
In responding to the Focus E15 Mums occupation, Robin Wales made great play of Newham’s licensing scheme as a way of covering for the extensively documented limitations (to say the least) of the council. Licensing is being used to give the impression councils are acting to resolve the housing crisis in our interests at a time when they are unable (both due to legal restrictions and a lack of the wit to get round them) and unwilling to build council houses. For those forced into the private sector by a lack of council housing, licensing represents at the very best the chance of small amelioration of horrible conditions. In Southwark, licensing gives the impression that the council cares about private tenants, when its pro-gentrification policies serve to increase private rents.
There are a number of practical concerns that potentially limit the usefulness of licensing for tenants. Firstly, particularly when it comes to the condition of properties, an extensively resourced Environmental Health team is a necessity, but this is extremely expensive and it has been suggested that Newham does not have the money to carry out this enforcement. Secondly, it is difficult to imagine a means by which tenants can complain about their landlords without risking retaliatory eviction. Thirdly, tenants’ lack of knowledge and power makes the possibility of redress difficult. Shelter have suggested that an unlicensed landlord should be unable to use Section 21 for a “no-fault” eviction as in cases where a landlord has not protected a deposit. However, given tenants’ lack of knowledge of the legislation around deposit protection, it is reasonable to think that this protection when applied to licensing may be fairly ineffectual, especially given landlords’ willingness to carry out illegal evictions.
It may be possible to design a licensing scheme that answers these critiques, particularly under different circumstances, indeed, with secure tenancies and rent controls, licensing may be a necessary part of ensuring that the condition of homes is maintained by landlords. It may also be that these reservations are overstated. However, there is a clear danger that the justified desire to “do something” about the horrendous conditions of private renting in London at a time when the national government is only making problems worse, may lead to groups with the best intentions proposing solutions that could be extremely harmful for some tenants.