The Guardian has been running a series of exposes this week about poor conditions in the private rented sector; stories include tales of neglect by landlords who live abroad, and landlords who have been prosecuted able to continue letting.
Up to a point, good journalism.
But – the call is for more regulation, and this isn’t going to get us anywhere. The landlords, their allies in parliament, the resistance of the bureaucracy to do anything which transfers power to the powerless will always make sure that any regulation is tokenistic only. For example; the government has announced that tenants will be able to access a database of ‘rogue landlords’ run by local authorities. But, in reality, how many desperate people – those in the market for a slum property run by a slum landlord – will be in a position to check this database? In reality, people who are desperate enough to be considering a slum property don’t have the luxury of selecting their landlord – on any criteria.
In general all attempts to regulate private greed and exploitation of the powerless start from the premise of legitimising greed and exploitation. It is not permitted to do anything to call into question the founding principles of capitalism – and so the regulation is necessarily toothless. At best regulation is designed to hide some of the very worst excesses which bring the system as a whole into disrepute.
A few personal experiences by the author of this site. At one point he rented a small flat in Oxford from a private landlord. They seemed quite friendly. I paid the deposit and moved in. After a few months some problems developed with a boiler. It had become furred up and started making a terrible racket at night – causing me sleepless nights. I tried to contact the landlords. When I’d met them they had appeared to live just round the corner so I didn’t think this would be a problem. However – after multiple attempts to contact them it seemed that this was not the case. In the end I discovered that they were living in the Caribbean – presumably on the rent I was paying them. After 3 sleepless months they finally managed to send someone round to fix the boiler..
On another occasion I rented from a private “buy-to-let” landlord in a small town in Oxfordshire. He had to be pressed to take away the rubbish left by the last tennant and he eventually did so, albeit making a fuss about it. Once he’d done that I moved in. As he handed over the keys he said, “these modern houses run themselves”. I.e. don’t call us if it needs any repairs.
Both these people (who were a long way from the kind of slum landlords exposed by the Guardian) were lazy and keen to make money out of someone else’s need. Neither had much sense of social solidarity. They are quite happy to see other people, not as brothers, but as objects to be exploited to make themselves rich. Such thinking and behaviour is of course not simply normalised in capitalism; it is an expression of capitalism’s founding principles. At its basis is an indifference to others; a willingness to exploit them and not care what that does to them. In the Soviet Union such behaviour was illegal; a crime.
The Guardian’s call for more regulation will change nothing. If we want the problems exposed by the Guardian to end the only way to do this is to outlaw private renting altogether and for the state to take responsibility for providing social housing. Private greed is private greed – it never has a pretty face – and making it jump through a few tokenistic regulatory hoops is no more than applying a dab of powder to it. It is fundamentally ugly.