by Ben Francis (he/him)
I’ve lived in a different privately rented flat, every year since I turned 19; five different flats in two different cities. During every one of those four years my biggest financial burden by far has been paying rent. In fact by the time I move out of my current flat I will have paid over £16,000 in rent, that’s more than 50 percent of the money I have ever made. And for what? Some of the worst quality flats I’ve ever seen. In some cases they have been literally falling apart. There have been no repairs when things inevitably break, and I’ve had to deal with landlords who, despite the fact I’m handing over up to 70 percent of my monthly income, provide no service, are extremely entitled and try to seize my deposit year after year.
And it’s not just me. Renting is most definitely one of the biggest issues in Scotland today, especially for young people and those on lower incomes. Anybody living and renting in Scotland who isn’t wealthy can attest to that.
In Scotland only 62 percent of households own their own home. Internationally this is pretty low with many countries boasting over 90 percent home ownership. This relatively low rate in Scotland has led to a large renting sector in Scotland that is disproportionately used by young people and those in lower social classes, with 14 percent of Scottish households privately renting, a number that has sharply increased in the last 20 years. And this has created a situation in Scotland where a whole class of people are forced to give up a large chunk of their monthly income to already rich members of society just so they can have a home, and often a very bad quality one at that. On top of this, rents have been increasing faster than inflation and wage growth for the last 10 years and they’ve been increasing most steeply in Glasgow and Edinburgh, pricing young and low income people out of inner cities- and as a result the economic opportunity that come with them.
I decided to go on ‘Rightmove’ a popular website that works with landlords and estate agents to advertise flats for rent in the UK. I searched ‘three bedroom flat to rent in Glasgow’ and looked at flats currently on market in South Glasgow, where my old flat was located. The cheapest flats were around £270 per person but on average rents were from £350 to £550 a month with some up to £1000- and all of these in a pretty competitive renting market with strict and bureaucratic application processes as well as big deposits. And the city centre was far more expensive with average rents from around £550 a month per person to well of £1,000 a month. That sort of money is more that 50 percent many people’s monthly income in Scotland- especially students, those on low wages or working part time and people on benefits- and given the fact that at the end of the tenancy the tenant is left with nothing, you can really see how the private renting sector is just a system of wealth extraction from the poorest in society and younger generations to those who have their wealth invested in property. It’s a highly unethical and exploitative system whose victims are those in society who have the least and it’s beneficiaries are those with the most wealth. It’s effectively a system where the worst off in society are forced to give up to half of their monthly income to the richest in society unless they want to be homeless. And all the landlords have done to deserve up to half of people’s monthly income, is put their wealth into property instead of a bank.
So what can we do about it?
With private renting being so exploitative and the wealth and power of the sector being so seemingly vast, sometimes it can seem like there’s nothing you can do but accept it. But that’s exactly what those who stand to benefit from that status quo want you to think, the reality is however that renters and even the public at large, already support major reforms in the renting sector, with a 2019 Ipsos poll showing 71 percent of people want rent controls. The general public and especially private renters want radical change to the renting sector, the will for change is there we just have to organize to get it.
Join a housing cooperative
This isn’t a solution to the systemic problems of the private renting sector but it can be a good avenue for people stuck in it to get out and find more affordable accommodation. Where they can have more rights and control over their home. A housing cooperative is where a group of tenants collectively run and manage a property. These properties can still be owned by a landlord or can be directly owned by the cooperative and there is legal infrastructure in place so that tenants can get together and form these cooperatives.
You can use this link to find the council’s list of housing associations and cooperatives:
Engage in electoral politics
Another way you can improve the situation for tenants is by getting informed and engaging in electoral politics. The state and local authorities have the power to improve the situation for renters and a good way to influence them is by voting and political campaigning. Find the candidates running in council, Scottish and Westminster elections who support things like rent controls and giving more rights to tenants, or even abolishing landlords and implementing an entirely new system for renters. And then vote and campaign for them during elections. An active and informed voter base of young people and workers can do allot to change the whole of society including the private renting sector. For example, in the 2017 general election if turnout was as high among the young as the old Jeremy Corbyn would be prime minister and we may well have rent controls right now.
Know your rights
A good way to protect yourself from exploitative landlords and estate agents as well as to make sure you are getting what you are legally entitled to during your tenancy is to know your rights as a tenant under Scottish housing law. I personally have experience with this: a landlord told me I was not allowed to end my tenancy early and had to stay 3 more months but when I researched tenancy law and spoke to Shelter Scotland- a great resource for knowing your rights as a tenant- I found out that you can in fact leave your tenancy any time as long as you give a month’s written notice.
Having an understanding of your legal rights as a tenant can help you out in allot of aspects of renting. It gives you a defence against illegal actions by landlords, such as unfair reductions from the deposit, illegal rent increases, attempts at eviction and landlords refusing to conduct essential repairs. Knowing your rights is a defence against landlords illegally trying to take money from you or neglect their legal duties. As previously mentioned, Shelter Scotland is a great resource for understanding your legal rights and in addition if you think you might have a case for legal action against your landlord, if for example they failed to make essential repairs, Citizens Advice Scotland is another good resource to get an idea of any case you might have.
Join a tenant’s union
A tenant’s union much like a union at work is built on the principle of it’s members collectively organising and taking action to push for their interests. Joining a union can be a great way to push back against exploitive landlords and renting situations because you have a whole union of other renters behind you. Much like at work, joining together with other people who share your interests can be an effective method to push back against people like bosses or landlords who otherwise would have too much power for you to confront on your own.