As Courts Re-Open, Britain’s Renters Must Confront the Power of Landlords

Yves here. Even though this post discusses why the UK’s renters have retreated from the plan to hold a rent strike, many of the power dynamics it describes in the landlord-tenant relationship hold true here, particularly when trying to secure a new lease. UK renters seem to have wound up in a similar position to Americans, of having evictions suspended, here due to the CARES Act moratorium, which expired at the end of July, the UK due to courts being shuttered.

Note that in the US, how quickly evictions proceed is a function of the strength of renter rights as well as court backlogs. In some jurisdictions, evictions are swift, while in New York City, even in normal times, they take six to nine months. But a key issue, which is implicit in this article, is that the power of the landlord is the rest of the legal regime. For instance. Germany has strong tenant protections because cheap housing was seen as an important element of Germany’s economic strategy: rentierism by landlords translates into higher living costs, which means workers need higher wages, which results in higher product costs. That’s not conducive to being an export superstar.

One would think that landlords would now accept reduced, even considerably reduced,  payments given the poor prospects for finding decent tenants at anything approaching old normal lease levels. But property owners can be good at denial. I’ve seen retail spaces in New York City go vacant for well over a year due to landlords sticking to unrealistic rent rates.

By Jacob Stringer, a housing researcher and campaigner, and a member of London Renters Union. Originally published at openDemocracy

London Renters Union twitter

There was a moment, just after the declaration of lockdown, with the immediate loss of jobs and hours, when it seemed that a rent strike might be inevitable. Many members of London Renters Union thought there might finally be a moment of unity between renters affected by the pandemic that could be leveraged into much greater power against landlords. When evictions were temporarily suspended some members grew even more excited: for once private renters did not have the sword of Damocles hanging over them. This was the moment to strike! Others had a similar idea and Rent Strike London was launched, pulling ahead of London Renters Union, necessarily slower-moving as a large democratic organisation. For a week or two it felt like we might get the biggest rent strike going in British history.

But that wasn’t what happened. Some months later, London is not on rent strike. In fact London Renters Union (LRU) decided not to call its campaign a rent strike, instead going with ‘Can’t Pay Won’t Pay’, a slogan with a venerable history that is deliberately less aggressive. Meanwhile Rent Strike London has only a few hundred people signed up to their campaign, despite the fact that the rent strike had to happen to some extent, just because many people had to stop paying rent. The involuntary rent strike is very much on, and both campaigns in London are supporting these people. The LRU ‘Can’t Pay Won’t Pay’ campaign has four thousand people signed up – good but a long way short of the numbers needed to build the idea of a city-wide rent strike. The union conceived of the campaign as a way to spread non-payment far enough to become a political issue, and eventually force the government to concede the demands of the campaign, including cancellation of rent debt and, as a wider demand, introduction of rent controls. But a political programme can only unfold from a high level of non-payment, and agitators for a rent strike in the renters union had to moderate their positions as, via phonebanking and an online survey, they went through the process of speaking to struggling members.

Fear and Precarity

The reason the rent strike has not taken off can be summed up in one word: fear. Private renters in London have learned to fear their landlords, even when courts are closed and possession orders can’t be issued. In the same way that fear of the boss at work can be qualified by the notion that ‘you can just get another job’, fear of the landlord is qualified by market relations that say there is always the option to move house. But one of the many problems of London’s exploitative rental market is that it isn’t that easy to move. On benefits? Forget it, says the letting agent. Low income? Give us six months rent up front. Pets? Nope. Children? We’d rather not. No good references? You deserve the street. Visa documents? Too much trouble to check. Poor credit? Don’t waste our time. You want the ‘luxury’ of a sitting room for your family? With your income you’ll get cockroaches with that.

Many LRU members need to stay in their area for job or community reasons and aren’t confident of finding another place. Many facing rent shortfalls were concerned their tenancy would not be renewed, or that eviction would immediately follow the end of lockdown. Some couldn’t risk their current home because it was slightly below market rent and they couldn’t afford more. Some had more people in the house than were on the tenancy, making collective action more complicated. Some were on Universal Credit and worried about the landlord reporting them. Some were worried that when it came to look for a new place the landlord would sabotage their references. Some had no tenancy because they lacked the documents to get one. Some had ‘no recourse to public funds’ so couldn’t count on official help if made homeless.

At the root of most of the concerns is the continued existence of Section 21 (no-fault) evictions, which can be enacted at the end of a fixed-term contract or any time during a rolling tenancy. The government have promised to abolish Section 21 but are moving slowly on it, and have specifically ruled out the possibility of moving more quickly as Covid-19 evictions loom. In the meantime eviction is a constant possibility for most renters, either now or at the end of the tenancy. Many people have experienced powerlessness in the face of a landlord’s vindictiveness, and vindictiveness was exactly what people expected if they went on rent strike. Section 21 makes all private renters in Britain precarious. A temporary suspension of evictions assuaged almost no-one’s fears.

An important part of the difficulty of rent striking is that, unlike in many countries, few people in London live in blocks owned by the same landlord, so instead of being able to switch the balance of power through a rent strike, most people must strike alone against a landlord who has the power to make them homeless. A rent strike, historically, usually means a specific thing: many people with the same landlord withholding their rent at the same time. What some had dreamed of happening during the pandemic is what we might call a ‘general rent strike’ against all landlords, transforming itself into a political movement. But this would require a very rare unity of thought and action among a large number of people that neither the two-year-old London Renters Union, nor any other organisation, has yet had the time to organise.

No Good Landlords?

London Renters Union has sometimes said, provocatively, that ‘There’s no such thing as a good landlord’. Some people love that statement, other people think of landlords who’ve been nice to them and object. Landlords hate it. What the statement means is that the power imbalance between landlords and renters in the UK is so great that exploitation is always present, and the potential for abuse is just around the corner. A friend of mine had a landlord who until recently was friendly enough and did all the repairs on time, then just before the pandemic struck she had a baby. The landlord immediately began to complain about ‘increased wear and tear’ on the flat. With the tenancy heading for renewal just as lock-down was starting, he tried to increase the rent. When my friend resisted, he gave notice to a new mother in the middle of a pandemic. Even ‘good’ landlords take more of your income than you can afford, but they are also just one fit of irritation away from becoming bad landlords, because the laws are so weighted in their favour. There are many stories of evictions following requests for basic repairs. Blatant discrimination against welfare recipients among others, is standard, and even the minimal standards that exist for rental accommodation largely go unenforced.

The resistance to changing the situation is predictable. Even as they promised to scrap Section 21, the government said they would simultaneously strengthen Section 8, the section of the law that lists legitimate reasons for eviction. This already has reasons that landlords can turn into loopholes, such as the landlord being able to claim they want to move into the flat. Similar clauses in the United States are routinely abused by landlords with no intention of moving in (who actually monitors the next resident?) and the reason that hasn’t been abused in the UK is probably because Section 21 is easier.

It seems likely the new Section 8 will have loopholes that will still give landlords a fairly free hand to evict. This is the type of thing you expect when so many MPs are also landlords. Tony Blair spent his years in power building up a buy-to-let portfolio. The Conservatives have even more landlord MPs than Labour. Even when the MPs and peers aren’t landlords themselves, we know that their friends are: that’s the strata of society most of them come from. The ‘market’ in housing in fact creates a relationship of power between the asset owner and the renter. The landlord-tenant relationship opens up a clear divide between those in control and those without control. Alas many middle class people are now invested in this relationship of domination.


If domination seems like a strong word, consider that even with the fear of eviction temporarily removed, renters in London are scared of their landlords. There are, it should be said, other factors making rent striking in this moment tricky: it is difficult to build solidarity when you can’t meet people. Zoom calls and Whatsapp conversations are not conducive to a culture of creative action. Isolated and destabilised in lockdown it can be difficult to channel anger into collective channels – that was why Black Lives Matter protesters had to ignore the lockdown rules. Yet it feels like the result would have been the same even if renters could have met face to face. The power of landlords is so great that people have found it difficult to imagine triumphing over them.

All the more reason then to open up the next front in the battle as courts re-open. As we approach the end of the evictions pause on 24 August and the end of the furlough scheme in October, the true impacts on housing security are about to make themselves felt. Private renters expect to face the biggest evictions crisis of our lifetimes, and the need for organisations like London Renters Union, ACORN and Living Rent in Scotland is ever more apparent. The government will not protect renters, so tenants unions are preparing themselves for eviction resistance and for standing up to the ruthlessness of landlords. Private renters may not have the upper hand yet, but we can make it clear that the power of landlords will not go unopposed. If enough people join in with eviction resistance over the coming year we can get the voice of private renters heard, and we may just begin to change the balance of power between renter and landlord.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    Slightly off-topic, but to address Yves introduction, I think its a very interesting point that one thing those on the left can agree with industrial capitalists, is that a society where housing is cheap and widely available (in addition to education and health care) is a benefit, not a cost to productive capitalists. Its says a lot about any capitalist country that rentiers can impose their version of capitalism not just on the poor and middle classes, but can also impose it at a cost to productive businesses.

    I’ve seen it argued many times that this is an area where there should be a pragmatic alliance between progressives and business, but it only rarely seems to be achieved (the northern European countries and Japan being obvious, if flawed, exceptions). In Brazil, the Workers Party pushed this argument strongly, and failed utterly as business decided that they preferred unproductive fascism to productive socialism. This is a a key reason I think for the economic failure of much of Latin America.

    On Yves last point, I don’t know if this applies in NY, but there is certainly a huge problem in Britain and Ireland with landlords leaving retail premises empty during downturns. Quite simply, it appears in many cases for it to be more economically rational for them to keep a unit empty, with a notionally high capital value based on its previous (or aspirational) rent, than accepting a lowered rent. During the Celtic Tiger crash I know of several viable restaurants which had to close because of this. And there seems to be a real fear right through the financial industry of what it would do to balance sheets if there had to be a widespread marking down of value of property portfolios. The only short term solution I would see are taxes on vacant properties. They tried this in Ireland a few years ago, but there were so many loopholes it had little real effect on any but the most obvious examples of land hoarding.

      1. Anonymous

        Actually, portions of Leviticus 25 might suffice (along with Deuteronomy 23:19-20).

        But neither the Left nor the Right takes the Old Testament seriously lest it crimp their respective styles, I suppose.

        1. fwe'zy

          Abominations abound in theandlord-tenant relation, which is sadly a foundational step in wealth-building for hardworking commoners. :/

    1. Skip Intro

      Interesting observation about Germany and Japan. Is it mere coincidence that they were rebuilt at a time when the hegemony of US Capital was being challenged by alternative systems? These countries were to serve as models of Democratic Capitalism, with happy workers living in relative luxury.

  2. The Rev Kev

    If a general rent strike never went ahead because so many people were individually afraid of what their landlords might do to them and there was no general solidarity, this points to one thing. That the neoliberal project to “atomize” people so that they won’t come together in such strikes is proceeding as planned.

  3. samhill

    One would think that landlords would now accept reduced, even considerably reduced,  payments given the poor prospects for finding decent tenants at anything approaching old normal lease levels. But property owners can be good at denial.

    Not in any way to side with landlords, my experience with being owed money and owing money is if someone doesn’t have the $100 they owe you they sure as hell ain’t going to have the $500 they owe you, and that cold, hard fact only gets colder and harder as you scale. Get out as soon as possible isn’t the best bet it’s the only bet. I think this frank logic is what drives landlords in all circumstances including wide economic collapse. Better a bird in the hand? Nope, better no birds to deal with. On a lighter note:

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      You seem to be totally missing the concept of “half a loaf is better than none”. We are not talking about arrearages, which is a sunk cost. We are talking about what a tenant can realistically pay going forward, and if you recover on any past short payments, that is gravy.

      If a tenant moves out, you are faced with the very realistic prospect of:

      No rental income for a while, which could be a long while

      Unwillingness of prospective tenants to pay anything like your old rent level (as in the new market level may be not any better than what you could work out with a current tenant)

      “The devil you don’t know” problem, that a new tenant may be worse (damage to the apartment, slow to pay, etc) which makes him worse on other fronts than the current tenant

      And that’s before getting to the fact that a move out costs you the landlord money in rental sprucing up, at a minimum a good cleaning and a fresh coat of paint.

      1. Synoia

        If Landlords accept lower rent, can such a regime be extended to lenders?

        Which them brings us to the topic of “Debt Jubilee, ” and the further topic of “one person’s debt is another person’s (or pension fund’s) investment.”

        The latter, combined with “ROI” appears to make House prices quite sensitive to interest rates, and many other “investments” (As Calpers demonstrates) are unable to provide a good return with today’s interest rates.

        Finally, House prices seem to be very firmly linked to interest rates, rates go down house prices go up. Wages not so much.

  4. Matthew Saroff

    Yves, there is a reason that you’ve, “Seen retail spaces in New York City go vacant for well over a year due to landlords sticking to unrealistic rent rates,” and that is because adjusting rates to match the market result in the property being foreclosed on.

    Remember that commercial real estate loans are typically 5 year deals with a balloon payment at the end.

    If the landlord lowers the rent, as opposed to doing things like offering incentives and maintaining the rent, there is a distinct possibility that the bank will refuse to refinance, and so the bank would take the property.

    It is one of the things that makes rents as sticky as they are during down-turns.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I didn’t give you more context. Landlords near me, on Third Avenue, about 4 years ago, were doubling their rents with no fundamental change in the local economy. Lots of businesses driven out of the area or out of business. Some storefronts remained vacant >2/3 of the time since then, they might get a business in that would fail in a year or less, and Lord only knows if they also didn’t stiff the landlord on a payment or two. You think a bank will miss that a property has been largely vacant for 5 years when the lease comes up for renewal?

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