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London Renters Union
London Renters UnionLondon Renters Union

Rent freeze now! Why tenants across the UK are taking to the streets

On Saturday, members of the London Renters Union and Greater Manchester Tenants Union staged protests outside estate agents

Navigating the private rental market is hellish right now. Demand is far outstripping supply, meaning avaricious landlords are jacking up their prices and forcing tenants into precarious positions as a result. From students queuing outside estate agents from 5am just to the rise of sofa surfing, there are signs everywhere that the system is beyond broken.

New research from the Guardian affirms the scale and depth of the issue. The recent analysis shows that asking rents on new listings are up by almost a third since 2019, with some people facing increases of up to 60 per cent. Additionally, in the 12 months leading up to July 2022, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) recorded the largest annual growth rate of private rental prices since its index began in 2016. Meanwhile, data from Zoopla published in 2021 showed that rents were rising at the fastest pace in 13 years.

The situation is, in many ways, a hopeless one. But tenants’ unions in London and Manchester are hoping to push back against the situation before it spirals even further out of control. Both the London Renters Union (LRU) and Greater Manchester Tenants Union (GMTU) staged protests outside estate agents on Saturday, to demand that the government freezes rents as an emergency measure.

Speaking to Dazed, Elizabeth Williams explains why she took to the streets with London Renters Union. “Millions of us have been hit with unfair and unjustifiable rent rises as high as 50 per cent. Renters cannot afford these increases and many are facing the prospect of homelessness over the coming winter, while rich landlords and letting agents like Foxtons see profits boom,” she says.

Rent controls prevent landlords from hiking rents or limit the amount they can raise rent by. At present, the private rental market is unregulated, meaning that landlords can increase their prices at will. In theory, this means that tenants should only pay prices that they’re happy with – but the reality is very different. Tenants don’t really have a choice, because housing is, obviously, essential. With demand skyrocketing and supply stagnating, many of us are left with no other option but to fork over a hefty chunk of our incomes to have a roof over our heads. The other ‘option’ is homelessness.

On average, rents in Manchester, Salford and Trafford have increased by an average 20 per cent over the last year, and by 16 per cent in London. Some members of the LRU have even reported rent increases of almost £3,400 a year, up 21 per cent from last year. Additionally, Shelter has reported that 1 million renters are receiving a rent increase each month.

Liz, a GMTU member, said in a statement: “Earlier this year my landlord increased my rent and issued me a Section 21 notice to leave. I was unable to pay, and have been sofa surfing since while I try to find somewhere to live. I’m taking action because something has to give. Landlords and letting agents shouldn't be able to raise rents indefinitely and throw the lives of people like me into turmoil. We need a rent freeze now.”

Some landlords argue that rents are having to rise to keep up with inflation, but the inflation rate is currently at around 11 per cent – not 16 or 20 or 21 per cent. So, it’s unsurprising that major London estate agent Foxtons recently reported a 25 per cent increase in revenues “driven by higher rents”. Plus, a sizable 47 per cent of landlords with one property have no mortgage and their rental properties are debt-free – meaning a tenant’s rent can go straight into their pocket. In any case, it’s hard to feel much pity for people who have accumulated significant wealth when they try to argue that they’re struggling with the cost of living crisis too. They could always, you know… get a job. Or at the very least, get some perspective.

“All of us deserve a home where we can flourish and have enough left over after rent to pay our bills and live a good life” – Elizabeth Williams, LRU

This is the context in which LRU and GMTU are demanding a rent freeze. It’s not an unreasonable or unprecedented demand by any means: Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announced a rent freeze back in September and described soaring living costs as a “humanitarian emergency”. The UK government, however, has resisted rent control thus far, and claimed last month that it would lead to “disinvestment in the sector”.

Landlords and estate agents like Foxtons are using the current economic crisis to artificially increase rents and boost profits,” Williams adds. “By refusing to freeze rents like the Scottish government has done, the Tories are giving companies like Foxtons a green light to keep pushing up rents.” Thankfully, many political figures are joining LRU and GMTU in calling for a rent freeze. Alicia Kennedy, director of Generation Rent, said in September that “without a rent freeze and measures to stop ‘no-fault’ evictions, people will still face devastating decisions over paying rent or staying warm this winter, and many of them will lose their home.”

Meanwhile, London Mayor Sadiq Khan has also called for greater regulation of the private rental market. “I have repeatedly asked for the powers to design and implement a system of rent control for London which would help to reduce the financial pressure on renters, without choking off supply,” he wrote in a letter to then-prime minister Boris Johnson in spring. 

“All of us deserve a home where we can flourish and have enough left over after rent to pay our bills and live a good life. To keep people safe from homelessness and eviction this winter, the government should implement a rent freeze,” Williams continues. “Decades of government decisions have prioritised profits for landlords and investors above the safety and security of tenants. Measures like an end to no-fault evictions and a rent freeze can bring us closer to a housing system that prioritises human need over the profits of a tiny few.”