Quick, a new marginalised minority group has dropped! Landlords are becoming concerned that the word is now seen as a slur – they’d prefer (update your records) to be referred to as “housing providers”. To which I choose to smile tightly and try my best. As yet, there are no Landlords Lives Matter campaigns, but browsing #PropertyTok, a hashtag under which these people congregate in very tight polo shirts to boast about the latest tricks they’ve come up with to wring more cash from their tenants, I give it three months.
My favourite #PropertyTok videos – I say favourite, I mean, the videos that inspire the most emotion in me, a reaction, albeit allergic and bilious, the feeling that the world is made of paper and about to fold in half – are the ones where the landlord explains how to “rent to rent”. Subletting, is what you or I might call it, but here it has been rebranded as a cheeky life hack, much like deodorising your microwave with lemon juice. “Rent to rent” means renting a flat, then letting it on Airbnb for twice what you’re paying, your tenant now crushed under a double-weight of landlords, a rare experience in that it is absolutely nobody’s kink.
Perhaps I’d have more empathy for the landlord class if rough sleeping was not rising in England, 74% higher than in 2010, the year statistics were first collected. The overall increase is being driven by people sleeping rough for the first time, which suggests (says Crisis, the homelessness charity) that a rapid decline in affordable housing is pushing people on to the streets. Perhaps I’d have more empathy had I not devoured writer Joel Golby’s seven-year project at Vice, a column called London Rental Opportunity of the Week, RIP, which picked apart the raw excuses for flats – a room with a shower in the kitchen, for example, £999 pcm, and doomy ceilings and two rings on the hob – that were being presented as potential homes, for people to live, and grow old in. Golby’s project started as a bit of a laugh, but as the years passed, mutated to reveal itself as a symptom of a terrible disease, as a lack of regulation allows landlords to gouge more and more out of their tenants for less and less.
As I write this, three of my closest friends are all individually being pushed out of their homes by landlords. The National Residential Landlords Association predicts that a third of landlords will sell properties this year due to rising mortgage costs. Yesterday, as one of these friends waited outside for a viewing to finish, an interested buyer exited her house, beaming with compliments on her taste, and it became suddenly clear that she hadn’t just been paying rent to her landlord – a shadowy figure she’s never been allowed to contact directly – but increasing the value of his empty house, now on the market for a third more than its neighbours. Looking for somewhere new to move post-Covid she’s found rents have almost doubled. Another friend was last week required to prove she earns more than three times the rent, to which her reply was, if I earned three times the rent I would not be begging you for the privilege of paying to live in a studio with a fold-down bed and views of an Asda generator.
And sure, most landlords are probably not evil, most are just people awkwardly trying to make a living, villainised as the most visible face of capitalism. Some landlord influencers are set on explaining this, showing that their plight is a righteous one. Others, especially those filming from their new car or boat, want you to know that wealth and glamour is only two to three sublets away if you follow their tips on how to turn a wardrobe into a WFH office. But I have lost hours to #PropertyTok now, wading through the videos as if a field of nettles. The guy filming his tenant as he tells her he’s doubling her rent. The guy advising on how to “rent to rent” from prison. The guy planning to turn a seven-bed guesthouse into a 20-person HMO. Every room’s a bedroom if you’re smart enough – it’s just a state of mind.
As an act of radical self-care, I drag myself away from the bastards of #PropertyTok, but it quickly becomes clear that anger is the appropriate response. I’m learning, though, to refocus some of it, away from the landlords and back on to the government behind our desiccated welfare system, reduced to the point where it’s almost homeopathic. The fact that so many people who in the past would have lived in social housing, are today forced to rent from private landlords shows how broken these systems are. Obviously, rent should be regulated – that this even needs saying is mad and terrifying. Of course it should, of course landlords should not be allowed to poke and scrape at their tenants’ security, to stick a sink on the toilet cistern and call it a bathroom and increase the rent whenever the moon is full.
But beyond that bare minimum, we need genuinely affordable housing. If only to make the landlord influencers work harder for their polo shirts.
Email Eva at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman