Review: Against Landlords

by Sean Bell

In the interests of full disclosure, this review should begin with an admission: when it comes to landlords and the housing crisis over which they survey like Nero with his fiddle, my perspective is some leagues distant from ‘unbiased’.

I write this in between checking my email to make sure I still have a home, or if my rent will be increased to levels usually only demanded by those in possession of a ski-mask and a getaway car. Some might argue these circumstances render me less than objective on the subject at hand. I can’t but agree; so long as the squalid reality of landlordism persists, objectivity for most of us is virtually impossible.

The publication of Nick Bano’s Against Landlords came, appropriately enough, only a day before the new Housing (Scotland) Bill was published, containing therein proposals for a long-promised ‘New Deal for Tenants’ encompassing rent controls, mechanisms to delay evictions, and the enhancement of tenants’ rights. For those who have fought so tirelessly for all this and more, the bill is not without merit, yet as the Living Rent tenants’ union has already outlined in more detail, it remains in many respects an imperfect half-measure.

These concerns are far from academic, given that less than a week later, emergency protections – including an eviction ban and a cap on rent increases – finally, yet prematurely, expired. The Scottish Government has been studiously vague on how the nation’s tenants are supposed to endure until the Housing Bill comes into force without this tenuous bulwark; meanwhile, wary that their time to profiteer with impunity may be limited, Scotland’s landlords are already scrambling to impose the kind of rent hikes that would make Prince John’s tax collectors look askance.

To say all this makes Bano’s new book uncomfortably relevant is underselling it: reading Against Landlords right now is rather like flipping through Peter Benchley’s Jaws while sitting in a rapidly deflating rubber dingy and being circled by some very pointy fins.

Pictured: Living Rent members campaigning for rent controls. (Credit: Craig Maclean)

Confirming once again that the landlord lobby will portray even the mildest of regulatory reforms to the industry they consider their fiefdom as Maoism in action, DJ Alexander CEO and tribune of landlords David Alexander – to whom the Scotsman newspaper has bafflingly granted a regular column, which he uses exclusively to fulminate against those nefarious forces who would vilify the private rental sector – this week repeated his favourite lie, writing that “rent controls have never worked in any country where they have been introduced and have always made things worse for tenants”.

If this is the case, it is odd that Alexander and his compatriots never explain why those who do benefit from such protections are loath to give them up (in New York, for example, not even the most right-wing of mayors would dare to suggest abolishing what precious little rent control the city enjoys – their head would be on a pike in Central Park by sundown). Besides, arguing counter-intuitively that rent controls can only lead to higher rents is less than convincing when rents are skyrocketing in their absence.

Of course, landlords invariably bristle at any suggestion that tawdry greed may inform their actions – rents, you see, are merely the result of market forces by which landlords are helplessly buffeted, like a leaf on the wind; in accordance with the noble truths of the Buddha, they are completely free from desire.

Throughout Against Landlords, many of these risible canards are skewered (responding to the ever-popular contention that the housing crisis can be solved by simply building more homes, Bano neatly asks why speculative developers “would somehow act against their own interests by producing enough surplus housing to bring down the average price”), but Bano’s intention is not merely to provide a series of rebuttals: he seeks to demonstrate that Britain “has a system of law, regulation and economics that is unusually (if not uniquely) good at allowing rents to rise, because the state guarantees that they will.”

While mainstream explanations of the housing crisis tend to identify an explosion in demand for property as its cause, Bano argues that the private rental market and the ratcheting of rents which inevitably comes with it are crucial to understanding this commodification: “The state does not just allow rental yields to rise – indeed, almost guarantees that they will; it ensures that they rise at such a pace that residential property has become more attractive than many other forms of investment.”

Parts of the history Bano marshals to bolster this argument will be familiar: with the ‘right to buy’ programme in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s government was entirely successful in what it set out to do, and the disastrous consequences – trapping ‘generation rent’ within the private rental sector without hope of home ownership or social housing – was completely intentional. Bano, however, takes a longer view and places these developments within a wider historical context, explaining how “property rights and capitalism have developed hand-in-glove over hundreds of years”, and that the roots of our present housing crisis were long ago baked into the foundations of the British state itself.

Conversely, the decades immediately following the Second World War proved not only how effective rent controls can be, but just how feasible their application makes the abolition of landlordism. By 1974, even the Conservative Political Centre had concluded, without evident regret, that “the private landlord, as he exists now and has existed, will, within a generation, be almost as extinct as the dinosaur. There is nothing that can be done about this.” To read this today is rather like leafing through one of those old popular science magazines that promised a flying car in every garage by the year 2000. Nevertheless, when their modern shills talk in apocalyptic tones of landlords fleeing a diminished private rental sector, Bano asserts it is useful to remember how close we came, and perhaps could come again.

“Bano explains how ‘property rights and capitalism have developed hand-in-glove over hundreds of years’, and that the roots of our present housing crisis were long ago baked into the foundations of the British state itself.”

In describing the present this past has led to, Bano shows admirable discipline – he could very easily have written a book that did nothing but detail the human cost of the housing crisis, one that would provoke outrage and stir sympathy in the hearts of anyone capable of basic human feeling (i.e. anyone but a landlord). Instead, he has set out to demonstrate the veracity of his analysis, rather than relying on appeals to emotion.

And yet, much like Marx’s Capital, to which Bano often makes apt and enlightening reference, behind what superficially appears as a dry discussion of material realities and the system which had produced them is a work quietly dripping with rage and indignation. This does not render his conclusions – including his forthright contention that the housing situation in Britain is racist to its core – any less objective; it is, rather, a reaction to their objective truth.

In many cases, fiery polemic is unnecessary: early in the book, Bano relates the case of a couple on Universal Credit during the initial months of the Covid-19 pandemic, during which the UK Government scrambled to increase the housing element of UC in order to avoid a national wave of evictions. Almost immediately, the couple’s landlord proposed a new, theoretically more secure tenancy agreement, but for a higher rent – an increase exactly equivalent to the rise in Housing Benefit that had just been put into effect. “The landlord wanted this new free money that the state was offering,” Bano writes, “and he wanted it right away.” You do not need to resort to florid rhetoric to explain why this kind of behaviour is disgusting – a child could figure it out.

Yet Bano also makes clear that such endemic behaviour should not be attributed solely to the individual landlord, but instead seen as inherent to the system of landlordism itself. Bano – a barrister who specialises in cases concerning homeless people, residential occupiers and destitute or migrant households – recalls representing a woman threatened with eviction from her studio flat over unpaid utility bills. The flat had no heating and could only be warmed by leaving the oven door open; despite having two children, ‘house rules’ forbade them from staying in the flat overnight. Though not unfamiliar with this kind of deplorable situation, even Bano was struck by the fact that the woman’s landlord was the homelessness charity St Mungo’s.

This, Bano writes, “shows that the phenomenon of landlordism has become so widespread, so apparently benign and socially acceptable, that even a homelessness charity does not see the irony in operating as a real estate profiteer during a housing crisis.”

It is landlords rather than the system they represent that the majority of us will deal with directly however, and therein lies the insidiousness of landlordism. Though the landlord may not be a popular figure – as illustrated by Bano’s pointed quotation of the Pogues’ ‘Bastard Landlord’ – they are not faceless; indeed, by Bano’s calculation, one in every 26 people in Britain is a landlord, and the curious profession has thus dug its way into the UK’s social fabric like a deer-tick with Lyme disease. Consequently, landlords are humanised despite the inhumanity of their business, and the task of their abolition becomes ever-more complicated.

The chapter of Against Landlords on tenant organising will, I suspect, provoke the most debate amongst those with more experience in that field than I; Bano gently pushes back against the pessimism of Friedrich Engels, who felt that it was impossible to legislate your way out of a housing crisis and that meaningful change was impossible without the overthrow of capitalism itself. In response, Bano points to Britain’s rich history of anti-landlord and tenants’ rights movements, and the gains and victories they won (if not permanently).

Pictured: Living Rent members campaigning around housing conditions in Edinburgh. (Credit: Craig Maclean)

Unfortunately, this backdrop only sets the stage for Bano’s own gloomy assessment of the present: the most radical and effective tactics of yesteryear – rent strikes, in particular – have, through the concerted legal and political efforts of their enemies, become practically impossible to carry out today. Though this has narrowed the options for the modern housing movement, Bano finds hope in Mike Davis’s characterisation of the rank-and-file organiser as “a patient gardener”. “We will, no doubt, see many more patient gardeners in the coming years as the housing crisis drags on,” Bano predicts. “But that, of course, is how we win.”

Some may not share Bano’s confidence or enjoy the patience of a gardener, and may even feel that the desperate situation so many of us face requires a more combative approach, unafraid of unprecedented escalation. Then again, while Bano does offer some suggestions (“What are tenants supposed to do but try to humiliate the people who profit so handsomely from the housing crisis? Landlords should feel ashamed”), Against Landlords does not claim to be a roadmap for action. Its scholarship could certainly be used as a foundation for one, however – a tenants’ equivalent to Andreas Malm’s How to Blow up a Pipeline is an intriguing notion, and arguably the next necessary step for the discourse.

Despite acknowledging that he has not written a revolutionary treatise – it is, much like Capital, “a book about capitalism”, rather than a guide on how to dismantle it – Bano rightly defends the idea central to Against Landlords as both radical and practical; abolishing landlordism is, he argues, “probably more immediately achievable than, say, police or prison abolition.” With this in mind, Bano emphasises the importance of rent controls not merely as an ameliorative measure, but as a mechanism which can “create the conditions for reducing or eliminating the exploitative private rented sector.”

Over a century ago, my ancestor, the Marxist theorist James Connolly, wrote: “Our cities can never be made really habitable or worthy of an enlightened people while the habitations of its citizens remain the property of private individuals.” To this end, Bano has proven he has the courage to show some much-needed imagination, while most commentary and debate around housing in the UK is typified by a depressing lack thereof. It is incumbent upon all of us join him in that endeavour.

Pirates had their golden age of plunder, once upon a time, and the past few centuries have represented a similar gilded epoch of decadence and rapacity for the landlord.

Imagine that era drawing to a close.



Sean Bell is a writer and journalist based in Edinburgh. His work has appeared in The National, The Herald, Source and Jacobin.



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