Our understanding of transience in the private rented sector is rooted in the idea that what was traditionally meant to be temporary is now a long-term condition. The prolonged house-sharing of Friends or Spaced is meant to last for a limited time, usually in your 20s, before you ascend to home ownership, or you’re at least able to afford to live alone or with your partner. Prolonged transience is therefore associated with class failure, downward mobility, and also sometimes of failure to lock down a long-term monogamous partner you can co-habit with. The problems with associating long-term private renting with transience are twofold. Firstly, it constructs involuntary mobility, rather than immobility, as a key hardship that renters face. Secondly, it ignores the involuntary transience that other types of tenants are subject to, often as a result of sub-market initiatives to get middle-class millennials ‘back on the property ladder’. The following discussion deconstructs the separation of social and private renting in light of ‘affordability’, the latter driving sub-markets that subsume social housing provision. I argue that this landscape not only exposes increasing numbers of social tenants to unaccountability comparable to the private rented sector, but can also lock people into involuntary permanence.
The discursive and political separation of social tenants and private renters is bewildering. The paucity of state-owned social housing stock is a well-known fact, as is the primacy of housing associations in social housing provision. The resulting circumstances are that social housing is now increasingly allocated through the private sector. Clearly there’s something else driving the economic and political separation of social and private tenants. It seems that it doesn’t matter who you pay for housing, what’s more important is how much. Private investment in social housing is literally mandated by legislation: the 2011 Localism Act obliged local housing authorities to rely on the private sector to house people. It’s not a coincidence that in the same year, reductions to Stamp Duty Land Tax made it a lot easier for large-scale investors to purchase rented property. There was money to be made from a shortage of social housing. So it should come as no surprise that housing associations have been increasingly selling off social homes to fund bigger developments, with only a percentage of units required to be ‘affordable’.
Affordable is different to ‘social’. The shift from ‘social’ to ‘affordable’ is rooted in the creation of housing sub-markets rather than the provision of housing. Of the 90,000 new London homes intended for construction in Sadiq Khan’s Affordable Homes Programme, 58,500 are earmarked for either shared ownership or London Living Rent, the latter pegged at a third of the average borough-specific household income. 29,000 of the new homes are set at Affordable Rent, which, like social housing, is allocated according to eligibility, but can be set at up to 80% of local market rates. Much of this is a continuation of Boris Johnson’s emphasis on intermediate housing products to help those who ‘traditionally’ would have had access to home ownership get their foot on the property ladder. It just so happens that these products are also quite lucrative for housing associations. The point of all this is to say that private investment in social housing provision impacts rents and tenancies. Assured shorthold tenancies are seen as the ‘best use of assets’ in social housing provision, and these can be as short as two years. Insecurity, short-term renting, and unaccountable landlords are not just the preserve of private market renters. Social housing increasingly comprises a sub-market division of the same sector and the discourse of ‘affordability’ has helped this landscape emerge.
All this being said, short-term, insecure tenancies in the private rented sector obviously do often make for miserable living. Although rents have stagnated in London, they are still ludicrously high, and the threat of no-fault eviction puts tenants in a position of low bargaining power. Short tenancies mean more moving and less durable connections with the homes people occupy. This absence of connection sometimes makes it easier to rationalise moving – ‘I didn’t even put any shelves up! I never even shared a meal with my housemates!’ Indeed, the frequency with which private renters move and the expense of moving has prompted the emergence of alternative letting companies like Movebubble and Tipi, who target millennial renters to ‘join the rebellion’ and only advertise lettings that include fees and bills. Once again, the priced-out weariness of the millennial private renter can be marketised.
Frequent moving is not only good for the bottom line of such companies, it also tends to increase local rents. When private tenants leave and new tenants must be found, landlords exploit the opportunity of a new contract to raise the rent. As local market rents rise, so do the rates of ‘affordable’ rents, and this can have the effect of pricing social tenants out of areas too. But such processes can also keep social tenants involuntarily immobile. This is something that has come up frequently in my own research. High private market rents mean that young people can’t afford to move out of family homes. This means more people are living in overcrowded conditions with no sign of an out. Exacerbating this situation is the under-occupancy penalty targeting social housing tenants, where spare rooms are taxed through benefit cuts. One of my research participants said that he was scared to move out because it would affect his ageing parents’ access to housing. At the same time, he was aware that staying in the house was also threatening his family’s benefit entitlements because he is no longer classified as a dependent. The costs of private market transience can be the immobility of more marginalised tenants.
Concurrent with the emergence of ‘affordable’ housing sub-markets is the sub-contracting of maintenance, repairs, and management services among housing associations. As housing associations become more corporatised, they look for multiple strategies of procurement in order to minimise running costs and maximise their profits. This means that more and more people living in social housing don’t have open lines of communication and accountability with their landlords. Another one of my study’s participants was living with multiple family members in a HA-rented house and hadn’t been able to have their kitchen fixed for months, nor gauge how long it would take via a third-party maintenance company. At the same time, the family wasn’t allowed to make any repairs themselves. The entanglement of HA deregulation with the emergence of ‘affordable’ sub-market renting creates such conditions; despite being kept afloat by social rents, HAs are increasingly invested in deferring actual responsibility for the upkeep of social homes.
My aim here is not to disregard the difficulties of insecure private renting. If anything, I am appalled that the unregulated nature of the private rented sector is the increasingly common environment that those most in need of housing are subjected to. Indeed, one of my central critiques here is around the idea that compared to private renting, social housing is stable, rooted, and permanent. Where permanence is found, it is not always a chosen condition. Involuntary permanence can be carceral. In abusive situations, it can be life-threatening. In this regard, the costs of private market transience are manifold, shortening tenancies and limiting accountability for some social housing tenants, while subjecting others to immobility. To address it, we need to start thinking about social housing tenants and private sector tenants as subject to the same economic relations.