By Joe Bilsborough (@joebilsborough) and Isaac Rose (@_isaacrose)
We've built a Rent Calculator. You put in your gross annual income and your monthly rent and it tells you when your 'freedom from rent day' is — i.e. when you finally stop working for your landlord. You can use it here: http://rentcalculator.xyz
There’s an old piece of propaganda that in recent years has been recirculated by housing campaign groups. It shows a top-hatted seal, busy escaping a housing terrace with a stack of banknotes in his mouth. Hot on his tail chases a desperate man. The seal is the landlord; and to him the man (his tenant) exclaims: “my gawd! My wages!”
This message — of extraction, dispossession, wage theft — is seldom heard today. Contemporary critiques of the private rented sector by campaigners tend to focus on misbehaviour by landlords; those forcing through ‘no fault’ evictions, failing to do repairs, or cramming tenants into overcrowded buildings. The problems with renting are thus presented as the result of an aggregate of ‘rogue landlords’, the solution therefore lies in regulating the sector better and kicking out the bad apples.
By focusing on the horror stories of bad landlords, campaigners have inadvertently provided an opening to the landlord lobby to defend themselves by pointing to the case of the ‘Good Landlord’. During the current crisis, this discourse has been marshalled particularly to defend landlords from rent cancellations. The ‘Good Landlord’ is entitled to their rents! Honest grafters that they are, they’re providing housing and merely prudently looking out for their own pensions. Why, the cry goes, if they stop receiving rent how will these poor Good Landlords survive?
The problem with this approach is it forecloses the possibility of a more structural critique of landlordism. By focusing on the rotten apples, we miss sight of the broader picture — that landlords make their money not through the production of anything useful, but by parasitically taking the wages earned by workers in the form of rent. The whole system by its very nature is exploitative. It’s set up to allow those with access to capital to live off the work of others through parasitic rent-seeking. In short, as Tom Lavin has demonstrated meticulously and comprehensively, the Good Landlord is a myth.
This was once widely recognised. From Thomas Paine — ‘The earth, in its natural uncultivated state… was the common property of the human race… it is the value of the improvement only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property’ — through Mill — ‘They [landlords] grow richer, as it were in their sleep, without working, risking, or economizing’ — and even at times Winston Churchill, an anti-landlord, anti-rentier sentiment was not unusual. Today though, we have lost sight of it.
Yet the current crisis has once again thrown it into sharp relief. Warnings from March that without government action (e.g. rent cancellation) much of the support measures from governments would end up in landlords’ pockets went unheeded. Research has shown that the government’s measures have overwhelmingly favoured rentiers, with up to 45% of the furlough going straight on rent and debt repayments to landlords, banks and other lenders. This totals to a staggering £10bn under the three-month lockdown. Simply by sitting on their assets landlords have seen their wealth increase. At the same time, their tenants, who are most at risk from the economic turmoil, face wage cuts. All of this will be compounded by what looks to be a deep and lasting economic contraction.
All of this highlights the extractive dynamic underpinning landlordism: when you rent a house, while you work you are in effect working—for a portion of the year—for your landlord. Your wages, earnt through your labour, go straight into their pocket. At the end of every month, as your paycheque comes in, a chunk of it goes straight to your landlord. You pay them simply for existing. My gawd! My wages!
This demonstrates the absurdity of rent. As a movement we must expand our critical horizon, beyond simply bad landlords, and to the very mechanics of rent itself.
Our rent calculator
To highlight this, we’ve created a rent calculator. Our calculator is built on the concept that when you rent you’re working for your landlord. From this concept it flows that every year there comes a day where you stop working for your landlord, and start working for yourself — call it your Freedom From Rent Day.
By inputting your monthly rent and your annual income, our calculator deciphers which day of the year is your freedom from rent day. To consider this more concretely, take the following examples. For all rents we have used the ONS averages.
Consider a nurse living in Manchester on a salary of £24.000 per year. They share a two-bedroomed house with one other person, paying £410 per month on rent. They stop working for their landlord on the 24th March. Their housemate however, is on the minimum wage and making £17.000 per year. They’re working for the landlord for a larger part of the year — their freedom from rent day is the 22nd April.
Now imagine that the nurse decides they no longer want to share a house, and instead rent a place of their own. Their rent is £700 per month. The price they pay for this is clear: more of their life is taken up working for their landlord. Their freedom from rent day is now much later, on the 22nd May.
Now consider the situation in London. It is here that the rentierisation of the UK economy is most advanced, and rents are at much higher levels. Here the time people work for their landlords is far starker.
Consider a teacher, earning £35.000 and living in Hackney. They share a two bedroom flat, and are charged £866 per month in rent. They don’t stop working for their landlord until the 5th May — a full third of the way through the year. Consider now a cleaner who works at their school. They’re paid just over the minimum wage, earning £18.500 a year. Hackney is too expensive, so they live further out, in a two bedroomed flat in Haringey, paying £750 per month in rent. They spend over half their year working for their landlord — their freedom from rent day is the 9th of July.
The situation in London is so extreme that even somebody earning a large income of £50,000 per year, and living in their own flat in Hackney, paying £1,470 per month is still spending five months of the year until the 1st June working for their landlord.
The point of our Rent Calculator is as an aid and instrument to all renters, setting our clearly and starkly how much time all of us spend working simply for our landlords to enrich themselves.
The Rent Calculator presented here is designed to illustrate our core contention, that the very fact of rent-seeking by landlords represents an injustice.
Our current model of housing provision in this country enables those with access to capital, to further accumulate their capital through investing in private rental housing. Through doing this they add nothing productive to the economy or society, and merely skim off a portion of the wealth created through their tenants’ labour. If you’re a tenant, this means that you’re spending a portion of your year working for your landlord.
As our calculator shows, this is particularly extreme in London, where the private rented sector is most advanced and unaffordable; but also that housing currently has a disproportionate impact on those on low incomes. As in other things, it costs more to be poor.
We hope this calculator and this piece can be taken by the movement as an invitation to start thinking about rent and landlordism in a different way — not merely a problem in the case of the ‘bad’ or ‘rogue’ landlords, but a structural, endemic and intrinsic injustice.
Once we acknowledge this, the solutions we must advocate for become clear. Rent controls and council housing are the only solutions to the housing crisis — and housing, a fundamental human need and right, must be taken out of the hands of those who see it solely as a means to expand their capital.
You can use our rent calculator here: http://www.rentcalculator.xyz Enter your income before tax, and it automatically calculates the percentage of your take-home pay that is spent on rent
Isaac Rose is a coordinator of Greater Manchester Housing Action. Joe Billsborough is a researcher at the Centre for Local Economic Strategies. The Rent Calculator was built by Matthew Wedge-Roberts.
8 July 2020