Tenancy? It’s another word for ‘serfdom’
In 1977 my wife and I bought a four-bedroom house in west London for £15,000. We did this because through her family she could put in a sizeable chunk of the money. Getting a mortgage seemed like pulling teeth. It was as if you were entering a world that few inhabited. You were, at last, being allowed to be your own person.
I equated it at the time to being let out of the prison of rented accommodation, where you were always at the mercy of what often turned out – in my experience – to be some arsehole landlord. I do not do well with landlords. I returned to the rented sector in the 1990s and had a slew of arseholes to deal with, though occasionally someone bucked the stereotype.
Recently I re-entered the arsehole territory again as I paused to think what to do next. I re-entered the world of house ownership very quickly, back into the large mortgage world. Simply to get away from my lifelong misdealings with landlords.
So when someone says to me, “It won’t be so bad to go back to renting; why should everyone own their own home?” I kind of squirm. Try pre-Thatcherite Britain, when landlords had you by the short and curlies. When they seemed universally suspicious of you.
Where they maintained, and you participated in, a kind of class war; peasant and landowner, serf and squire. Where the leaky roof was being dealt with, the carpet tiles were designed to curl on the stairs, etc...
One of the major problems is that landlords never seem – and this again is in my experience – to understand that you ‘own’ the property for a temporary period of time. So long as you treat it with respect, it is yours.
Also, they do not seem to understand that in an ever-rising market, which it has been for most of the time, you are adding value to the property. By simply living there in a forward-moving market you add value by your residency. In a falling market you are the opposite. But being a landlord is based on the first principle of all businesses: you speculate to accumulate. And as it says, ‘the value of your
property may go down’.
One landlord I had in a furnished place in the 1990s rejected my pleas for a new sofa bed. He said that as I had seen it when I decided to move I had in fact accepted its condition. I then said to him that he had not allowed me to test out its sleepability properties.
But he would not have it. Hence I left as soon as I could get out of the tenancy. He could not understand. Yet in the short six months of the tenancy he had probably accumulated more value simply with the passage of time.
And I had sleepless nights.
I am sure that there are really good landlords out there; social landlords seem to be better than when they were run by behemothic local authorities who couldn’t see the woods from the trees. Or the blocked drains from the rising damp. But the thought of endorsing aspirant homeowners’ plight as some kind of blessing, because they will have to rent until retirement age, seems dumb.
Thatcher spread homeownership into a class that could never get anywhere near accumulating value. She created social mobility for a social group who had little of it. And with that, stimulated other aspirations: going to university for one. She did that at a great price. A price we are still paying.
But to consider that we could reconstruct Britain so that we would not have to own property, back to the pre-1980s, is not on.
Or as the old First World War song goes: “How can you keep the boys down on the farm Maggie once they’ve seen gay Paree?”
More joint ventures between state and investors with aspirant house owners – part-buy – would be my answer. Self-build another. But also more awareness that value is created by tenancy, and that that should mean something.
John Bird is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Big Issue. If you have any comments: firstname.lastname@example.org or @johnbirdswords