With average rents in the private sector now over £1,000 a month, and all tenants except those on the highest wages feeling the pinch, this story about the plight of ordinary Londoner Sharada Osman shines a light on some harsh realities of our city’s housing market.
Single Mum Sharada has just seen her rent increase from £950 to £1,100 a month. Desperately worried about how she would cope, Sharada contacted her local councillor Brian Coleman, also a senior member of Boris Johnson’s administration, for help.
She got an abrupt response.
Councillor Coleman told her to ‘deal with her own issues’, to ‘live in the real world’, and just accept the reality that renting in the private sector is her ‘only option’.
Stories about uncaring Tory councillors are nothing new. This one has an extra twist, however. It transpires that Mr Coleman, who earns £120,000 a year, is the beneficiary of a subsidised housing association flat, where he pays rent of £546 a month – half that of Ms Osman.
Sharada’s story highlights more than the appalling double standards of Councillor Coleman, it also underlines the need for urgent reform of the private housing market. You also have to wonder why the Mayor, Boris Johnson, continues to back Councillor Coleman, as this is not the first, nor will it be the last time, he has turned his ire on people at the sharp end.
As the respected housing charity Shelter recently reported, rents in London are ‘50% higher than the national average’. With demand growing, the private sector is failing to meet the challenge of providing affordable housing and current Government policy is compounding the problem.
Plans to increase social housing rents to 80% of the private market will only ensure those reliant on benefits stay trapped on benefits.
And plans to reintroduce the discredited right-to-buy policy will only further reduce available housing stock.
So, what can be done?
The obvious answer is that we need more council housing. A massive council house building programme does more than address a growing housing crisis; it would provide a much needed boost to a stagnating economy. I am proud Tower Hamlets is on track to fulfil my commitment to build 4,000 affordable homes; more than any other local authority in the country. That we are managing to do so in these difficult times must surely encourage other local authorities to follow our example.
And we also need to overhaul the private rented sector, to ensure that rents are affordable and that private landlords do not make a killing both from tenants and local authorities.
With housing conditions ‘‘among the worst in Europe’, Shelter ‘rogue landlord’ scheme is having a positive effect where it’s been implemented. My officers are currently considering its introduction in Tower Hamlets.
Ken Livingstone proposes the introduction of New York style rent controls, Shelter, a scheme that links rents to earning and the TUC also argues that there should be a tax on the one million homes standing empty. This would raise £5 billion which could be reinvested into social housing.
Any proposals to regulate an out of control housing market provokes dire warning of doom and gloom from proponents of the status quo.
They claim landlords will either vacate the market place or be unable to invest in maintaining the quality of their properties.
These protestations remind me of those who said reform of the banking industry would lead to disaster. We know now only too well that the road to ruin lay in the lack of reform.
If the private housing sector can be regulated in other capital cities in the interests of the common good, it can be regulated here as well.
I am proud that Tower Hamlets pioneered the ‘Living Wage’. As more and more people are being forced to spend huge amounts of their wages on rent, the time is surely now right to supplement that initiative with a new one; the campaign for a ‘Living Rent’.