Renters can’t wait for the government to scrap letting fees – so Hackney council is stepping in

Yay? Image: Getty.

A Labour councillor on the London Borough of Hackney’s plans to reform its rental market.

Four homes, four landlords and four completely different experiences: in my 15 years as a renter in London, I’ve experienced first-hand the good, the bad and the ugly of the private rented sector.

My experience isn’t unique. In my borough of Hackney, two in three private tenants say repairs aren’t done when needed, while their rent has rocketed by 20 per cent in just five years – far outstripping wage growth. This is a story repeated across London.

Around 32,000 homes are privately rented in Hackney, and their tenants are too often forgotten in a government housing agenda obsessed with home ownership and local government’s traditional role as a social landlord.

That’s why the government’s announcement last year that it would seek to ban extortionate, arbitrary letting agent fees was welcomed by renters and good landlords alike. If you’ve rented in London, you’ll know how vague and ridiculous these fees are. I remember baulking at my landlord’s demand for a £300 fee to renew my contract – not just from me, but from everyone else in my house. That’s why in Hackney we’re taking matters into our own hands to launch a campaign to end letting fees now.

I’m fortunate enough to now have a stable tenancy with a considerate landlord, who I know won’t hike up the rent at the end of each year, charge through the nose just to renew my tenancy or ignore my calls when the boiler breaks.

But while the Prime Minister’s new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, said ministers were “determined” to end hidden fees, we’ve seen little action to make it happen. Renters will rightly be concerned that – like endless commitments to build new homes – these words won’t translate into delivery. The Draft Tenants’ Fees Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech hasn’t been published or given any parliamentary timetable – meaning it could still take years for any, potentially watered down, measures to come into force.


Hard-up Londoners can’t afford to wait that long. The Institute for Fiscal Studies’ report into poverty and inequality showed this week that, while incomes in the capital are 10 per cent higher than the rest of the UK, they sink below the average once unaffordable housing costs are taken into account.

That’s why this week Hackney Council became the first local authority in England to launch a voluntary ban. We’ve asked all letting agents in our borough to do the right thing and scrap these unnecessary fees ahead of national legislation.

Our first supporter, independent Stoke Newington business Julian Reid Estate Agents, are already showing how not charging these fees is good for everyone: they say it doesn’t disadvantage them against their competitors and supports their business model.

And they’re right. Research from Shelter shows that in Scotland – where fees were banned in 2012 – renters, landlords and the industry as a whole have benefited. And crucially, the evidence showed that landlords haven’t passed on the fees to tenants through increased rent.

The new housing minister, Alok Sharma, must resist the strong voice of the letting agent lobby and push through this legislation without delay. But while it’s vital action, banning fees risks tackling the symptoms, not the causes, of the housing crisis.

Ultimately, the solution to rising rents and house prices that leaves a generation of renters trapped in a cycle of unstable tenancies is to build more homes – something the government has consistently failed to do. Local government stands ready to fill that void – Hackney is already delivering more than 9,000 homes in its self-funded regeneration programme.

We’re playing our part, but we’d like to do much more to meet this ever-growing demand. The restrictions on local authorities’ ability to build new homes has exacerbated London’s housing crisis and put the brakes on any effective ways to resolve it.

Simply lifting the borrowing restrictions placed on councils would allow them to unleash a new generation of housebuilding – helping to meet demand and bring down prices. That can only be a good thing.

In the meantime, we’ll continue to stand up for tenants and make their voice heard. Scrapping letting fees is a small, welcome step towards that – but when a third of residents in my borough rent privately, they deserve more.

Councillor Sem Moema is an advisor on private renting and housing affordability to the mayor of Hackney.

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America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.