Shock research findings: Landlords who sell up don’t destroy houses on their way out

This image enrages me every time I see it. Image: Getty.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the rent is Too Damn High. And for many of us it rises every year. So when the property industry reacts to any government policy that might disadvantage landlords with warnings that “it will only increase rents”, the threat rings hollow.

Economic theory also tells us to be wary of such predictions: the rent is set by supply and demand in the housing market. Landlords already charge as much as they can get away with.

If a landlord pays an extra 3 per cent in stamp duty when she buys a house – a surcharge that was introduced in April 2016 – she can’t simply charge 3 per cent more than the market rent because other landlords in the market will undercut her. Similarly, if a debt-laden landlord sees his mortgage interest tax relief cut, he can’t pass that on to the tenant – because most landlords have no mortgage, won’t be affected by tax changes, and will take his business.

So if a landlord is already charging what the market can bear and still can’t make the numbers work, they will have to leave the market. Cue the second threat. “With fewer rented homes, where will renters live?”, the estate agents cry.

But in quitting the market, landlords don’t, as a rule, destroy the house they have been letting out. They sell it, either to a landlord or an owner occupier.

If a landlord buys it, great: no problem for renters there, eespecially if they can stay put. If an owner occupier buys it, great – either they are first-time buyers themselves, or their chain is freeing up a home for a first-time buyer (or possibly a landlord; see first scenario). More first-time buyers mean fewer people demanding rental properties. Even as home owners they would still be financially stretched and trying to make as much use of space as possible. So there is no change to the balance of supply and demand. Because households can change tenure, supply and demand in the rental market is intimately connected with supply and demand in the housing market as a whole.

Since George Osborne introduced his tax changes, we’ve seen first-time buyer numbers rise, and the size of the private rented sector shrink by 111,000 – the result of fewer landlords buying property, and more landlords selling up. We decided to see if this had affected rents.

Tenure shift explained. Click to expand. Image: Generation Rent.

In cash terms they are still rising in most parts of the country, but at a slower rate than before the tax changes. In London they’ve been falling. But, like prices in the wider economy, rising rents is par for the course – so we looked at how they behaved in relation to prices in the wider economy, i.e. in real terms.

If the property industry is right, inflation-adjusted rents would have risen as the private rented sector shrunk. If economic theory is right, they would be unchanged. In fact they fell, by 3.2 per cent.

Something similar happened ten years ago. Instead of a drop in supply of rented properties, there was a surge in demand after mortgage lending for first-time buyers dried up. But rents didn’t rise: they fell, by 6.7 per cent in real terms. That was, of course, around the time of the recession. Short of a revolution in building rates, tenants’ spending power appears to be the biggest factor determining what landlords can charge.

Real rents over time. Click to expand. Image: Generation Rent.

The lesson in all this is that the government should press on with legislation to raise standards within the rental market, particularly ending Section 21 of the 1988 Housing Act to provide greater security of tenure. Landlords whose speculative or exploitative business models rely on that ability to evict tenants without a reason might well quit – but their competitors, who value and crave long term tenants, will do just fine.


To ease what exodus there is, the government has a duty to help the tenants who aren’t in a position to buy the house themselves. Any tenant who is evicted having done nothing wrong should get compensation – three months’ rent would be reasonable. That would both give them the means to find a new home, and incentivise landlords to sell tenanted properties to other landlords in the first place.

There’s no question that rents still need to come down significantly, but building enough will take years. In the meantime the government should ensure that renters get a better deal for what they pay for: a secure home.

Dan Wilson Craw is director of Generation Rent.

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In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.