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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What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.