UK rents don’t have to rocket – just look at Berlin | Ellie Mae O’Hagan | Opinion

I write this piece from Berlin, where I am currently staying in an airy three-bedroom apartment within easy reach of the city centre. The people who live here are not rich by any stretch of the imagination, but their home is light and spacious, and it’s not bankrupting them.

Berlin’s housing system is not perfect. Friends who live here tell me securing an apartment is ludicrously competitive, and prices are rising faster than anywhere else in the world. But the apartment I’m staying in would still be at least twice as expensive to rent in London, and renters here don’t live in fear of rent hikes or waking up to an eviction notice one day.

So I read the news that UK rents are expected to climb by 15% over the next five years (according to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors) knowing that it is not inevitable. Housing can be done differently; it is being done differently elsewhere in Europe.

Britain’s corrupted housing system is the product of political choices that have lined the pockets of landlords at the expense of everyone else. From four in 10 right-to-buy properties being owned by private landlords to the decision not to build more social housing, every element of this system is set up to screw the average renter. In fact, the forthcoming rent hikes are expected partly as a response to the fact that properties are becoming too expensive to buy in the UK.

It doesn’t have to be like this. I recently joined the London Renters Union, which started life in Lewisham and Newham, and recently expanded its reach to my borough, Hackney. The union is in contact with Acorn, a renters’ union that began in Bristol and has set up branches in Brighton, Sheffield and elsewhere.

The London Renters Union, despite being in its nascent stages, has already forced some landlords to carry out much-needed repairs (one estate agent was ignoring a renter’s complaints about rat and cockroach infestations). It recently held its first public forum where members could meet, organise and debate their priorities.

The rhetoric of “rogue landlords” has always felt jarring, because it fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between landlords and renters. Renters aren’t paying through the nose for uninhabitable homes because of a few nasty landlords who aren’t playing by the rules: the problem is that those landlords have more power than the people who rent from them. If a renter gets a decent landlord, it’s luck, but it shouldn’t be: we should have a system that balances out the power so that landlords can’t behave badly.

Living in a secure, affordable and comfortable home is a basic right; it’s astonishing how many of us have accepted the denial of that right as normal. In London, where rent increases are at their highest, we all just accept it as a downside of living in the capital. But it’s not a downside: it’s an injustice – and as with all injustices, somebody is profiting from it.

This is why a renters’ union is so important. Instead of us all trying to fight rent increases individually, we need to come together to recognise that we are experiencing the same injustices. Britain’s landlords already collectivise: they have a body called the National Landlords Association (NLA), which proudly announces on its website that part of its work is lobbying the government. The NLA describes rent control, which exists here in Berlin, as “possibly one of the most catastrophic risks to the private rented sector”. Maybe part of the reason your rent is so expensive is because the NLA has been lobbying the government so that it doesn’t adopt policies that might make it cheaper.

Landlords need renters in order to make money, and that gives us agency. If we use that leverage in the right way, we can have a housing system where we are treated as something more than cash cows. But if we want it, first we’ll have to come together and demand it. I think we’d be surprised by how easy it could be.

Ellie Mae O’Hagan is a freelance journalist

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