Slums are not good. When we talk of them we visualise people living in developing countries, suffering appalling living conditions endured by the poorest of the poor. Alternatively, with a more historical perspective we might think of Victorian Britain, of overcrowded, insanitary conditions and their eventual clearance. At least I thought we did but on reading a blog by a certain Theo Clifford this morning, I’m beginning to think I may have had the wrong idea.
I’ve written a lot about the housing crisis and how it affects private renters but in all my musings and discussion it has never occurred to me that the solution we are all looking for was in the creation of slums. But this is just what Clifford, an Adam Smith Institute award-winning Merton PPE student has proposed. He suggests the housing crisis is being exacerbated by over-regulation of the rental market. His solution then is that instead of authorities demanding adherence to standards he himself states are: ‘something almost everyone would want’, it would be better for those in the rental market to be able to choose the standards they felt were acceptable to them on an individual level, even if they would be deemed ‘unacceptable’ by an inspector. This way individuals could pay less and more properties would be available.
Theo is young (I know this because he won the 18-21 category of the prize I mentioned earlier) and so I hope he has not had to endure the perils of the PRS too much in life so far (if he has, I am even more surprised by his thoughts.) Perhaps then someone needs to tell him that the PRS is not some super-regulated sector where every property up for rental is visited by officials with clipboards assessing the extent to which it ticks the boxes or fails to meet standards. At least not in my experience it isn’t. If it were, I don’t think I would have been able to live in houses with thick black mould growing on my toddler’s bedroom ceiling or with faulty electrical sockets, or with window frames so rotten they couldn’t be closed. If it were, we would not hear stories of people living without hot water for unacceptably long periods or suffering pest infestations or mushrooms growing in the carpets.
It is true that had I approached local governmental housing officers about some of the issues I’ve just outlined in properties I’ve rented over the years, they would probably have required my landlords to make improvements. That is a good thing. However, I didn’t approach them because many private renters just like me, we are already choosing to live in houses which don’t reach the standard required of a decent home. In choosing a home, we weigh up the pros and cons and will often decide that the price of a particular property is more important than the fact that a window doesn’t close or the garden wall is dangerous. We do that because we have to. That is a problem not caused by ‘over-regulation’ but by rents being unaffordable and house prices being too high and nobody doing anything to lower them.
And that is connected to my main gripe with Theo Clifford’s call for less regulation and the development of slums. Firstly, I doubt that overall rents would really go down much as a result of the application of less stringent standards, though I concede there might be more properties in a lower price bracket..for a while. But much more important than that, why would the solution to an issue related to something as fundamental to human happiness as a good home, be to encourage the lowering of standards? It’s already bad enough out there! Shouldn’t we be looking to solutions which are somewhat more uplifting and positive than that? Shouldn’t we be making sure there are sufficient properties available through building more and ensuring those properties charge rents which are linked to incomes and controlled? This is the change I want to see, making things better than they are now, not lowering standards still further. That one so young and on track to be so influential should think the opposite, is ultimately possibly the most depressing element of all.