"BENEVOLENT buy-to-let landlord praised for renting to non-whites and gays" the headline might read – if it was in The Onion.
If last year taught me anything, it was to double-check the source of any news. 2016 was so off the charts in terms of terrifying, unbelievable and frighteningly Orwellian real world events, most found themselves a little less confident in their ability to distinguish between satire and real news.
It was the year when the awful headline could conceivably have been the work of Charlie Brooker or Chris Morris, but more often it was real. As a friend on Facebook put it, "you don’t see anyone posting Brass Eye quotes any more." A canary in the mine if ever I saw one.
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Yesterday, I saw a letter from a UK landlord and paused. A property tycoon who openly hates poor people? Real or fake?
Fergus Wilson is one of the UK’s biggest buy-to-let investors – an ex maths teacher who previously ran for Police and Crime Commissioner for Kent – who at one point owned 1,000 homes in Ashford, Kent. This week, he issued staff with an 11-point checklist for his 2017 letting criteria. A few highlights from his list of unacceptables include: no-one under 18, no single mums or dads, no zero-hours workers, no plumbers and no battered wives.
Wait, what? Please be fake news.
Apparently victims of domestic violence cost him money because violent exes turn up and damage his properties. Poor Mr Wilson.
His apparent shock at the ensuing backlash has gifted us with such gems as, "We have said nothing against lesbians and homosexuals or coloureds, as long as they can pay the rent". And on the subject of single mums: "we don’t want to take those who are likely to appear on The Jeremy Kyle Show".
Classism is further down the hierarchy of regularly discussed isms, but it’s clearly in a state of rude health in Britain today. You would think flagrant discrimination would be illegal, but where the law is concerned Mr Wilson is dancing between the raindrops, and he knows it. In the UK you are not allowed to discriminate against tenants based on disability; gender reassignment; pregnancy or maternity; race, religion or belief; or sex and sexual orientation. Sadly, Mr Wilson’s stravaig into bigotry, whilst unpalatable and morally bankrupt to any right-minded person, falls within the law.
Almost more disappointing than this boorish panto villainy are those who’ve jumped to defend him. "He’s a businessman" they argue, "he has to make money", "I’ve heard horror stories myself". Undoubtedly there are bad tenants; those who default on rent and ruin houses, but those people are relatively few in number compared to the vast majority who want to make a home.
Here we see a perfect illustration of how urban myth, anecdote and stereotype trump evidence, working to favour the wealthy. Buy-to-let landlords, now totalling more than 1.75 million, cannot be absolved of their role in helping to create a generation of itinerant homemakers. As that number has skyrocketed in the past decade, the housing landscape has changed dramatically. The private renting sector has doubled since 2002. The number of families with children renting privately has almost tripled in 10 years. Rents are rising faster than inflation. One in five working people needs Housing Benefit to meet their rent, double the figure from just five years ago. People can’t buy their own homes because the affordable property has been snapped up by those who already own.
Aside from the abundant stigma, renters are already boxed in by a lack of affordable housing, private landlords creating monopolies and short tenancies. Often private rental comes with an extra layer of precarity with little security beyond six and 12 months, affecting tenants’ ability to settle and integrate into a community. How can you plan a future when you have to plan your next move in perpetuity?
You could reasonably make the argument for financial prudence if you rent a single property, but when your property portfolio runs in the hundreds or thousands it doesn’t stand up.
Being a landlord isn’t a straightforward business – to think of it purely in terms of cash is wilfully myopic. Those who build their empires out of the most basic of human yearnings – the desire for home – too often ignore the moral and social dimension of their line of work. People aren’t buying a cup of coffee, they’re buying their future. They may not have the ability or the desire to secure a mortgage, but renters want security and a sense of belonging just as much as a homeowner. That’s where Wilson and others fall short. He doesn’t see people – merely conduits of cash flow, where one could easily replace another.
Maya Angelou once said, "The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” Rentals come with questions, caveats and a lack of security. You can rent a house from Mr Wilson, but never a home. Sure, your pounds will secure you the bricks and mortar, but you’ll be renting under a sword of Damocles.
With the slightest shift in personal circumstances you could find yourself ejected. Whilst Fergus Wilson displays his discrimination openly, I can’t help but think of how many other landlords would act similarly in silence.
The economic impact of buy-to-let is well documented, but the damning social legacy has been discussed far less. What are the long-term emotional and psychological impacts of being denied the chance to make a home in the sense we understand it? Of all the negatives to come out of this travesty, perhaps the saddest is the entrenching of biases. That there is a right kind of person and a wrong one, and that those things can be easily discerned through bank balance, profession, marital status or any other single indicator. A sign of these dark times indeed.