What is the Rent Trap?

Rosie Walker & Samir Jeraj, The Rent Trap: How We Fell into It and How We Get Out of It

Pluto, 192pp, £12.99, ISBN 9780745336466

reviewed by Tom Gann

In The Housing Question (1872), Friedrich Engels distinguished between the permanent condition of capitalist housing in which ‘the working class generally lives in bad, overcrowded and unhealthy dwellings’ and its periodic conjunctural intensification. In the late 1860s the ‘sudden rush of population to the big towns’ was the spark for the intensification of the crisis, but there are a range of possible factors that can intensify a chronic housing crisis. These intensifications have two effects. Firstly, the situation becomes even more severe for the poorest. Secondly, more privileged parts of society, whose housing conditions would usually be tolerable, are drawn into the crisis and this produces widespread discussion of it: ‘this housing shortage gets talked of so much only because it does not limit itself to the working class but has affected the petty bourgeoisie also.’

Unfortunately, Rosie Walker and Samir Jeraj's The Rent Trap: How We Fell Into it and How We Get Out Of It, which is the first book-length treatment of private renting in the current crisis, fails to move beyond the conjunctural aspects of the housing crisis. The Rent Trap begins with the story of Corinne, someone, who with her ‘well-paid job,’ ‘specialist skills and university degree,’ is drawn into the crisis. This form of writing, reliant mostly on case studies, is derived quite clearly from broadsheet journalism that aims to personalise issues by offering relatable stories for an apolitical, middle-class readership who need anecdotes to take an interest in a topic which is distant from their everyday life. It is then odd that The Rent Trap, whose desired readership are private renters themselves – that is, people for whom the experiences presented are their everyday life – is constructed around case studies. This contradiction in style represents an inevitable expression of a crisis which has drawn in middle-class people; secondly, it foreshadows The Rent Trap’s conception of politics and the function of private renters within it, which is largely to raise awareness of issues, especially by passive political engagement like signing petitions to support lobbying of MPs, councillors and civil servants.

Ultimately, the value of The Rent Trap beyond one very good, if a little basic, chapter on the history of private renting and some useful nuggets of legal advice yoked to a selection of case studies of housing misery, rests on the explanatory and strategic power of two concepts, ‘the rent trap’ itself and ‘the landlord lobby.’ At times the rent trap is described very generally, encompassing all people who have no choice but to rent expensive, insecure and bad quality dwellings. This is compounded by the discussion on the loss of council housing as a factor in the explosion of private renting in Jeraj's chapter on the history of private renting.

However, when explicitly conceptualised, the definition of the rent trap is substantially more restricted, ‘paying high rent makes it hard to save money; paying rent that uses most of your disposable income makes it impossible.’ With this definition of ‘the rent trap’ as solely not being able to afford to save to buy, it is vital to remember that large sections of the working class have never been able to buy; the authors’ attendant bias towards the petty bourgeoisie takes precedence here. The lack of clarity in the concept of the rent trap means it superficially includes all private renters, even those who could never have been able to buy, while simultaneously hiding the latter group, who only exist to be marshalled in the interests of the petty bourgeoisie drawn into the crisis.

The second central concept, ‘the landlord lobby,’ is required to do considerable work both in terms of explanation and strategy, but it is unable to do this because it is founded on an uncritical acceptance of the capitalist division between politics – which is identified with the state, both local and national, and imagined as a place of struggle, and the economy – which is identified with the market imagined as, essentially, a place of consent and non-coercion. As Ellen Meiksins Wood has argued in Democracy Against Capitalism (1995), ‘liberal democracy leaves untouched the whole sphere of domination and coercion created by capitalism . . . it leaves untouched vast areas of daily life . . . which are not subject to democratic accountability but are governed by the powers of property.’ In explanation, ‘the landlord lobby’ attempts to unify the everyday problems of private renting not by reference to power in the economy or structural explanations, but by presenting politics (the landlord lobby) as deforming the market. This leads to deep strategic problems, the struggle of renters is presented as ‘the struggle against the landlord lobby [which] goes back a long way.’ With the struggle against landlords in their political function highlighted, the exploitative function of landlords in the economy, as extractors of rent from tenants, is ignored and any struggle against landlords as exploiters treated as illegitimate. The split between the economy and politics in The Rent Trap also effaces any possibility of struggle against conditions which constitute the market – the separation of large numbers of people from direct access to shelter, which forces them to rent it from those who control access to it, or against the state, which is presented not as key to the preservation of the powers of property but as fundamentally benign yet corrupted by landlords in their political function.

The only legitimate interference, therefore, by politics in the economy becomes ‘regulation.’ A seeming paradox of the division between the economy and politics is that regulation is presented as entirely apolitical with the state acting 'rationally' without influence from economically determined interests, whether those of landlords or renters. This is evident in the claim that (until ruined by the ‘two idiots’ Philip Davies and Christopher Cope) the debate over introducing slight restrictions to revenge evictions was ‘Parliament at its best’ because it saw technocratic debate with cross-party agreement; or in the presentation of rent controls as supported even by the right-wing thinktank Civitas. Regulation is justified not in the interests of renters but in the interests of neutral social goods, especially stability which, for all the apolitical claims, predominantly corresponds to the interests of only those private renters conjuncturally drawn into the crisis. This is because, as ‘stability’ through regulation is a demand for the restoration of previous conditions in which there were only the effects of the ‘normal’ functioning of the economy, it only really benefits that privileged section of private renters.

The political strategy for private renters derived from this is described as 'turning victims into activists' through their involvement in local housing groups, perhaps prompted by their reading of The Rent Trap. The function of these activists, though, is limited to supporting lobbying efforts, especially by signing petitions and helping local councils enforce existing regulation. This move from victims to activists repeats the split between the economy and everyday life, which can only be passively borne and is the space of victimhood, and the space of politics as relating to the state which is the space of activism.

Even when more antagonistic politics are acknowledged, such as when Betsy Dillner, director of Generation Rent, is quoted arguing, ‘We need people having rational conversations in policy circles, but we also need people shouting in the street’ (and Walker, in particular, is more sceptical than Dillner about ‘shouting in the street’), this distinction is repeated, with street protest still being part of a realm of citizenship. There are examples both in The Rent Trap, and of existing housing groups like Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL), of effective militant action which rejects this split. HASL, for example, which is not just a group of private renters but of people from all tenures struggling with their housing, organises, amongst other things, to resist evictions, run lunch clubs and offer legal and more militant support for people denied housing rights by the local council. Secondly, the 1915 Glasgow rent strike saw direct action in the economy (the refusal to pay rent) and resisting evictions. Here landlords were attacked in their economic function (as exploiters) not in their political function (as a lobby). Thirdly, the mass squatting of 1945-46 directly and immediately rejected the founding condition of private renting, the separation of people from the means of survival.

All three of these struggles are rooted in a refusal of the split between the political and the economic which is rooted in class but also gender and race (the Glasgow rent strike was led by women, many of the members of HASL, which given the racialised effects of the crisis and its disproportionate impact on families is no surprise, are women of colour). It is a position of privilege that The Rent Trap exemplifies to imagine that politics as coercion and struggle is fundamentally external to everyday life, and that the problems of everyday life are not caused by the economy structurally.
Tom Gann is a writer on urban politics and a housing activist in south London.