The private is political

Tenants in private rented accommodation don’t get a lot of attention from politicians. There are sometimes vague calls to cut red tape or to protect tenants’ rights (depending on your politics) but the real hard edge of housing discussions tends to be around mortgages and government built housing.

Reading Ken Livingtone’s manifesto for housing in London and this story about tenants trying to collectively buy their property I was struck by how much more adventurous policy could be in this area.

You see Ken proposes to set up a state back lettings agency, to campaign for lower rents and to “lobby for better regulation of the private rented sector”. All of which seems fine but I would imagine would have very little impact, especially since the Tory led government are very unlikely to increase regulation on the sector and landlords will set their rents according to the market not the mayor.

The Capitol Park Towers tenants association in South West DC are concerned that their apartments are going to be sold and that the new owners will increase the rent dramatically.

Currently, the City government does a few things to support tenants in this situation, notably the Opportunity to Purchase Act gives residents the first right of refusal to buy their apartments and their is theoretical money to support this (theoretical but oversubscribed).

Say that we believed that the existing tenants should be given every chance of taking over collective ownership of their block, what support might the government provide that goes beyond what is currently offered?

Here are some thoughts;

  • Support with organizing the tenants association

Where there is no tenants association and one needs to be quickly formed there are lots of things that need to be done including knocking on doors, holding meetings, drawing up constitutions, setting up bank accounts, holding elections and so on.

This is all work that is quite demanding and can be very tricky given the importance of what is being talked about and the need to balance strong personalities. Community organizers can be a big help in these situations. In Camden, the Federation of Private Tenants do an excellent job and I have seen how ONE DC have done similar work in Washington.

  • A city wide network of people who have been through the same thing

Tenants who find themselves in this situation are often keen to hear from other people that have had similar experiences. Not necessarily so that they can do things in exactly the same way but to feel less alone, to believe that things can be achieved and to pick up a few tips on what to do and what not to do.

  • Credit

Perhaps this is a bit controversial but I think the city government could provide lines of credit to tenants in this situation.

You can imagine a situation whereby the tenants association collectively agreed to transfer the ownership of their apartments to a Community Land Trust. Each tenant could put in as much money as they saw fit (either from savings or raised privately e.g. through a co-op or bank) to own a percentage of their property. In addition, the tenants association could raise as much money collectively as possible (e.g. through government grants, foundations etc…). The difference between the asking price and the amount the tenants raised could be made up through a loan from the city government. This loan would then be re-paid through both rent but also whenever a unit was sold.

I’m no expert on this but I think you can imagine an agreement whereby a percentage of the sale price of each unit went back to the city and the new owner agreed to pay the city a percentage of the sale price when they eventually sold their property. And so on until the loan plus interest was repaid.

I think the combination of a credit facility, professional organizers and a network of people who have been through the experience would be a real support for private tenants who want to take collective ownership of their apartments.

Do let me know if you have any thoughts on this idea, as I have not seen it written about much elsewhere…

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