Are landlords demonised by the media?
A thought-provoking debate about the way landlords and tenants are portrayed in the media has been aired in a recent podcast.
Property expert Richard Blanco invited finance journalists Patrick Collinson, of the Guardian, Sarah Davidson, of This is Money, and Simon Greenwood, series editor of Nightmare Tenants, Slum Landlords to discuss whether the media is ‘mesmerised’ by the ‘pantomime’ of tenants versus landlords.
Blanco suggested that shows like Greenwood’s programme, which is watched by 1.5 million people every week on Channel 5, fail to enlighten the public about the complexity of the housing market and the private rentals sector.
Greenwood said his show was commissioned in response to ‘a huge housing crisis’ but covered both sides of the topic – including the rogue landlords, who house ‘50 people in three bedrooms’ as well as the stories of tenants who owe ‘three years of rent’.
“It does make good TV because it contains conflict and resolution,” he said, conceding it was ‘tabloid’ in a world where ‘there’s an awful lot of competition for attention.’
When asked if landlords were unfairly portrayed, Collinson estimated there were around 1000 ‘paid professionals’ who tell stories on the landlords’ behalf, whereas opposing views were only voiced by a handful of writers working for organisations like Shelter, Generation Rent and Priced Out.
Davidson said traditional divisions between left-wing/pro-tenant and right-wing/pro-landlord attitudes no longer held true, after a Labour government brought in the buy-to-let mortgage in a bid to ‘enrich hard-working people who wanted to get access to the property market’ – whereas the current Tory government had ‘started bashing landlords.’
Collinson said he recently wrote a story about landlords being vilified which triggered a wave of anger from the Guardian’s online readership. He said: “We’re not making this up. Millions of people have been forced into renting. Paying 50, 60, 70 per cent of their wages on rent. I can understand why they’re outraged.”
Blanco put it to the panel that landlords are running legitimate businesses - providing 20 per cent of the housing in the UK - and that no other businesses are taxed on their turnover. He asked: “Landlords are entrepreneurs – taking huge risks by putting down large deposits – don’t they deserve a better press?”
Collinson argued that until recently BTL had been a ‘rigged market with guaranteed profits’ while Davidson said other factors had also contributed to the current crisis.
“People have been locked out (of owning their own homes) not by landlords but by lenders changing their mortgage eligibility criteria,” she noted.
She agreed that renters who were throwing “hard earned income” on rent were frustrated, but this wasn’t just landlords’ faults.
Greenwood said ‘Slum Landlords, Nightmare Tenants’ attempted to educate the public about the issues behind the headlines, but used dramatic and ‘emotional’ true stories, rather than dry factoids.
The panel agreed that property television shows like Homes Under The Hammer had probably encouraged too many people to become landlords, which had in turn created a ‘vicious cycle’ in which there were 2 million landlords and 11 million tenants - many of whom ‘will never be able to buy a home.’
Whereas 10 or 15 years ago rising house prices were seen as a good thing, said Collinson, people were now saying ‘my children can’t afford to get on to the property ladder – or rent’. There was a growing change in the public mood, he said, with the sense that many people felt ‘left behind’ by those who had made a success of BTL.
Blanco asked if television producers have a broad enough understanding of the business, and ought to accept some responsibility for encouraging the growth of BTL investors.
Davidson said investors were responsible for their own risks, and that BTL was ‘not a golden ticket to a fortune’ as the fallout in 2007/08 showed, when investors who bought ‘unsuitable rental properties’ in Northern cities lost money.
Blanco asked if profiting from property was seen as vulgar in the UK, whereas financial success in the USA is admired.
Collinson said the UK was obsessed with property ‘and with good reason – it has been the best way to make money...’ Buying a BTL property has been a ‘fantastic investment’ and ‘the right thing to do’, he said, but there have been implications.
He said ‘there are loads of great landlords out there’, and he had ‘no personal beef’ with landlords per se, but ‘we have reached an economic point where it’s a zero-sum game - landlords are winning too much and tenants are losing too much.’
The question of whether the media demonises tenants on benefits depended on different titles and readerships, said Davidson, and this became an issue after Margaret Thatcher introduced the right to buy social housing in the 1980s.
Less council housing was built and private landlords stepped into the breach, she said, but a change ‘four or five years ago’ saw Housing Benefit being paid directly to tenants who were ‘not necessarily financially savvy people’.
She said that frustration that Housing Benefit was ‘being used to fund lifestyles’ also highlighted the fact the government has failed to build enough social housing to support the people that need it.
Patrick Collinson spoke about an ‘enormous problem’ when tenants - who have been renting through their 30s, 40s and 50s, and who ‘haven’t been building up a pension because they have been paying rent’ - started to retired. He predicted an ‘enormous strain on the public purse’ and said there would be 11 or 12 million people on Housing Benefit in their 70s and 80s and the bill ‘is going to be colossal.’
Over the last 19 years there had been 14 different housing minsters, Davidson pointed out, and asked: “How can you put together a long term strategy to build enough homes for this country when the longest they have been in office is two years?”
She said successive governments had ‘failed consistently’ to make the role of housing minister a cabinet seat and it was now viewed by ministers as a ‘stepping stone’. She said: “They can throw out promises but they’re not around long enough to be held to account.”
Furthermore, the panel agreed that it was not in the Government’s interest to build more homes: “If you flood the market with supply the price goes down – which makes all the people who are home owners poorer – and that makes them dislike the government.”
The most recent government white paper on housing acknowledged there were problems but didn’t supply solutions, said Davidson, but she believed ‘a positive and helpful conversation is going on.’
Collinson said the white paper was ‘more honest than many others’, but ‘vast’ sums of money were needed to correct it. He said: “In the 1950s, 300,000 houses were being built every year. We are building a tiny fraction of that today. The government knows there’s a problem. Social housing is the only way to take pressure off private renting.”
But he pointed out that the housing crisis could not be solved ‘in the current framework of the national deficit’ so fresh thinking was needed to channel money into building new homes.
House prices fell in the 1950s even when many more houses were being built. He said: “We stopped building towards the end of the 1960s and 70s and you can almost trace the rise of house prices from there. We need to marshal our money into social housing. It has never been cheaper to borrow money.”
When asked which stories might be missing from the news agenda about landlords and tenants, Greenwood said his programme had followed housing enforcement teams who dealt with vulnerable tenants, but they only covered ‘a tiny tip of the iceberg’. He said there were people living ‘in horrendous conditions and they are paying in rent what people pay for their mortgages’, but the teams assigned to tackle rogue landlords were badly underfunded.
Davidson said ‘an independent body outside of party politics’ that is ‘responsible and held accountable for housing’ was needed.
Collinson suggested that lessons could be learned about investment and landlord-tenant relationships from countries like Canada and Germany, adding: “We’re not tough enough on bad tenants or bad landlords – we need a better relationship – it won’t take a lot to change the law on that front.”