Following recent research exploring the housing experiences of those living in the private rented sector (PRS), Dr Adriana Mihaela Soaita contributes to the ongoing discussion around housing as a human right.

There is a keen interest for the Scotland Government to set down the human right to housing in Scotland. Inscribed in UN (inter)/(super)national declarations, charters and treaties, particularly the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the human right to housing implies: legal security of tenure; availability of all services; affordability; habitability; accessibility to marginalised groups; location clear of hazard and connected to employment/facilities; and cultural adequacy. Countries could specify these terms in ways that are socioeconomically and culturally adequate and politically ambitious.

Drawing on my recent research with 60 private tenant activists in the UK, I wish to contribute to this ongoing discussion (e.g. CIH ScotlandShelter ScotlandScottish Human Rights CommissionYoung of Newhaven Research Scotland) by making two key points. Suffice to say here that my research looked at private tenants’ housing experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic (see a summary here) and asked what the government should do to empower tenants to make their tenancy home (see related article here). In making these two points, I draw mostly from the latter.

First, the content of the right to housing should not be set from above by experts, handed down by governments, or ‘negotiated’ between the powerful and the powerless – these are all ways by which the voices of the powerless are silenced and not heard. Conversely, we need to privilege the voices and demands of those excluded from adequate housing, such as the private tenants in my research, or of any low-income or otherwise vulnerable household notwithstanding their tenure or lack of it.

Indeed, my participants strongly asserted tenants’ right to participate in policymaking, individually and through their Tenant Unions and organisations. They wanted to be heard because this is their democratic right, the tenant/landlord power-balance is highly unequal, the matter is one of contention, governments privilege property-owners or simply because “if you don’t rent you have no idea what the stress over where you live can become” (a respondent).

Second, we must be careful to not set our ambition targets too low or too far in the future – this has happened much too often. Ironically, the UK endorsed the UN right to housing in 1976 to sow the seeds of the current housing crisis immediately after though the Right-to-Buy and the deregulation of the private rental sector, to name just two consequential policies. Arguing for privileging use and user, my participants reframed the right to housing into the Right to Home. Their demands were well-articulated, detailed, and justified at times by the logic of the market (tenants as consumers), commonly by the logic of the domestic (house-as-home, a platform for individual wellbeing and social flourishing) and sometimes by the ethics of social justice. I exemplify the last point below:

The UK seems still very much engrossed in upstairs, downstairs thinking, class divide, the haves and not haves, giving the haves more privileges, it is a cancer through the entire British system, law, society, culture, not only related to housing /…/ it seems a very stubborn one-sided culture at times. I am not saying that any country is perfect, but I wonder if the UK should be more socially advanced instead of believing in total hardcore capitalism. Germany, Scandinavia are also capitalistic but with a much higher social, humane touch than the UK and a much more democratic system (a respondent).

Reflecting the sector’s high housing costs, participants demanded various guises of rent control, from rent cuts or freezes to rent increases indexed by inflation but adjusted to local wages and property conditions. To tackle tenure insecurity, still affecting even higher-income renters despite the new Scottish and Irish tenancy provisions (see here), participants demanded stronger protection (e.g. banning evictions over winter, illness or for a landlord to move in for a short time as they could rent instead). Flexibility to move out from day-1 was also demanded for special circumstances (1-day notice in the first week).

Given that the sector accommodates the highest share of non-standard, even hazardous property conditions of tenures in the UK, including obsolete white goods, furnishings, and décor, participants required a fairer deal between property conditions and rent levels (e.g. automatic rent discounts for periods of unaddressed repairs based on legally approved tables). More generally participants wanted to be consulted and have some control in decisions affecting their domestic space, whether regarding property management, repairs, item replacement, redecoration, bringing personal furniture items, inviting a guest or having a pet. Users’ control over the domestic space is crucial to homemaking.

Importantly, participants specifically demanded detailed legal regulations related to all these aspects (e.g. rent level, property standards, discounts for disrepair, licensing) as a way to encourage landlord compliance, strengthen tenant power to guard their rights, and induce cultural change (legal support with disputes was also required).

As no housing sector functions in isolation, participants reflected beyond the private rented sector. They asked the government to support the delivery of affordable housing (social housing, homeownership but also cooperatives, land trusts); tackle the asset-economy (property taxes paid by landlords not tenants; stabilising house prices to reduce speculation); and strengthen the welfare system, including pensions as a way to make renting a sustainable lifetime option.

To conclude, participants acknowledged that reforming the private rented sector in the way described above, would have massive consequences, which they would welcome. If some landlords exit the sector, the houses remain, possibly transferred to more home-friendly tenures or landlords. With Tom Slater and others, and my participants, I believe we must address housing injustice by giving due credit to the knowledge and demands of those excluded from adequate housing. This is, after all, the thrust of true democracy.

Dr Adriana Mihaela Soaita is a Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow and a Researcher for the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence.

Views expressed by authors may not represent the views of CaCHE.

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