Gina Davidson: Learning to live with fair rents

Finding an affordable city home remains a big problem. Picture: Jon Savage

Finding an affordable city home remains a big problem. Picture: Jon Savage

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HOUSING is back on the agenda. Now that the referendum is no longer taking up every politicians waking moment, they – and we – can finally move on to thinking about and trying to tackle the problems which affect people’s lives on a daily basis.

The Labour Party conference has been taking place and while the funding of the NHS is at the moment a potential vote winner, it is the issue of housing which will likely be just as, if not more, important as we move towards next year’s General Election.

Already Ed Miliband has said – combining both areas in one – that the NHS will receive a financial boost through a mansion tax which a Labour government would introduce. It’s a policy which is focused on targeting the rich, particularly those in London and the South-east where property prices mean a house costing more than £2 million is commonplace. Finally, it could mean that the rest of the UK will see some benefit from the great black hole of London, which sucks all economic power and money to it’s financial heart.

The main problem with housing, though, is still the lack of affordable accommodation for families.

The Scottish Government has started to tackle the situation by scrapping the right to buy legislation and funding the building of new local authority homes, but supply will take a long time to meet demand. In the meantime the private rented sector is where many people are stuck. Stuck and facing rents which are breathtaking in size.

New research into Edinburgh rents out this week showed that rental costs of flats and houses have hit an all-time high. Property firm DJ Alexander – which rents a lot of family accommodation in places like Carrick Knowe and Clermiston – says typical monthly payments are more than £1000.

The average for a three-bed flat is £1264 a month – up by more than £200 per month since last year. Three-bedroom homes are sitting at £1319 compared to £980 last winter. The hikes are apparently due to demand outstripping supply and rising prices in the buy-to-let sector.

To borrow from a politician’s anecdote handbook, I was speaking to a young mum recently who was telling me about her decision not to return to work after her second child because childcare costs would have sucked up all her wage. Bad enough, but her rent is now almost £1000 a month. She and her partner can’t get a mortgage because his salary isn’t steady month-to-month (he’s in sales), but is enough to ensure they don’t qualify for housing benefit. The fact that they’ve paid so much rent for years, steadily without arrears, cannot be used as proof of their capability to do the same with a mortgage. Ironically a mortgage on the property the rent would see them paying less each month.

So they are among the stuck. They are the kind of hard-working families politicians want to appeal to, but so far no party is suggesting how to get the housing market working properly for them, and others, not just landlords and property speculators.

Massive housing development is on the agenda in Edinburgh – especially to the west of the city and into green belt areas – but there is much concern about the environmental impact of such when there are brownfield sites still available. New, affordable, homes then are unlikely to be a quick fix, so perhaps now is the time that rent controls are put back on the political agenda.

Of course those who believe in the free market will be aghast at such an idea and will claim it leads to a decline in investment – repairs and maintenance included – in the private rental sector. But well managed rent controls can work.

In Germany, for instance, around 60 per cent of people rent and much of political housing policy is directed at them rather than home owners, so property price bubbles are rare. Indeed, housing seems to be seen as a public good rather than a way of making money.

In Germany’s three largest cities landlords cannot charge more than ten per cent of the average rent for comparable housing – so there can be no big hikes in between tenancies making the next family in pay much more for the same place. Rents are not allowed to rise by more than 15 per cent in three years and are controlled by local authorities which gives individual areas the flexibility to deal with their own specific housing problems.

Even in the land of the free there are rent controls. In San Francisco for instance, there are rent boards which ensure rent rises are tied to inflation and that any hikes due to repairs or improvements have to be approved before being passed to the tenant.

Fair rents, living rents, call them what you will, with housing demand remaining far higher than supply, the price of renting is an issue which needs to be faced by all politicians desperate to win the hard-working families’ votes.

We need to get out and active

EARLIER this month, I wrote about Dr Mike Dixon’s fundraising cycle for Breakthrough Breast Cancer, a campaign which focused on how healthy, active lifestyles can reduce women’s chances of developing the disease.

Now new research shows that going up a skirt size between their mid-20s and mid-30s is linked to a 33 per cent increase in risk of developing breast cancer after the menopause.

Women, we need to get active, to raise our pulses, and reduce our risk.

Equality has to be Nic’s focus

NICOLA Sturgeon will likely become leader of the SNP without any challenge.

She has proved herself more than capable, but more importantly she will become the first female First Minister of the Scottish Parliament.

Hopefully she will rise her party’s game in terms of equality with more female candidates come election time and 50 per cent of the cabinet to be women, rather than just 40 per cent.

I TOOK A WRONG TURN

LAST week I had a bit of a blast at the Royal Society of Edinburgh for failing to choose more than two female scientists to commemorate in the new street names around the King’s Buildings. Well, apologies to the illustrious fellows of the Society, my ire should have been directed at Edinburgh University instead.