The grim reality of London's private renting crisis was graphically exposed to the wider world this June when in Islington we banned a tiny 'shoebox' flat from being rented out. In the widely-shared photo from the letting agent's site, you could see the bed blocking the cupboard doors under the hob; the fact it was snapped up, in less than a day, for £737 a month was a cruel expression of the desperation so many tenants face.
Yet this flat was far from an anomaly. As reported in the press this week, we have uncovered another 19 tiny flats packed into a former hostel on Islington's Holloway Road. In many of them, the landlord has squeezed shower pods into single bed/living rooms and let them to people facing homelessness. We have put orders on these 'flats' that prevent them from being rented out again at their current size, and a council officer is offering tenants help they need to move. We want to make clear it's not right for anyone to be crammed into flats that small.
And it's not hard to see how we've got here. A combination of tenants' desperation to find somewhere to live, and regulation that isn't up to scratch, leaves many open to exploitation. Tenants are desperate as the unaffordability of homeownership and the shortage of social housing leaves private renting the only option for more than a quarter of Londoners - almost double the figure at the turn of the century. With this being the long-term reality for so many individuals and families, we need national change to reform private renting - and in Islington we are showing how councils can make a difference too.
We picked up the 19 tiny flats on Holloway Road through door-by-door inspections of privately rented properties that began following the council elections in May. When flats like these 19 are found, we can take immediate action - and they provide evidence as we look at introducing wider licensing of private sector properties. Licensing requires landlords to manage their properties properly, to make sure homes are decent and safe, and to treat tenants fairly. If they fail to comply, they could ultimately be prosecuted.
Meanwhile, we are setting out detailed proposals next month to use our council-run lettings agency to start controlling private rents in Islington. The council has the infrastructure in place to manage properties, collect rents, and process benefits. With these advantages, we will be able to guarantee landlords their rental income in exchange for them offering properties below market rent.
In setting out to make a difference locally, however, our limits quickly become apparent; it's clear we need national change. The powers to introduce licensing of private sector properties are at the moment cumbersome and potentially open to legal challenge. Councils are well-positioned to protect tenants locally - we could make much more of a difference with firmer powers over landlords.
Likewise, as we bid to control private rents through our council-run lettings agency, we need new national legislation to end the exceptionally poor protection for private tenants in Britain. In other European countries and even many U.S. cities, limits on rent levels and their increases, as well as the right to longer tenancies, are commonplace - they are desperately needed here to make private renting fit for purpose.
Labour's proposals for three-year tenancies and limits on rent rises are a significant move in this direction. They represent a national baseline of rights - which could be taken further, perhaps by empowered local councils or the Mayor of London. Although the current Mayor is allergic to any change that he would claim 'interferes' with the market, a future Mayor might use new powers to impose tougher limits on rent rises. A mayoral candidate might even call for a rent freeze during tough times, as New York's Mayor Bill de Blasio did during his campaign for office.
We know that improving London's private rented sector will be a tough challenge, and so all levels of government should play their part. National government should introduce basic rights for tenants over rent rises and length of tenancies, the Mayor could be empowered to go further in limiting London's exceptionally dysfunctional market, and the powers of councils like mine could be strengthened to protect tenants from exploitation.
A new private rented sector won't be created overnight and no solution will be perfect. But a worsening of the housing crisis doesn't have to be inevitable; with radical action from government at all levels we can take it on and make a difference.