No, falling behind with your rent isn’t the same as stealing from a supermarket.

Landlords, stop saying that it is.

As the country faces a second wave of Covid, and an economic crisis seems inevitable, the attention of Britain’s buy-to-let landlords turns inevitably to one of their abiding obsessions: their inalienable right to kick people out of their homes as easily as possible. To this end there is a petition to Parliament demanding the ability to evict renters once they have fallen as little as 14 days into arrears:

Let’s be clear, automatic eviction after 14 days (which seems to be the aim) is bizarre. There’s a public health crisis and a clear public benefit in keeping people in their homes wherever possible. People are facing wholly unprecedented and unexpected financial problems: lots of renters are falling into arrears because they’re changing jobs, or making a claim for Universal Credit, and 14 days doesn’t give them time to get back on their feet. Making them all fear homelessness (and inevitably becoming a burden on the taxpayer) is an exercise in heartlessness which only someone with a massively overdeveloped sense of entitlement could think proper.

Fortunately, even some landlords think the whole idea is batshit:

But it is not the obvious unfairness of this that I want to focus on, nor the apparent absence of any kind of basic PR skills on the part of its promoters: it is the idea that falling into rent arrears is the same as stealing from a supermarket. You wouldn’t go into Tesco and steal a tin of beans, the argument goes, and taking property from your landlord is the same. It is an argument commonly made in the comments on landlord websites and elsewhere.

There is a problem with this argument: it’s bollocks. The analogy fails in its own terms. I don’t have to agree to do all my shopping at Tesco for six or twelve months in advance, to pay for a month’s shopping in advance, and to take delivery of my shopping whether I want it or not. And if I were stupid enough to enter into such an arrangement with them, I wouldn’t be guilty of stealing my shopping, I’d have a civil debt with them like any other.

It is no different from falling into difficulty with my mobile phone or electricity bill: not without consequences some of which may be imposed on me by the courts and may not be pleasant. We don’t have debtors’ prisons any more; we don’t criminalise poverty or falling into financial difficulty or just plain bad luck. Landlords are alone in wanting the criminal justice system to act as their unpaid and state-sponsored heavies.

But there is a deeper difference, too. Supermarkets operate in a highly competitive market economy. If the price of beans in Tesco is more than I want to pay, or the staff in Sainsbury’s are rude to me, I can take my business elsewhere. I’m a consumer, and my choice to spend my money (along with millions of others) is what keeps the show on the road. People who run proper businesses recognise this: consumers have power. Household names have disappeared from the high street and businesspeople who disrespect their customers or their own product do so at their peril.

No such market pressure exerts itself upon Britain’s landlords. It is a mark of the failure of our housing market that landlords do not recognise renters as customers with consumer rights and power: the housing shortage means that there will always be another potential renter. It is difficult to imagine the owner of a business subject to normal consumer pressure expressing a desire to drain all his customers of blood, even metaphorically:

Normal market forces, of course, set prices at a level that’s acceptable to both sides, a business which set out with such a desire would swiftly fail as its competitors undercut it.

Similarly, Gerald Ratner crashed and burned after comparing his jewellery products to a Marks and Spencer sandwich, but at least he didn’t describe his customers as dirtier than dogs:

…nor suggest that your customers are lazy and self-entitled and should get off their backsides and do some work (you might see an issue with this comment coming from a landlord, I couldn’t possibly comment):

The fact of the matter is that market forces enable consumers to keep companies in line. Businesses that misbehave, whether by exploiting customers through high prices or by taking them for granted with poor service, will be outcompeted. The dead hand of the market has real effect.

The Private Rented Sector is a classic example of market failure: consumers are not protected by market forces. landlords are nothing like supermarkets; and their own attitudes, as well as their actions, demonstrate why firm and effective regulation is necessary.

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