Systems thinking for the PRSMake Text Bigger
An article written in ire is not usually a good thing generally but my ire this time has been growing for some time and based on sound and constructive principles that I think many P118 readers, especially those who know me, would share.
An article in the Daily Mail published in 2008 reported on a Merseyside based Estate Agent, Sutton Estates, who started putting up boards on houses of people owing rent, saying “Rent dodger lives here”. What made me even angrier was a tweet that went out this weekend from an industry professional urging everyone to read it because it was ‘Very funny’.
Let me get the legal stuff out the way first. It is a criminal offence under section 40 of the Administration of Justices Act 1970 to publicise or otherwise humiliate or cause distress to another in the pursuit of any monies claimed to be owing. If Sutton Estates were in my area I would have had an ex-parte injunction slapped on them by 4pm the day the complaint came in, dunno what the Merseyside TROs were doing at the time.
But soft. This article isn’t actually about the Daily Mail or even section 40 of the AJA. In fact it is about my on-going perplexity about why landlords and tenants don’t seem to like each other very much and what can be done about it.
I wrote an article in last week’s Guardian Housing network on how insurance companies and mortgage lenders seem to be prejudiced against tenants, titled “The industry that doesn’t like its customers” and slightly flippantly mentioned at the end that I thought it was time to start a tenants’ union. I was inundated with emails afterwards from tenants not only thinking it was a good idea but also from a few people who have already started them in their area. Some were urging me to get one started.
However, I have concerns about doing so because for so many people the word union is always uttered in the same breath as ‘Strike’ and I wouldn’t like to be pushed into being a poster boy for a campaign that promoted such things from the off. In fact I wouldn’t want to be a figurehead for tenants who might want to use a union for landlord bashing, period.
Now before anyone says ‘Yay, well done Ben, the landlord’s TRO’, bear in mind that I am equally appalled by comments I read on sites where landlords hang out, where similar disdain is sometimes expressed about tenants, on LHA or otherwise. Dismissive, scathing and sarcastic in tone. That also is not where my allegiances lie.
In fact, I’m a holistic kinda guy, and before any of you trot out the hippy-dippy remarks (I’ve done it myself in the past…) bear in mind that the very words ‘Holistic’ and ‘Holism’ were coined by Jan Smuts, the president of South Africa in the early 1900s. Hardly a man given to ‘Native American dream catchers or Hopi ear candles’ – his regime supported a movement of furious racism that took most of the century to overturn.
What he rather astutely did however was identify the fact that any system that didn’t recognise itself as such – ‘a system’ – wouldn’t work very well until it could grasp that all parts within it work like a hologram, with each dependant on each other to create the whole system…..hence the name.
The PRS is no exception. It’s a system with all parts interdependent on the other. This includes not only the obvious landlords and tenants, but the insurance companies, the mortgage lenders, the law, central government, local government, accreditation bodies, tax regulations, courts, tenant referencing services, un-returned deposits and on and on.
Like all systems you can’t tweak one bit of it without causing ripples elsewhere. So to my mind it makes no sense for the different components to be at war with each other. Landlords may express annoyance with tenants but without them, they wouldn’t exist. Similarly while tenants demonise all landlords as a species nothing will ever change.
With everything simply adversarial, as it is at the moment, nothing can develop. The PRS consists of fragmented groups pushing for their own self-interests, independently of each other.
This set me thinking that what is needed isn’t a tenants union but a PRS lobbying group. Not like ARLA, NALS etc which simply promote the interest of landlords and agents, or Shelter, who seem to just promote the interests of tenants in isolation to the whole picture.
A union of people who recognise that they are all in it together. Why would I, as a tenant not support my landlord’s attempts to have tax breaks put in place and be treated as if they run a business, when this helps reduce their outgoings which should drive down my rent?
Why would landlords not back tenants campaigns to change the godawfully daft system of LHA payments, which landlords and tenants universally hate, or benefit cuts when it ultimately impacts on their income?
Why not have landlords and tenants join forces to lobby government to put pressure on mortgage lenders to allow for longer tenancy periods?
Why can’t tenants and landlords gang together to push for changes to insurance rules that are currently punitive towards people on benefits and people with minor criminal convictions? Both sides are affected by the restrictions. New procedures could be put in place by building in safe-guards with council housing benefit regulations, (which can be changed) which are also part of the Holism but are forced into an ‘Us and them’ system by government regulations imposed on them.
I’m not naïve or airy-fairy in my beliefs, in fact after 22 years of listening to lies from both sides, getting caught up in all sorts of nonsense, being threatened, sworn at and abused by tenants and landlords alike on a daily basis and, working as a trainer since 1998, traveling the length and breadth of the UK listening to the moans, beefs and gripes of other housing people I am probably the least naïve of anyone reading this article, and yet I sincerely believe that a more efficient way of working is a distinct possibility.
All of the niggling problems that trouble the PRS are better tackled by landlords and tenants, councils and courts working together. It wouldn’t be an easy ride and I’m sure it will always be a dysfunctional family to a large extent but even dysfunctional families have their own internal logic that makes them work.
We are only talking about self-created systems here, not the natural order. We create these systems and we are free to break them up and re-create them in ways that better serves the community.
It’s a long, tortuous and admittedly rocky road but it can’t start without first breaking the pattern of landlord-hating tenants and tenant-hating landlords. Then we need to see that our individual interests are best served by our communal interests. When we do that the focus of change goes somewhere else, we start to see the PRS as a system, not merely individual, isolated components within it.
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