It just keeps getting worse for the poor souls living in high-rise social housing in London. It’s now being reported that 27 high rise blocks in 15 council areas in the UK have failed fire safety tests.
This news comes after Camden Council told people in four high-rise buildings they would have to move out immediately whilst urgent safety work is carried out – which they said will take three to four weeks to complete. Yeah, right. As one frustrated resident concluded, no doubt from experience, “If the council says four to six weeks it’ll take four to six months.”
The tragedy of social housing is now becoming a farce for many Londoners. Good job we put the government in charge of housing poor people, huh? I’ll tell you this for nothing, I’m thanking my lucky stars that I don’t live in social housing.
The Government is a lousy landlord
One difference between having the government as your landlord and a private entity as your landlord is the latter couldn’t force you to vacate with only a few hours’ notice. Another difference is, in their tenancy agreements, councils afford themselves the liberty to increase your rent at a month’s notice. This isn’t something you’ll see in private tenancy agreements. Why? Because few would sign such a contract and thus landlords insisting on such terms wouldn’t find tenants easily or at all.
Government landlords have powers that private landlords do not, which enable them to treat people like shit. Case in point: local councils forcing hundreds of people to leave their homes at a moment’s notice and to live out of suitcases for at least a month just so they can legally cover their own backsides, remedy their own mistakes in a way that’s most convenient for them, and make themselves look good in the media.
Such hubris, impudence and lack of humility isn’t surprising from people with governmental power over their fellow man. Which almost always warps people’s sense of decency and perverts their incentives.
Who decides determines the wisdom of what is decided
It’s been reported that the cladding on the facade of Grenfell Tower was more environmentally ‘sustainable’ than other kinds, but the trade-off of this was it was less fire resistant. Over the past decade or so it seems many councils in the UK decided sustainability was of primary importance when it came to refurbishing high rise social housing. No doubt this was induced by a central government push.
There are two possibilities here. Either government landlords across the UK knowingly made this compromise on the safety of their tenants or they weren’t aware they were making it. Either way isn’t good, but the latter would be less appalling and dispiriting than the thought of people in positions of power in local government consciously deciding to gamble on the safety of real people in their trust in order to save humanity from an imaginary climate catastrophe in the future.
That would be a disturbing demonstration of the power of a bad idea, one which lures people into believing the choice is between some human suffering now or a greater amount in the future, to make good people behave in bad ways.
What local governors like Georgia Gould, the Camden Council chief, need to do now is show some humility and question what they assume to be true about the council’s role in society and what they assume to be true about government action itself. Why were the council’s interests so far misaligned with the interests of their tenants? Are poor people genuinely better off with local government officials as their landlord, who can have all manner of motivations except profit-seeking, rather than private actors motivated by little else but profit? (which in the private sector can only come by pleasing tenants).
Judging by some of the media’s and the public’s reaction to Grenfell, some people are concluding that the root cause of the tragedy was the character of the individuals within the council and the tenant management organisation. Thus innocent people died because these individuals were selfish Tories, who have no compassion for poor people and didn’t care about the safety of Grenfell residents.
It’s not impossible this was the case, but it’s highly unlikely. Experience tells us that, regardless of their political leanings, almost all people are generally good and don’t wish to do harm to or see harm come to others. The selfish Tory theory is a borderline conspiracy theory.
The root of the problem wasn’t the moral character or the intelligence of the individuals involved, it was the misalignment of the interests of the council-appointed TMO and the tenants. The problem was that the individuals at the TMO had more incentive to satisfy the needs of the local councillors, who were the ones deciding who should manage the property, rather than satisfy the needs of the tenants.
Which meant it was more beneficial to the members of the TMO to do what the local councillors wanted, who were people who would not suffer the consequences of their own decisions regarding Grenfell Tower’s refurbishment, rather than to do what the tenants wanted – as expressed through the Tenants’ Action Group.
In the private sector there is always a better alignment between the interests of tenants and landlords than there is between them in the realm of public housing. If a private tenant is consistently dissatisfied with his private landlord’s conduct, then eventually he’ll draw the line and exit his tenancy agreement. The landlord suffers the consequences of his own bad behaviour.
He then has to spend time and money looking for a new tenant. Or else his agent has to find him a new tenant, in which case that means another payment to the agent. The desire to avoid losses and incur these costs is what motivates landlords, however much they might resent doing so, to keep tenants happy. That’s the key. They don’t have to be especially kind and considerate people. They don’t even have to like their tenants, personally. They just have to be self-interested, which is human nature, and able to realise that what’s good for their tenants is also good for them.
What happens if a tenant of a council house ends his tenancy? Who loses out? No one. The council workers acting as the landlord don’t suffer any losses or incur any costs. They still get paid at the end of the month, regardless. They just sit back and wait for the next tenant to arrive.
Who cares if the last lot were pissed off? Another tenant will arrive in days. It’s a revolving door. This is why government landlords have less motivation to please tenants than private landlords do and thus why renters are invariably better off in the hands of private landlords. Worse still, if a council worker develops a disliking for a particular tenant, then they can deliberately ignore or delay responding to their request or complaints without themselves suffering any negative consequences for doing so. A government landlord can abuse its power much more than a private landlord can because its tenants are usually people who can’t afford to leave.
There are exceptions, of course. Sometimes private landlords behave worse than government landlords. But even the very worst ones could never cause anywhere near as much human suffering as the worst performing government landlords. Any single government landlord will usually have far more tenants than any single private one. Thus a government landlord has far more potential to negatively affect a much greater of people’s lives than a private landlord has.
Real heroes and faux compassion
The Grenfell Tower tragedy reminded us who society’s real heroes are. Firemen, paramedics, nurses and doctors. The residents who knocked on the doors of other residents and warned them to get out. Passers-by who told residents to get out and who caught children dropped from windows.
It also showed us who the villains are: politicians. Masters of the public who believe themselves to be servants of the public. The only part they played was to concentrate decision-making power over the safety of thousands of tenants into the hands of individuals in the employ of local councils who would themselves never pay the price for being wrong.
The Grenfell tragedy also illustrated the difference between real compassion, of the type shown by the many people who dedicated their time or money to ease the suffering of those rendered homeless, and fake compassion, of the kind shown by politicians.
Armed with money acquired through extortion (taxation), politicians flamboyantly handed it to and bought luxury flats for people left homeless by the fire and then claimed for themselves the credit for benefiting them. They signalled their virtue by tweeting how outraged and sad they were and won applause for everything they said the government should be doing for the poor.
Social housing is a flawed means to a noble end
The root cause of poor treatment of tenants and poor building management by government landlords across the UK is the misalignment or lack of harmony between the interests of social housing tenants and government landlords. But what most people don’t yet grasp is that this is an inherent flaw of the practice of social housing.
Thus the problem can’t be solved with any number of government enquiries, committees or promises to do better. It can’t be solved with more government funding or more legislation or by hiring new decision-makers. It can’t be solved by a new government led by a man who says helping the poor is his passion.
For as long as we practice social housing, the poorest and most needy people in society will be treated with little dignity or respect and they will experience a lower standard of living than they otherwise would under private landlords. To genuinely improve the lives of the poorest tenants we must get the government out of the way so free market society can provide superior solutions.