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Restricting private property rentals: should the government follow Berlin’s lead?

Homelessness is on the rise. We know it, the government knows it, yet still a solution has not been found to combat the crisis in England. At the beginning of the year a Shelter analysis, using the 2016 Statistics released by the government, showed a 33% rise in people accepted as homeless by local councils since 2010. The leading cause of homelessness in 2015 was the loss of a tenancy, which included 17,000 households who were given emergency accommodation by their council following evictions from privately rented homes. Alarmingly there exists no evidence that these figures will be declining anytime soon.

Over the last decade in England the number of people recognised as homeless has been steadily growing. Waste management firm Biffa recently confirmed that their operatives had found 175 homeless people in their commercial bins this year, up from 93 last year. Things are clearly bleak if people are seeking safety or warmth in bins.

One of the reasons for the growth in homelessness is the higher rents people have been forced to pay. But with benefits capped or cut, many areas of the country are now completely unaffordable.

So if high rents are a big part of the problem, could the solution be found in Germany?

Berlin recently passed legislation which means private property owners will no longer be able to rent out entire properties to tourists, through websites like Airbnb, Wimdu and 9Flats in the city centre. The aim is to keep housing both affordable and accessible for local people who cannot keep up with the 56% rise in rental prices that Berlin has faced over the last 6 years. Andreas Geisel, Berlin’s head of urban development described the law as “a necessary and sensible instrument against the housing shortage in Berlin … I am absolutely determined to return such misappropriated apartments to the people of Berlin”.

As can be expected, the law was met with mixed reviews by the people of Berlin. Some have hailed it as a long overdue step towards helping those struggling with attaining and keeping housing whilst others have expressed their fury, feeling that they are being forced to pay for the government’s failing housing policies to date. It is certainly a strong intervention by the authorities however to dampen down demand to address the rising rents. Given England (and particularly the South East) has the same problem with skyrocketing rents, should we consider the same action?

This has to be a question that will be on the mind of new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, as it is one of the most pressing problems in London. He has to find a solution to the housing crisis that will make homes affordable and reverse the trend for rising street homelessness.

Current public opinion across the country regarding those that find themselves homeless is divided to say the least. Whilst there are some who wouldn’t hesitate to put their hand in their pocket in search of some spare change for their fellow man, there are also those that see the homeless as people to be abused or assaulted. Statistics from Crisis show street homeless people are 13 times more likely to be victims of violence than the average person. But even without that extreme, there are many who would criticise those who give money to the homeless, saying that such generosity will only fuel the alcohol and drug misuse of the individual.

In Nottingham a recent advertising campaign by the local council to deter people from giving to the homeless saw slogans such as “Begging funds the misuse of drugs” and “Begging: Watch your money go up in smoke” printed on posters placed upon bins and bus stops around the city. Whilst this may have initially appeared as effective advertising by the Nottingham council to cut down on substance abuse by those who find themselves on the street, it comes across as a rather harsh attempt to fuel the divide between society and the homeless. Similar posters have appeared in Greenwich in east London whilst Northampton recently suggested that homelessness is a ‘lifestyle choice’.

How we view homelessness and what we consider the cause of it to be, will invariably inform how we treat the homeless and how strongly we seek to tackle the problem. We do not think that someone would choose to sleep in a bin, but if the alternative is a cold, hard pavement where you might be kicked or shouted at we can see how it might be the favoured option. Our sense of humanity should mean that we look for empathy rather than judgment against those who fall into such circumstances. We should find it somewhat disturbing that someone should provide official guidance that scolds people for giving to the homeless by suggesting it will always go to pay for a drink or drug problem, particularly when there appears to be a lack of action to resolve the underlying housing crisis that is fueling homelessness.

Berlin and London have the same problem. Rising rents making both cities unaffordable for many. But whilst Berlin is taking steps to try and keep housing for its settled population by imposing regulations to stop whole properties being rented out on short lets, London has relaxed planning permission rules so that property owners can cash in on higher rents from such lettings. Whilst Berlin has sought to prioritise the needs of tenants who live in their homes, London has prioritised the profits of property owners so those properties are ‘a base’ for holidays rather than homes for people to live in.

Written by Caroline Brosnan and Kristian Campbell-Drummond