British housing is a dangerous mess. But people are organising to protect themselves – like they always have.
In 1915 in Govan, just south of the river Clyde in Glasgow, bands of women torpedoed flour bombs at creeping eviction enforcers from the towering windows of their tenements. Exasperated by increasingly predacious landlords and the rising rate of evictions for those that couldn’t make their rent, and armed with a sound understanding of the sticky power of flour in the UK’s rainiest city, the women organised. A carefully coordinated eight month rent strike followed, and working class women paved the way for the Rent Restrictions Act 1915, Britain’s first form of rent control.
Such regulation of private landlords survived throughout the majority of the 20th century, and maintained a delicate balance of power between them and renters. The costs facing private tenants grew roughly in line with those of buyers. Rents, on the whole, were affordable. Margaret Thatcher soon sorted this, however, when in 1988 she introduced the Housing Act which deregulated the private rental sector and effectively killed off rent control in the UK.
Thanks also to financial deregulation and easy credit, houses became not only homes but huge money-makers for those with spare cash. A long term increase in house prices ensued and since 1998 houses prices have leapt from five to ten times average earnings. The UK is struggling to deal with the consequences, as the bloated profits of private landlords have propped up the slow growth of an otherwise hollow economy, and the scores of renters helping pay off those landlord’s cheaply credited mortgages have lost out. Much of the rhetoric from politicians still fits within an aspirational homeowner narrative, where voters are told their ultimate goal should be to transcend the renter’s quagmire through hard work and home ownership. But with house prices rising out of reach and with wages stagnant, the old idea of progression from renter-to-buyer is fading on the horizon, crowded out by the yachts of speculative investors and buy-to-let landlords. A coalition of London-based housing groups have been working out how best to protect tenants in this new permanent rental paradigm.
The Renter’s Power Project (RPP) came together in 2016 to think about how to develop a sense of collective identity for renters: as a basis for organising, as a platform for developing bargaining power, as a means to winning increased legal protection for renters and, ultimately, as a way to transform the housing market. Constituted by an ecology of members working at various levels of housing and community campaigning, from national government lobbyists to local eviction resistance groups, the aim is to help renters realise their own collective power.
Beth Stratford is a housing activist and RPP steering group member. “Slowly people are realising that whether you inherit enough wealth to buy a house or not is now a major faultline that determines your life opportunities,” she said. “I guess that’s the basis upon which this identity can start to be built.”
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Steering group members include representatives from groups already organising around housing, including Generation Rent, the Radical Housing Network, Take Back The City and Digs (Hackney Renters). The ambition is to become a recognised force at various levels of governance in a similar manner to any other union, protecting existing tenant’s rights and striving to gain new ones.
“Rents are too high, tenancies too short, evictions too easy, and disrepair too common – everyone knows this,” said Stratford. “We think it is time to come together, to be more than the sum of our parts, and give people a better sense of their common identity and collective power than is possible when groups work separately in different boroughs.”
The renter’s crises is felt hardest in London. A 2015 report by the New Policy Institute showed that despite the capital earning the highest national wage average, once the similarly high costs of housing were factored into average household expenditure, over a quarter of London households lived in poverty.
While landlords already have formal representation through the Residential Landlord’s Association and the National Landlords Association, the RRP soon identified the lack of a mass, democratic organising union working on behalf of renters as a major hindrance to progress. In January this year, the group invited over 50 organisations to come together and discuss the proposal of a London Renter’s Union.
“In London the situation is so acute – with renters spending on average two thirds of their income on rent, and exploitation so blatant – that we’re at breaking point,” said Stratford. “But with renters in such high number, this is really fertile ground for organisation and action.”
The lived experiences of the housing crisis are multiple and spread over social demographics, as made painfully clear this week in the Grenfell disaster. At the privileged end, there are postgraduate degree-bearing millennials earning a wage but merely treading water, with Londoners spending the majority of their income on rent despite growing up under the tacit promise of reproducing their parent’s twenties with a job and an affordable mortgage. Those less fortunate are forced to live in dangerously unsafe conditions, as Grenfell tenants found when their concerns were answered with threats of legal action. With a captive market of renters who can neither access the shrinking pool of social housing nor the lowest rung of the housing ladder, landlords and letting agents don’t need to worry about filling their properties. If one set of tenants complain about damp or a dodgy boiler, there’s a ready pool of other renters to swap in.
Strangling rents mean more people face being kicked out their homes than ever before. The 170,451 evictions from both private and social housing in England and Wales in 2013 marked a 26% increase from 2010. One outcome is that there are still those experiencing abject homelessness, with recent figures from Shelter suggesting that in 2016 there were more than 250,000 people living on the streets in England – and numbers rising in London, Birmingham, Brighton and Luton.
Though the January meeting’s feedback on the London Renter’s Union was positive, the nature of the contemporary housing crisis brings with it new problems in organising. Whereas the 1915 rent controls won in Glasgow were carried out by activists with deep geographic roots that served as fertile ground for community organising, many renters today are forcibly transient, moved on before any physical community can be built to organise around.
“There are parallels between the challenges of organising renters, who don’t share the same landlord, and the challenges of organising workers who are dispersed and don’t meet day to day in a workplace,” said Stratford. “Easily replaceable tenants are like easily replaceable zero-hours workers – they have little bargaining power in direct negotiations with landlords. Which is why it often feels more fruitful to put pressure on those in power to change the rules of the game.”
There have been widely reported student rent strikes in recent years, with students at University College London winning a rent freeze last year after a five month dispute with the institution. But Stratford points out that most renters aren’t in the position to withhold their rent without fear of eviction. “So what we need to do it put pressure on politicians to change things: on councils, on the mayor, on the assembly and on the national government.”
The UK is “uniquely screwed over”, Stratford said, through the persistence of no-fault evictions and unlimited rent hikes. And there is precedent elsewhere for the importance of renter’s organising. In other European countries rents are mostly controlled, often in reference to local wages or inflation, and landlords can only evict their tenants in limited circumstances, such as broken terms in a lease.
Research by the Institute for Public Policy Research has said that such checks are kept in balance in Germany – where the average tenancy is 11 years, compared to only two and half in England – by the existence of both a national tenant’s association and a number of city-wide unions. Similar renter’s unions exist in other European countries, including the Netherlands and Sweden, as well as further afield in New York.
A recent UK government Housing White Paper acknowledged that the UK housing system is “broken” and that rents need “to be fairer”. But aside from bringing legislation forward to ban letting agent fees for tenants, almost all of the proposed solutions are weighted towards increasing the affordability for buying new homes – not for renting them.
One irony of all this is that a whole block of renter’s housing crisis is a single landlord’s fortune. But inspired by the 25,000 households that came together in Glasgow over 100 years ago to resist landlord’s unearned profits, the London Renter’s Union believes collective organising can rebalance the terrain. And amid post-Brexit anxiety over the future of the British economy, finding the digital age equivalent of 1915 flour power will be essential to countering the unmitigated growth imperative. Because those making the money don’t want to change a thing.
The London Renters Union would love to hear from anyone interested in helping to get the union off the ground. They also have a live crowdfunder, and will shortly be advertising for a paid Project Coordinator.
Get in touch on [email protected] or find out more at LondonRentersUnion.org.