Not so long ago I knocked on a door in a freezing cold, rain-soaked street in Easton, Bristol. The house had water leaking through an unfinished kitchen ceiling and the floor was rotten.
In Easton 70% of homes are sub-standard – and rents rose almost 20% last year. But five months after I knocked on that door in January 2014, 100 Easton residents launched the first ACORN group in the UK, voting to campaign for renters’ rights, and setting us on course to build a powerful mass organisation for renters. It’s not just the rents that are rising.
Almost 12 million of us are renting. We are young families (now the majority of renters), retirees, young professionals, students, migrants, low waged and service workers. We represent the new working class: anyone who didn’t buy a house decades ago and isn’t wealthy enough to buy one now. We’re 25% of Britain today, and en route to be a majority of under 40s in eight years time. And we’re being screwed.
We pay up to 70% of our income in rent, have mouldy walls and leaking roofs, lose our deposits for no reason and pay hundreds of pounds in agency fees. Sometimes our landlords let themselves into our bedrooms, and blame us for things that happened before we moved in. Increasingly we’re evicted. In fact, five families in England are being made homeless every hour. The rise in evictions ‘coincidentally’ mirrors the rising rents.
From our roots in Easton, our union of renters and others affected by the housing crisis has grown to involve 20,000 members and branches in Birmingham, Bristol, Newcastle, Reading, Sheffield and Weston-super-Mare, with allies organising in Manchester and London, and our sister organisation Living Rent organising in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
With our hybrid digital and face-to-face community organising model, focussing on peer support and collective direct action, our members step up to help each other out of housing problems and they stand together to win repairs, deposits and prevent evictions. What’s more, they’re turning ‘the renters’ into a powerful political constituency which is beginning to flex its muscles.
Take Bristol. Last month, Bristol mayor Marvin Rees – who took office in Bristol as Labour gained an overall majority in Bristol’s local elections last year – faced 100 tenants to update them on their progress toward addressing the city’s spiralling housing crisis.
Saying that tackling housing is the “single most effective policy” to ensure the best start in life, they declared ambitious plans to support community developments, run a council-owned building company and run the biggest social home building programme in the city for 30 years.
The tenants then broke into roundtables to discuss and mandate the city on further solutions. Innovative ideas were put back to the room, from organising with the major UK cities to lock out greedy developers, to short term solutions addressing rough sleeping and pushing for local powers to bring in rent-control.
These quarterly “Big Housing Conversations” – an unusual joint project between a renters’ union and a city council – are a mark of how our members are building a collective voice and putting housing firmly on the agenda.
Every campaign our members take on set the stage for organising growth and taking on bigger issues. We’ll always stand up for individual members (and tenants facing trouble should join our 800-strong Tenant Support Group on Facebook) but why build a voice if you don’t use it?
Over the last three years tenants’ action has prevented an emergency accommodation provider evicting sitting tenants to cream the profits, and extended landlord licensing to new areas.
We’ve even made a multinational bank back down, as tenant protests planned in eight cities pushed Santander to remove a clause in their buy-to-let mortgages requiring landlords raise rents to “the maximum”.
But it’s the positive steps from Bristol City Council – from adopting our renters’ charter into their new ‘rental standard’, to meeting tenants quarterly – that show the potential when tenants get organised and push politics to respond.
Together we are beginning to win on affordable housing. While Bristol’s policy demands 30 to 40% affordable housing (depending on area) in any new development, new developers were typically getting away with less than 10% by using dodgy ‘viability assessments’. Last month, the council forced developers to make the assessments public, and this week – while ACORN began mobilising thousands of members – councillors succeeded in getting a pledge of 100 affordable units out of a developer previously offering none.
Make no mistake, this is still a crisis. Long walks are made of small steps, but we need to push ourselves as hard as possible to leap forward. One in five renters have faced eviction, and the government is spending £3 billion on emergency accommodation. This makes the plan to axe housing benefit for 18 to 21 year olds this month a cruel joke (it will save just £3 million, and put 9,000 at risk of homelessness).
In this context, nothing short of a massive expansion of social housing will solve the problem. We need councils fully funded to enforce the housing laws they have. We need rent controls. And we need affordable homes in new developments. But most of all we need an end to the sell off of social housing, and just a tiny bit of this country’s massive wealth put into the cause of a home for all.
Political will is – as always – built on the back of mass organisation. Join the union today.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace