In July last year, radical housing group Housing Solidarity took up the case of three private tenants in east London who found themselves stuck at the centre of a dispute between the landlord of their new flat and the letting agent, Victorstone Property Consultants. The landlord had changed the locks, leaving the would-be tenants without their new home or the £3,451 they’d paid for rent and deposit. While they managed to recover some of the money from the landlord, Victorstone had held on to around £1,200 that it refused to repay. The money was only returned after Housing Solidarity organised scores of people to call, email and fax Victorstone. Within two hours the company had caved in.
This is just one example of new groups using direct action casework, an organising model that had its roots in the unemployed workers movement of the Great Depression, when people organised to demand their basic needs were met by relief offices. Today, the model has been adopted by the London Coalition Against Poverty, whose members Hackney Housing Group and Haringey Solidarity Group’s housing action group have both won victories in cases where families were at risk of homelessness due to eviction by private landlords.
With sky-rocketing rents for what is often poor quality and insecure accommodation, and those on low incomes being hit by no fewer than seven different cuts to housing support, it’s no surprise private tenants are starting to fight back. But historically, private tenants have been notoriously badly organised, lacking the community links and a common and publicly-recognisable landlord.
And the problems of private tenant organising cannot be underestimated. Many private tenants don’t even know who their own landlord is, let alone whether there are any other tenants and if so where and who. Insecurity of tenure exacerbates the problem, as private landlords can easily evict ‘troublesome’ tenants.
Although there have long been a handful of private tenants organisations, the rise in activism has been driven mainly by newer grassroots groups with a younger demographic and new ways of organising, communicating and taking action. Instead of replicating the committee meetings, annual reports, and formal structures of traditional tenants groups, these new groups generally work with more open structures and have much greater propensity to use social media and direct action tactics, often based on individual struggles.
In May, concerned about the impact of housing benefit cuts on private tenants in the borough, the Haringey group organised a public event to bring people together. One of the outcomes was a specific focus on the problems faced by private tenants, inspiring actions such as a ‘community housing inspection’ of local letting agents, which exposed discrimination against housing benefit claimants, inflated fees, insecure tenancies and extortionate rents.
2012 also saw the establishment of the vibrant Edinburgh Private Tenants Action Group. This has already seen success after its targeting of letting agents over tenants’ fees led the Scottish government to clarify that all such fees are illegal in Scotland. Again tailoring action to tackle problems faced by their members, in July the group converged at the offices of DJ Alexander, some of them in TV cop costumes inspired by the Beastie Boys’ ‘Sabotage’ video, and designated it a crime scene due to the illegal fees the agency was charging.
Similar creative tactics were adopted by the Hackney private renters’ group Digs and other housing campaigners, who held an action in December to coincide with the national day of action called by UK Uncut. More than 50 people shut down a branch of Starbucks for an hour to hold a ‘housewarming party’ highlighting the cuts’ impact on access to decent housing.
To date, most of the new groups have worked within existing structures, albeit in novel and often powerful ways, to deliver results. But there are clearly limits to this approach, and demands for reform, including rent controls, increased rights for tenants, such as greater security of tenure, and more stringent requirements of landlords, are already being made.
But for many campaigners there is also recognition that the problems faced by private tenants cannot be tackled in isolation. The private rented sector is an expensive way to house people and delivers the worst outcomes in terms of decency and security, with the exception of temporary accommodation.
So different groups are increasingly working together to call for more and better access to other housing tenures, particularly more social housing. They are situating calls for reform within a wider critique of the current housing system, and rejecting the market as a just or effective means of distributing access to this fundamental human right.
Illustration by Martin Rowson