Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system

Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

July 17, 2017 · 7 min read

Our national obsession with home ownership is absolute. It’s so entrenched that we accept, without question, that those who own their home should enjoy a greater access to democracy.

This dates back to the nineteenth century, when voting rights were tied to home ownership. Continuing the tradition, Margaret Thatcher scored her most popular policy hit with right-to-buy. Allowing council tenants to buy their properties for heavily discounted prices and decimating social housing levels in the process, she forged unwavering support for a ‘property-owning democracy’.

But in a property-owning democracy, what happens to the rest of us not lucky enough to own our home? In the wake of the entirely preventable fire at Grenfell Tower, this question demands an answer.

Grenfell Tower was home to both social and private renters who lived side by side as neighbours. They knew their building was dangerously unsafe, as the Grenfell Action Group infamously stated before the fire.

How could it be that a management company (the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation) whose stated objective was to “keep residents and customers at the centre of everything we do” have ignored its inhabitants and treated them such contempt?

Ours is a society that treats its renters – both social and private – as second class citizens. The fact is, successive governments have carried on as if people who rent simply do not matter.

In the 2016 Housing and Planning Act, the Conservative government were questioned over what impact scrapping lifetime tenancies would have on people living in social housing. The mantra they repeated ad infinitum was that they were enabling people to ‘get on the housing ladder’, allowing them to ‘fulfil their aspirations of home ownership’.

What about the rest of us, the renters without the cash to take advantage of policies like help-to-buy or starter homes?

Regulations torn up

Recent political decisions are revealing on how the government regard those who rent. In 2012 the coalition government decided that fire prevention measures in the London Building Act placed ‘onerous’ requirements on construction companies that would cost them money. Rather than insist companies spend the money required to ensure safety standards were met, the government scrapped them.

In 2016, the Conservative government decided that a bill calling for homes in the private rented sector to be fit for human habitation would be a ‘a huge burden on landlords’. Several of the MPs who voted against this bill are themselves private landlords. One such MP landlord Philip Davies said ‘as if [landlords] have nothing else to do but wade through legislation’.

Grenfell is the result of a broken housing system, where safety regulations are torn up to increase commercial profit and rampant privatisation has moved those who control our homes further and further from the reach of public accountability or judicial oversight.

We can have little faith that a chastened government will work to put right what has gone so terribly wrong. Whilst the remains of the Tower were still smouldering, there were signs that residents and survivors were being dismissed and the public inquiry launched to investigate the fire was shaping up to be a whitewash.

If Grenfell is going to mark a turning point in how we’re housed, the impetus won’t come from politicians. It needs to come from us.

Scrap the housing ladder

Firstly, we must vocally reject the belief in a property-owning democracy.

The truth is, even under the massive reductions made available through right-to-buy, it was still only better off renters who took advantage of the scheme and bought their home. Many people still simply couldn’t afford to.

When we support the concept of a property-owning democracy, we support the belief in a housing ladder, where some people ascend and some remain languishing, unable to snatch hold of the bottom rung, ignored or denigrated for a lack of middle-class aspiration. We support politicians who paint council estates as hot beds of social failure. Cue the sound of wrecking balls demolishing our social housing and the ‘ka-ching’ of dollar signs rolling in developers’ eyes.

When it comes to housing, we’re encouraged to indulge a selfishness that would be reviled should it be exhibited in relation to other basic human needs, like food and healthcare. Selfishness in the sphere of housing isn’t only socially acceptable, it’s socially revered, and treated as basic common sense, whether this means considering the housing crisis only in terms of your own prospects to get on the housing ladder, or charging a rent for your poky London flat that deep down you know is inflated and ridiculous, just because you can – because you’d be a fool not to, right?

We mustn’t accept housing policies that ignore working class communities, or the vague conviction that we can simply build our way out of the housing crisis. Build what, and for who? Only a properly regulated rental sector and a new generation of public housing will solve this crisis for the millions of people who are suffering.

Creative tactics

Secondly, those of us who rent – from social and private landlords – need to turn ourselves into a formidable political force that governments can no longer ignore.

How do we do this? Speak to our neighbours. Join local groups. Agree demands. Get organised.

The political mood is shifting and this weakened government is particularly susceptible to demands from organised people. But we need to be in this for the long haul. For decades, housing policy has been dictated by politicians who have aligned their interests with companies and individuals profiting from a privatised, de-regulated housing system.

We’re up against a serious nexus of organised money that has the ability to sit it out until the political storm clouds pass. So the groups and structures we build to demand affordable, safe housing must be sustainable.

This means taking care of one another. The fight for better housing is going to be long and at times exhausting. Our power lies partly in our ability to organise ourselves through lasting, supportive relationships that can’t easily be broken.

We also need fresh ideas. We can’t simply mass-march our way to housing justice. We need creative tactics that shame and ridicule the companies and institutions responsible for the housing crisis.

Lastly, renters need new ways of organising themselves. Landlords have built powerful mass membership organisations to fiercely protect their interests. Renters need to do the same.

Governments have proved themselves unable and unwilling to fix the housing crisis. So now we must follow the example of places like Germany, Seattle and Sweden where well-established tenants’ unions have taken on landlords and won.

The lack of unionisation among tenants in London is one of the reasons we pay the highest rent in Europe in return for the worst rights.

The Renters Power Project is a coalition of groups and individuals involved in housing, community and social justice. We’re working to build a powerful member-led renters union that will force landlords, developers and governments to listen and meet our demands.

Over the next few months we’ll be learning about what’s worked elsewhere, reaching out to existing groups and training renters to become effective leaders and organisers. We plan to launch our first local branch in East London later this year.

It’s a widely accepted truth that people in London lead lives of alienation from those around them. But the Grenfell fire showed something very different: a community standing up for one another in the wake of a nightmare, and beyond this, an intense collective anger that our fellow human beings could be treated so appallingly. If we can organise ourselves effectively, this solidarity and collective demand for justice can turn the tide on our broken housing system.

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