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.