Why we need renters’ unions

People power can help fix the mess of the housing market, writes Jacob Stringer from London Renters Union

April 25, 2019 · 6 min read
Gary Campbell-Hall

The experience of privately renting a house in the UK is terrible. Not just a little bit bad, but absolutely awful, worse than renting in almost any other rich country. In London it is not uncommon to meet people who have not managed to stay anywhere longer than six months over the course of several years. Renting under the current regime simply doesn’t provide decent, stable housing that one can consider a home. Evictions or terminations at the end of a short contract are endemic. And in London Renters Union the complaint we hear most from renters, before they even complain about the level of the rent, is lack of repairs.  People are scared to complain about the failure of the landlords to do even basic repairs, let alone make the house look nice, because they can be evicted in revenge. Or they give up because after multiple complaints they are simply ignored. So it is that in one of the richest countries in the world many people are living in almost slum-like conditions and can be made homeless on a whim.

Housing is a necessity, not an investment. It is astonishing the degree to which the UK refuses to see this. You cannot have your water cut off in the UK because it is a necessity of life. This applies even if you are a migrant without papers, but with the Orwellian ‘Right to Rent’ rules the government has decreed not only that migrants can be thrown out on the street but that they should be. But the roof can be taken from over you for any reason, most of all for an increase in your landlord’s income. The landlords who do it are not social pariahs, in fact they gain endless sympathy from the government, and are able to congratulate each other on cleverly supplementing their retirement. The number of renters has risen in absolute and relative terms, with private renters now making up a fifth of the population. Most of these people say they don’t want to be private renters. They are simply stuck – since social housing and private ownership are denied them – with landlords providing a necessity of life. For a shocking illustration of the degree to which the UK refuses to treat housing as a necessity, consider the prevalence of the archaic ‘No DSS’ in adverts for rented accommodation. It is directly discriminatory against people on low income and those with disabilities, indirectly discriminatory against single parents, people of colour and others. When I told tenant organisers in the US that such ads were rife in the UK they were astonished. The courts in the US would have no mercy on such discrimination. Here we accept it as normal: it is decreed that housing is an investment for the landlord, not a necessity for us.

Renting is making people in the UK poorer. It acts as a deduction from wages that means standards of living are falling across large parts of the country. Strange as it might seem, London Renters Union has found we sometimes need to raise awareness among renters that they are being impoverished by the decisions of their landlords. So naturalised have people become to the idea of a ‘housing market’ that they forget that around half their wages are going to people richer than they are. In a marker of the economic stupidity of our governments for decades, policymakers have also forgotten that excessive rental costs impoverish us all. Even the classical economists knew that vast amounts of the nation’s wealth being absorbed by economic rents would damage the economy. People have less and less to spend, less and less money circulates between consumers and producers, and those collecting the rents are being rewarded for nothing more than sitting on their assets and impoverishing others. Can we start calling this ‘wage theft’ yet? When London Renters Union or anyone calls for rent controls, a host of defenders of the status quo come out the woodwork, often claiming that we just need to build more houses, even though that solution is not working in any other city with a housing crisis because investors simply snap up all new properties. The truth is, these people believe your landlord has the right to impoverish you.

Sometimes it’s good to pick a fight you can win. The apparently never-ending property bubble has worsened a class divide between those who own property and those who don’t. Anyone interested in political organising among ordinary people should help turn this divide into a fight. The injustice is plain to see, the divide stark, and the ability to improve the lot of renters so within reach. In a political landscape where many fights, against the rise of the right, against climate change, often feel unwinnable or long-haul, this is a fight we can win. Only this week the Tory government realised that young people hate them and they need to make concessions to them, so cast around for a policy. As a result of campaigning by grassroots organisations including Generation Rent, Acorn, NEF, Tenants Union UK and London Renters Union – who helped get it on the agenda at the last Labour conference – the government has now announced plans to end Section 21 evictions, also known as no-fault evictions. This would effectively create indefinite tenancies as standard, albeit with no limits on rent rises that could be used to indirectly evict people.  This initial victory shows how grassroots pressure can work. This fight can yield a string of incremental but vital victories for ordinary people.

The grassroots matters. If we want to see large numbers of people hungry for political change in the UK, we should be careful not to tie our fortunes to the ups and downs of parliamentary processes that so often deflate rather than develop social movements. Rather we need to cultivate movements from the base for every major political battle we want to fight. London Renters Union seeks to organise communities across London. We start with providing support such as preventing evictions or, as happened last week, reclaiming thousands of pounds taken by an unscrupulous letting agent. From this base of mutual support we are creating, along with similar organisations across the UK, a broad-based organisation of people demanding change for private renters. Nor is it a quiet request for landlords to be nicer, but rather a demand to upend the balance of power between landlords and renters. Only in the midst of such fights for what we need can we re-ignite politics in this country as something that ordinary people engage in beyond parliament and parties – even if those tools can be useful sometimes. Renters unions are about people developing power among themselves, and that is a key to all worthwhile and enduring radical change.

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