openDemocracyUK

Interview: why tenants are feeling let down, how they are fighting back

A group of tenants occupied a flat in East London to protest against rising rents and government subsidies for unaffordable housing. Samir Jeraj interviewed them about Britain's housing crisis, and what is to be done.

Samir Jeraj
6 December 2013
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photo: Let Down

On the 16th November, activists from the housing campaign group Let Down occupied a flat in East London in protest against high rents. We ask them why housing in the UK capital is not working for ordinary people, and what we should do about it.

Why did you decide to take action? and why these particular flats?

The flat we occupied is being let by Genesis who are applying to receive large sums of government money through “Build to Rent”. Through the policy the government is providing subsidised finance that, because of the low rates of interest charged is going to cost the public at least £90 million. The cheap money is being offered without any demand from the government that the properties built are genuinely affordable. The subsidised properties Genesis will build are likely to be very similar to the one in Stratford Halo which we occupied. The rent on a two bedroom flat in Stratford Halo is £1700 a month, in order even to be allowed to view the property a group of four of us had to pretend our annual income was £150,000 a year. Instead of subsidising big developers to build more unaffordable houses the government should be addressing the housing crisis by building more council houses (the £1 billion loaned to developers at a loss to the public could have built 10,000 new council houses), reintroducing rent controls and making tenancies more secure. Build to Rent makes it quite clear that it will be vital for the private renters movement to be extremely careful of the demands we may make (for example that new homes be built) to ensure they can't be co-opted by big capital.

Something that’s come out of our activity in Southwark surrounds the role afforded to Housing Associations and, in particular, their market rent wings. One of the arguments behind Build to Rent is that in subsidising Housing Associations and large developers the policy will professionalise private renting in Britain. The government refer to this improving conditions for renters by imitating the German model of renting as if what is important in Germany is the concentration of capital in housing rather than regulating rent rises and longer, more secure tenancies. In Southwark we have been involved with a group of tenants in St James Place in Bermondsey of the market rent wing of Notting Hill Housing Trust (who will receive money through Build to Rent). Not only have these tenants had constant problems getting repairs done but their landlord attempted to increase their rent by over 30%, operating in a way many found intimidating. We are very sceptical of the argument that involving more big developers and market rent wings of housing associations will improve the experience of private renters.

The inspiration for our protest was a French militant housing group Jeudi Noir who, as well as other actions, have occupied expensive rented properties (Thursday is the day rental adverts appear in Paris) and held parties in them to highlight France’s housing crisis. We thought if public money is subsidising Genesis we should move into our homes and have a house-warming party.

What do you think are the main issues for renters? How do you think private renting (and housing in general) should be improved?

In London and the South-East the biggest problem is that rents are too high and are increasing far faster than the average wage (alongside problems concerned with housing, stagnant wages are a key problem for private renters). The median rent in Southwark is 59% of the median income. The problem of unaffordable rents affects all but the very richest private renters, albeit in different ways. For some unaffordable rents means overcrowding to the point of endangering health; for others it means not being able to live in the communities they grew up in; for others it makes it impossible to even contemplate starting a family in London and for others it means having little money to live off. This can only be solved by rent controls. It is easy to forget how odd the situation is in Britain, even New York and many other American cities have forms of rent controls. There is a danger that the private renters movement and government policy to address the problems renters face becomes focused on helping an aristocracy of renters escape from private renting whilst leaving the problems the majority of renters face untouched.

Ultimately, what determines the problems private renters face is the capitalist character of housing. Apart from the rump of council housing (and building more council housing is another essential part of the solution to the problems private renters face), British housing operates in a relatively pure capitalist way, which includes, as with Build to Rent, the state acting not only to protect the interests of capital but also to help to concentrate capital. This capitalist character of housing is becoming more acute as Housing Associations like Genesis and Notting Hill Housing work within this logic (Genesis recently commissioned a report by The Smith Institute on “tomorrow’s housing associations” entitled, depressingly, “Social hearted, Commercially minded”). For us tenants a house satisfies a need, for landlords and for private developers properties are capital and an extremely good source of income. This also means as private tenants we experience our house in a radically different way from not only our landlords but also a media and government obsessed with growth through increasing property prices. Unsurprisingly developers and landlords want to make as much money as possible so not only are extremely resistant to any policies that will bring down rents but also influence the government (and the current government are very happy to be influenced) to introduce policies that will help them make more profits.

There is, therefore, an unequal and, essentially exploitative relationship between landlord and tenant. In the past, wider circumstances (higher wages in real terms, less geographical inequality, i.e. less concentration of opportunities in London ) and government policies (rent controls, a greater supply of council housing) substantially ameliorated this inequality. Other problems for private renters result from this inequality making it difficult to assert even the limited legal rights that private tenants have. We are carrying out a research into the experiences of private renters in Southwark and 80% of those we have surveyed have had difficulties getting repairs done in their current home. In most cases tenants have a right to force their landlord to carry out repairs but many do not for fear of retaliatory eviction and the difficulty, if evicted, of finding somewhere new to live. The imbalance of power that causes this would be solved by longer and more secure tenancies. We have also discovered 32% of tenants have faced harassment and intimidation and, in previous homes, 60% have faced difficulties in getting their deposits back. The power landlords have also enables them to make illegal demands with little consequence- we are sure that the two letting agents happy to racially discriminate exposed by the BBC Inside Out programme are the tip of the iceberg. We have also heard of heard reports of letting agents and landlords discriminating against gay and lesbian couples. Proposals in the immigration bill that landlords and letting agents must check the immigration status of potential tenants is certain to make racial discrimination in private renting even worse.

The situation for private tenants is getting worse on the one hand due to the drift of circumstances (continued regional inequality, wage stagnation) and on the other to active government policies like the benefit cap and the Bedroom tax. Radical action is required to improve the condition of private tenants but we have very little faith in the government taking it.

How else are you campaigning on housing issues? What are you future plans?

We are carrying out a survey into the experience of private renters in Southwark which we will present to the council and use to inform future action. We have been helping to organise tenants to take action against exploitative landlords. We will be holding a social event and strategy meeting, which is open to any private renters in Southwark to decide on what other campaigning we will do in the new year, particularly around the local elections. We are interested in discussing ideas like how licensing of landlords can help tenants and whether it would be possible for Southwark Council to establish a not for profit letting agency to undercut the fees charged by private sector letting agents. In the New Year we are going to be staging an event jointly with Lambeth Renters to help tenants be more aware of their rights and how to enforce them.

On a London basis we are interested in continuing to campaign against Build to Rent and against letting agents fees. We are also interested in working out what action we may be able to take against the planned racist provisions in the immigration bill that demand landlords check the immigration status of potential tenants.

Genesis Housing said they've invited you to a meeting to discuss your issues. What do you think about this?

Despite their press statement, Let Down haven’t heard anything from Genesis or been invited to a meeting. We have written a letter to them.

 

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