Why we need renters' unions more than ever

What these stories highlight is a more general social truth: to be a tenant is to be precarious, at continual risk of rent rise, legal disputes and being evicted.

Philip Jones
16 December 2018

London Renters Union. All rights reserved.

In an era of rogue landlords and slum housing, renter unions provide much needed protection and solidarity for tenants.

The current government presides over a private rental market that forces tenants to endure illegal evictions, squalid conditions and harassment at the hands of unlawful landlords. A recent investigation by The Guardian and ITV found that landlords who have been convicted of previous offenses and have failed to pass the basic tests required by housing legislation are continuing to take rents from private property.

The consequences of leaving the rental market largely unregulated are devastating and far reaching. A study by the university of York published in October found that as many as 1 in 3 rental properties at the bottom end of the market are not fit for purpose. More disturbing still, it revealed that 250,000 families in England are raising infants in substandard rental properties. Slum tenure has become an everyday feature of housing in austerity Britain, a grim consequence of failed welfare reforms, insecure employment and a lack of affordable housing - a social ill that the conservative government have neither a solution to nor any interest in tackling.

While present housing legislation permits local authorities to deny offending landlords the right to rent out properties in their borough, extensive cuts to local resources have rendered such legislation effectively void. The chancellor’s recent budget speech shows a lack of motivation to resolve this problem, with only a few vague concessions to a housing infrastructure fund featuring in his address to the commons. Tenant precarity has become one of the greatest socioeconomic challenges not only to young millennials but retirees, too.

With rented accommodation now providing for 5 million households, a statistic that will continue to rise with the demise of home ownership, tenant precarity has become one of the greatest socioeconomic challenges not only to young millennials but retirees, too. As a renter for most of my adult life, I have experienced the associated insecurities and miseries first-hand. Mouldy walls, unlawful attempts to keep deposits and a landlord that would turn up unannounced at night are just a few of the infringements I and many others have had to endure. One of my friends waited six months for his landlord to fix their hot waterWhile such stories sound extraordinary, it seems as if every tenant I meet has a similar tale to tell.

What these stories highlight is a more general social truth: to be a tenant is to be precarious. Even with the best landlord and accommodation in town, a tenant remains at continual risk of entering legal disputes over property damage, of experiencing their rent rise beyond what is affordable, and of being evicted at a moment’s notice.

This is why I decided to join my local Acorn union. At the branch in Brighton we have thwarted illegal evictions, forced dodgy estate agents to complete repairs and helped tenants obtain compensation for unacceptable conditions. In a city where 1 in 69 people is classed as homeless, and the average rent for a one-bedroom flat is over £900 a month and over £600 for a room in a shared house, an increasing number of people are being forced into intolerable living circumstances. It is hardly surprising that the membership of an organisation that pushes for decent and dignified living for all is rapidly rising.

Acorn has over 15,000 members and supporters nationwide, a number that is increasing as the union expands its branches and develops its campaigns. Full members pay one hour’s wages per month which, like a worker’s union, provides them with protection as and when they need it. While the union is set up to tackle local injustice more generally, its main successes have come from rental disputes and it is now directing the majority of its energies toward action and campaigns around housing. Acorn Brighton has so far been successful in every case it has taken on, a statistic that demonstrates the power people have when acting collectively.

This is not to diminish the significant challenges facing renters in the coming months and years, particularly those claiming benefits. The rollout of universal credit has already pushed many claimants into arrears, leading to evictions and a spike in homelessness, an injustice that Acorn is currently campaigning against.

Yet, it is from such hardship that solidarity is formed. People are realising that a government which has shored up a luxury property market while selling off the last of our social housing, and has watched the homeless population double over its two terms, cannot be trusted to provide adequate protection for renters. We need to build a broad-based movement not only to defend our rights but to affect a more general shift in the balance of power between landlords and tenants.

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