As other contributors to this series have outlined, people’s right to housing is increasingly being undermined in all tenures. But the private rented sector looks set to become a key battle ground in the war for housing justice. Spiralling rents, particularly in London and other urban centres such as Brighton, Edinburgh and Manchester, are making access to decent housing in the private rented sector increasingly difficult. And rents for the cheapest housing have been rising the fastest. In London rents for the cheapest quarter of properties increased 8.8 per cent in the year to June 2012, compared to an average of 6.8 per cent for London as a whole.
The sector has been picking up the slack from elsewhere in the housing system. Massive waiting lists for social housing mean councils offer juicy carrots to persuade would-be tenants to seek accommodation elsewhere. Meanwhile, young households that might once have been expected to have bought their own home remain in the private rented sector, trapped by high prices and excessive rents that make saving for a deposit nigh-on impossible. More and more people are private tenants not by choice but by necessity and are forced to live with poor quality housing and acute insecurity. But changing demographics and worsening value for money is seeing increasing numbers of private tenants starting to unite and fight back.
Historically, private tenants have been notoriously badly organised, lacking the community links, a common and publicly-recognisable landlord and the organising history of council tenants. Many private tenants don’t even know who their own landlord is, let alone whether they have any other tenants and if so where. Insecurity of tenure in the sector only exacerbates the problem as tenants, often driven out by terrible conditions or unreasonable rent hikes, struggle to put down roots or make local connections. And the ease with which landlords can evict ‘troublesome’ tenants makes standing up for private tenants’ rights far from easy.
One doesn’t have to look too far for examples of the problems: earlier this year, after their local area featured on a BBC documentary, tenants of the Caledonian Road in north London discovered that hundreds of them shared the same dodgy landlord. They started talking to each other, calling themselves the ‘Cally Cows’ in reference to their landlord’s assertion that he was ‘milking’ his tenants – and it was only days before the he started delivering eviction notices to those involved in conversations about the problems on Twitter. In a classic case of retaliatory eviction, those involved in trying to organise were moved out within months, and others who might have been tempted to join them got a stark warning about the likely consequences of doing so.
But there have also been victories in recent months. Back in July, the radical housing group Housing Solidarity took up the case of three private tenants in east London who found themselves stuck at the middle of a dispute between the landlord of their new flat and the letting agent for the deal, Victorstone Property Consultants. As a result, the landlord decided they’d had enough and changed the locks, leaving the would-be tenants without their new home or the £3,451 they’d paid for rent and deposit. While they managed to recover some of the money from the landlord, Victorstone held on to around £1,200, which they refused to repay. The money was only returned to its rightful owners after Housing Solidarity organised scores of people to call, email and fax Victorstone. Within just two hours they caved in.
The summer also saw a triumph north of the border when, following Edinburgh Private Tenants Action Group’s protests outside a particularly notorious letting agent, the Scottish government issued a statement clarifying that all tenancy fees are illegal.
These aren’t just isolated cases of action. In the last year or so, particularly in London where high rents and welfare cuts are being felt most acutely, well-established groups have started focussing on private tenants’ concerns, and new groups have sprung up.
Haringey Housing Action Group meets regularly for individuals to give and receive support on housing problems and campaign for better housing. The group recently organised a protest in support of a member of the group who was pregnant and facing eviction. As a result, the council agreed to house her immediately, rather than waiting for the eviction to take place.
In May, concerned about the impact of housing benefit cuts on private tenants in the borough, the group organised a public event to bring people together to discuss the problem. One of the outcomes was the start of discussions around the formation of a specific private tenants action group, as well as actions such as a ‘Community Housing Inspection’ of local letting agents, which exposed discrimination against housing benefit claimants, inflated fees, insecure tenancies and extortionate rents.
Not far away, Hackney Housing Group, part of London Coalition Against Poverty, works to combat members’ housing and homelessness problems through mutual solidarity and non-hierarchical organisation. Many members of the group join with housing problems of their own, for example being forced to live in poor quality or over-crowded private rented accommodation, which they work together to address. This may take many forms, from helping to make an application for social housing, to direct action or protest at the council’s housing office. As well as delivering results, this way of working collectively empowers group members.
Hackney now also has its own dedicated private tenants group, Digs. The newly established support group is run by and for private tenants, and already provides valuable information about tenants’ rights on its website, and at events and workshops, as well as providing a focal point for tenants to mobilise around key issues such as high rents and rip-off letting agent fees. In October they launched their ‘Rate your Landlord’ tool, where Hackney renters can share information on the best and worst landlords and letting agents operating in the area.
The struggles of these groups are not happening in isolation. Locally-based groups are increasingly linking up, giving the issues faced by private tenants’ greater prominence. The National Private Tenants Organisation was formed last year by local private tenants groups in Blackpool, Brent, Camden and Scarborough and plans for a London private tenants’ forum are also in the pipeline.
’Housing for the 99%’ was the demand of a meeting called in May by fed-up private tenants to try and help create more pressure for change to the policies – such as lack of regulation in the private rented sector, shortage of council housing and benefit cuts - which create many of the housing problems groups seek to deal with locally. This meeting spawned a protest against rip-off rents at the National Landlords Association and galvanised efforts to connect groups working at the local level.
Meanwhile, some activists have also been exploring links with wider housing issues. Many private tenants live in the sector only because they are unable to access social housing or buy a home of their own. Campaigning for more secure, good quality public housing and against the criminalisation of squatting and over-inflated house prices is also important. This was a theme which emerged at the recent housing action session at the squatted Cuts Café, where groups including Digs, Eviction Resistance, Housing for the 99%, Housing Solidarity and Squash pledged to work towards a more joined-up housing movement.
The question going forward is whether tenants can unite effectively to build a broad movement for a fair and functional housing system and avoid allowing themselves to be divided and played off against one another. There’s no doubt that with politicians still wedded to a failed free-market model, a strong and united housing movement is absolutely essential. It’s time to make it a reality.
This article is part of NLP’s series on the politics of housing.
Christine Haigh is a housing activist based in south London. She is part of Housing for the 99%, which is working to build a joined-up movement taking action for housing justice, and particularly supporting action by and for private tenants.