It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that there is a real and present housing crisis in the UK. And it turns out most of us have noticed. Ipsos MORI recently found that 80 per cent of us believe the UK is suffering a housing crisis. Maybe you live in the 83 per cent of the country that saw rent increases last year. The National Housing Federation have noted that homelessness is up 26 per cent in two years. Negligent landlords continue to evade the law, rent substandard accommodation and harass tenants. Millions of renters live near or under the breadline. Now the government attacks social housing tenants with unfair changes to benefits and a monstrous bedroom tax. Camden Council have just announced that they will moving more than 700 poor families out of London because the new benefits cap means they will not be able to afford their current housing – or anywhere else in the south-east of England. If moving nearly 3,000 people out of London because they simply cannot afford to live there anymore isn’t an indication of a crisis, I don’t know what is.
This crisis may have escaped the attention of the cabinet members (two thirds of whom are millionaires), but it hasn’t escaped mine. For years I’ve campaigned on tenants’ rights in various jobs including students' union officer, campaigner and lobbyist. In hundreds of different situations, I’ve seen the ugly face of the UK’s rented sector more than most. Over the years I've posed as a potential tenant, taken landlords to court and fought on behalf of hundreds of beleaguered dwellers of rented property. I once made a landlord so angry by writing a tame letter to him on behalf of his long-suffering tenants, that he drove 40 miles to my workplace to scream at me (I’d knocked off by the time he arrived). I've worked with politicians and their civil servants for legislative and regulatory change – sometimes immense amounts of work to make things just a little better. I even went as far as to set up an ethical lettings agency at my students’ union while I served as Vice President there.
The narrative from most of the commentators seems to be that the solution should be for government to step in. While this is true, it is unlikely that the disparate coalition of charities and political commentators can make this happen. A coalition that features 83 landlords amongst the MPs of the dominant party and is ideologically opposed to government intervention will need to be forced to take action, rather than persuaded. The charities, students’ unions and experts all have a role and do good work, but we’re missing a crucial piece of the puzzle.
When we look back through history, we see that all the major changes in British housing have taken place due to mass movements - tenants' unions. It was the tenants' unions that pressed for the first rent controls – nearly a century ago – to be put into place. In 1915, 30,000 Glasgow residents united in a rent strike against profiteering landlords, forcing the government to pass the Rent Restriction Act 1915, freezing rents for the duration of World War One. This was intended to be a temporary measure, but the pressure of people standing together kept rent control as a key factor in UK housing policy well into the 1980s.
It was those organisations of tenants acting together that campaigned for the first council housing to be built. They succeeded in organising their communities to force successive governments to improve housing quality and deal with squalor and homelessness. They took radical action – such as mass squatting and rent strikes - and forced housing onto the agenda when politicians would rather not deal with the issue. In Derry, Northern Ireland in 1968, it was said that the city’s squatting movement housed more people that year than the local authority. The actions of residents and tenants, working together, are directly responsible for a host of government legislation to alleviate poor housing, including the Homeless Persons Act 1977.
In the years since Margaret Thatcher came to power, many of these organisations have disappeared and those that are still around are shadows of their former selves. Most of the laws and protections they fought for have been stripped away and much of the council housing they campaigned for has been sold off.
The only way for us to get housing justice is to return to that tradition of tenant activism. Housing advisers and campaigning charities can do a lot, but we need the weight of the masses to bring about change - a nationwide, mass-membership union of tenants. People gain from organising themselves at work, so people should gain from organising at home too.
A tenant's union could make housing an election issue. Tenant's hustings could be held up and down the country for parliamentary candidates. Strength in numbers could turn the whole situation around. Tens of thousands could be roused from apolitical slumber to fight for better regulation of private landlords, stop the demonization and lies about those on benefits and push for controls on sky-high rents. A tenant's union could harness the dormant power of the 7.6 million social and private tenants in the UK.
Similar organisations already exist in Australia, Scandinavia and in some US states. Already, there are plans for a London Student Tenants' Union being put forward by the University of London Union. We need a national organisation to unite these groups.
As in our past, tenants need to come together to put a stop to the housing crisis. We cannot rely on our politicians to do it. And it can start on your doorstep.