How collective power is making a difference for tenants

This is an article published in Inside Housing. For those without access you can read the article below.

News that the government was going to end Section 21 evictions was widely welcomed. Its belated recognition of the problem of ‘fault-free’ evictions was undoubtedly in part the result of a new generation of renters getting organised and campaigning against this injustice. Today, with a private rental sector of more than 4 million households, we have seen the emergence of campaigns and groups which are organising against rip-off agencies and landlords who refuse to provide decent and safe living conditions for their tenants. Most notable of these is ACORN which has developed as a tenant/community union. It has twelve branches nationally with more on the way. It has had more requests for setting up local groups than it can easily manage.

Originally conceived as a community union based on the American model of the Association of Community Organisations for Reform Now, its initiators began knocking on doors in one area of Bristol. What they found was that the most common problems that people spoke to them about were issues with landlords and letting agents. Tenants are powerless as individuals facing landlords who can remove them easily. What ACORN has achieved, however, is to build collective organisation, a powerful movement of tenants, supporting each other against being exploited by landlords or agencies. It has mobilised its members to come to the aid of those who are facing eviction or to demand that landlords make their properties habitable and safe. Collective organisation has given individuals who would otherwise have been frightened to act alone for fear of eviction, the confidence to challenge the injustice they face.

They have also taken up wider issues. In Bristol, where the first ACORN group was set up, they succeeded in pressing the local council to abandon its proposal to end council tax exemptions for poor people. Nationally, it campaigned for an end of the restriction on mortgages for buy-to-let landlords that they could not take tenants in receipt of benefits. They succeeded in pressuring Santander, TSB and Natwest to abandon this restriction. Government changes to regulations on landlord fees were also the direct result of campaigning by ACORN and others.

Initially based in the private rental sector where there is a much younger profile than in council or housing association homes, ACORN has begun to campaign in the ‘social housing’ sector and in support of tenants placed in temporary accommodation by councils.

One of the salient features of the current housing crisis is the fact that most of the younger generation, those without access to a bank of mum and dad, stand no chance of a mortgage, and little prospect of a council tenancy. They are forced into the private rental sector. Whereas they might have been able to afford a flat in the past, rent price inflation and changes of government policy have forced more people into shared accommodation. The local housing allowance (LHA) has been frozen and the lower LHA for shared accommodation rate applies to those under 35 (previously under 24). In Swindon, for instance, we found that young journalists on the local paper could not afford to rent a flat.

Facing high rents, insecurity of tenure, sometimes very poor living conditions, the idea of a tenant union is resonating which such people. As with collective organisation in the workplace, in communities it can enable tenants to achieve things which would be impossible alone.

Given the collapse in the numbers of council housing stock, a council tenancy for most young people seems like an impossible dream. There are now less than 1.6 million council homes in England. Inevitably there has been a decline in tenant organisation. The huge fall of trade union membership since the 1980s also depleted the number of activists who previously were commonly involved in tenant organisations.

After many years of a dearth of independent tenant organisations, ACORN and others have shown that a younger generation is mobilising against the injustices they face as a result of ten years of austerity and the worsening housing crisis. As ACORN says, housing should be a right and not an asset. A tenants union has the potential to bring together renters across the tenures to act collectively to fight for their interests. Tenant unions can also challenge the sometimes paternalistic approach of councils to their tenants and campaign for an improvement of the service provided. They have the potential to play a key role in campaigning for a national housing policy which recognises that so long as house building is dominated by the market then there can be no resolution of the housing crisis. Whilst it’s necessary to fight to improve conditions in the private sector, more and more young people are beginning to appreciate that the housing crisis cannot be seriously addressed without a return to large scale council house building.

Tenants can contact ACORN at https://acorntheunion.org.uk/

Martin Wicks

Secretary, Swindon Tenants Campaign Group

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