The article is the first in a series that will look at bottom-up, grassroots change happening across the country despite an unaccommodating Conservative government. Beyond Westminster, a cacophony of trial, experimentation and innovation is helping to build a better society, but this needs to be nourished and nurtured by the state – this is 45˚ Change. If you’re involved in an initiative or organisation that’s making change happen in their local community, then we want to hear about it. Please contact Jack at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The UK’s housing and homelessness crisis distils the legacy of Tory austerity. Over the last ten years households have been pushed into poverty due to wage stagnation, multiple benefit cuts and, significantly, a lack of social and affordable housing.1 Homelessness rose by at least 165 per cent between 2010 and 20182 and the extortionate cost of private rents means that thousands in full-time work are living in a state of constant financial precarity.3 It’s no wonder that after the decisive electoral victory of the party that orchestrated austerity there has been a renewed interest in non-governmental, grassroots organisations using direct action to tackle the crisis.
One such organisation, ACORN (The Association of Community Organisations for Reform Now), has gained hundreds of members since the election, with three new branches (Cambridge, Hastings and Exeter) launching this month. Founded in Bristol in 2015, ACORN UK is a mass-membership organisation that operates on a trade union model, using direct action to confront a range of issues affecting working-class communities. Recent actions included mass demonstrations forcing the RBS bank group to change their lending policies, which had previously discriminated against benefits claimants; in Bristol, the successful lobbying of a local council not to withdraw tax exemptions from 16,000 of its poorest residents; and an ongoing campaign, also in Bristol, to bring buses into public ownership after locals suffered profit-driven fare hikes and service cutbacks.
Given the special urgency of the UK housing crisis, many of ACORN’s campaigns have focused on issues faced by tenants in the private rented sector. As a volunteer for ACORN in my local Brighton branch I have witnessed its extraordinary success in winning justice for individual tenants, as well as permanently restoring power and leverage to the renting community as a whole. Brighton has a chronic shortage of social housing, astronomical house prices and the worst income/cost of living ratio in the UK.4 Consequently, a very high proportion of its inhabitants are private renters.5 Add to this a growing population and these factors together create a rental market that is massively favourable to landlords at the expense of their tenants.
In Brighton (and many other UK cities) demand for housing means that tenants are effectively disposable. Landlords can keep raising rents safe in the knowledge that another tenant will be willing to pay up if their current one can’t. Not only are communities priced out, but maintenance and safety standards decline as well. Financially precarious tenants (in Brighton, many of them are students or low earners working in the service or gig economy) are unlikely to complain about the condition of their home if they fear they might be harassed or revenge-evicted in response. Private tenants that complain about their housing to a local authority have a 46 per cent chance of being served a Section 28 (‘no fault’) eviction within 6 months.6 I can also say based on my own experience at ACORN that cases of landlords entering a property illegally to gather ‘evidence’ for an eviction or simply to intimidate a tenant into submission are shockingly common.
Many government measures designed to protect tenants from exploitative landlords are simply not fit for purpose. If a landlord refuses to carry out essential repairs, the local council’s Environmental Health department can inspect the property and order them to do so. However, tenants can wait weeks in potentially hazardous properties for these inspections, if they are one of only 22 per cent of renters who get an inspection at all.7 The 2019 Homes Act was a response to the failure of this system, and stipulates that landlords must ensure their properties are free of health and safety risks. Ignoring the fact that this should surely always have been a precondition of renting out a property, the Homes Act appears to be a victory for renters.
However, many who could potentially lean on this legislation in court will never get the opportunity to do so thanks to the cost of going to court itself. Legal aid funding has been cut by 40 per cent in the last five years8 meaning that many tenants cannot access legal representation at all. A justice system that was already rigged in favour of those who could pay for top-end lawyers has become even more inaccessible for the average person. Moreover, even where legal aid is available its uses are limited. It cannot be used for compensation claims, for example, which means that tenants seeking a rent reduction for losing the use of their home due to disrepair must look elsewhere.
Using direct action to tackle these problems can resolve issues more efficiently and can also win more comprehensive justice for tenants. Last year ACORN Brighton won repairs and compensation from a local letting agent who just a few weeks earlier had ripped up a tenant’s letter of demands in front of them. After ACORN began picketing the agent’s office, the agent soon realised that the reputational cost to their business of this negative attention outweighed the cost of the repairs and a few hundred pounds in compensation. Meanwhile, the gains ACORN made from winning that campaign went far beyond just getting justice for the tenant who had made the complaint. Every public action is an opportunity for outreach and grows the union’s visibility within the community. In certain parts of Brighton our reputation is such that just a letter from an aggrieved tenant co-signed by ACORN is often enough to get instant cooperation from a landlord or agent.
Another well-meaning piece of government legislation introduced in 2007 – the requirement that landlords keep tenants’ deposits in a government-backed protection scheme – consistently fails tenants. Last year I worked with a disabled benefits claimant who had a £650 deposit withheld by MyDeposits and awarded to his letting agent (a company which makes millions developing both Council housing and luxury properties). As part of the adjudication process the tenant had submitted evidence to MyDeposits to counter the letting agent’s claim that he had caused property damage. But MyDeposits ended up ruling against the tenant on a completely different charge – that he owed the letting agent thousands in missed rent after breaking his tenancy early.
The tenant was never told that the claim made against him had changed, and so wasn’t able to present evidence (which he had) that the letting agent had actually given him permission to break his tenancy early (they wanted to renovate the property anyway). When the tenant, and then his MP, questioned MyDeposits about this, they simply said that the original ruling was legally binding and could not be reviewed. The case continues, and we hope that this story will eventually spark wider interest in remodelling these schemes so that they are not incentivised to serve landlords (who under the current system are the schemes’ sole clients) at the expense of their tenants. When government-backed enterprises such as these fail to hold even their own adjudication procedures to account, it is little wonder that tenants feel demoralised by government interventions on their behalf and instead turn to non-governmental, community-led organisations, like ACORN, for support.
With that said, we should also recognise some recent positive policy changes around private renting, both of which are the result of pressure from grassroots campaign groups. The 2019 Tenant Fees Act banned landlords and agents from charging admin fees to tenants moving in or out of a property. These fees were often not advertised to tenants before they’d paid a deposit and could add hundreds of pounds to the cost of moving. The fact that this legislation ever made it to Parliament was thanks especially to national tenants’ organisation Generation Rent, backed up by ACORN, who celebrated the new law by marching on letting agents and inviting them to publicly declare that they would adhere to the ban, naming and shaming those that didn’t.
Another cause for (cautious) optimism is the upcoming ban of Section 21 (or ‘no fault’) evictions, which Boris Johnson confirmed would be a priority for his Parliament during the 2019 election campaign. As many have pointed out, without new legislation to cap rent increases a landlord can still perform a de-facto eviction by sharply increasing the rent at the end of a tenancy. Still, it is a hopeful sign that grassroots campaigning has managed to influence the conversation around tenants’ rights to the extent that a Tory government is signing off on these kinds of pledges.9
However, Boris Johnson paying lip-service to socialist values during the election campaign far from guarantees the rollout of the social provision that so many communities desperately need. And many, especially those facing mounting debt and homelessness thanks to the housing crisis, do not have time to wait for government to come to their rescue. Facing five years of an emboldened Tory majority in Parliament, communities have more reason than ever to get organised.
Naomi Gann currently teaches in Germany. She is an ACORN member and former Membership Officer for ACORN, Brighton. She is also a member of Momentum and the Labour Party.