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Collective Action for the Capital

For years, renting in London has been a nightmare. But the London Renters Union is growing – and taking the fight to the city's landlords.

Housing in London is a miserable experience for many, and it is most miserable of all for private renters. For years private rented living conditions in the capital have been getting worse, while rents have soared to double what they are in the rest of the country. Slum landlordism has returned with a vengeance, and local authority crackdowns often double as immigration raids. 

“I’ve lived in six places in five years,” one mother living in substandard private rented accommodation told me. “I am not happy because I can’t give my daughter the stability she needs while she does her GCSEs.” She showed me a box of anti-depressant pills. “And this is what they give me. I just want a place where I can raise my daughter.”

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a lack of social rented homes and falling home-ownership has forced more low-income families with children into the private rented sector. The proportion of children in the poorest fifth of the population living in the private rented sector has more than doubled to 36%. Many Londoners see no way out of their precarious and poor conditions except by leaving London. Of those who can’t or won’t leave, many shrug in despair and accept the situation. 

But another pattern is also emerging across the city: someone is in distress with their housing, but rather than suffering alone, suddenly there are others around them, human blockades, collective lobbies working in their favour, campaigns emerging to address the systemic problems. London Renters Union has arrived.

Arthur had been trying to get repairs done on his flat for months when the renters union showed up at his door. “They said, if I have a problem come to a meeting,” he recalls. “That’s when I came to the union. I went to the meeting and told my story.” With the intervention of London Renters Union the necessary work got done within days. “I’d been through hell. I tried to get help from my doctors, councillor and MP – they couldn’t do anything. I didn’t have money for a solicitor,” Arthur says. “You need a union to be successful – they’ll fight for you.”

While the union takes on some individual cases, the point is to bring out the commonalities among renters so they can fight together. Many renters feel too isolated to go up against a landlord who holds all the power. Without support they bear the burden alone of the stress and insecurity that comes from a conflict with a person or agency who can make them homeless. The renters union aims to build support between members in order to create the confidence to take action. As one LRU member put it, “I thought it was just me struggling in this block. Then I got the renters union leaflet through my door and I realised it was everyone.”

London Renters Union’s membership is now over a thousand, and it could be one of the most significant new housing organisations for a generation. Several years in gestation, it is a product of other organisations already involved in housing struggles. “Organising locally as renters had taken us only so far.” says Heather Kennedy, one of those on the initial steering group for the project. “Our members got evicted and priced out to other bits of London all the time, and lots of the problems we face can’t be fixed by the local council. We needed something bigger and stronger, that could bring renters together across london to stand up to the power landlords wield over us.”

London-wide there are many organisations focused on defending social housing from attacks by governments national and local. It is a vital and necessary struggle, and a key front in the battle against housing as a commodity, but all the while the number of private renters has been growing, from the bottom of the market as social housing is lost, and in the middle of the market as buying became more unaffordable. The few organisations addressing private rental issues were struggling to make an impact.

London Renters Union saw the need for a London-wide organisation focused on renters, but don’t claim to solve the problems alone. lRU is part of the movement ecology of housing organisations from which they emerged, and solidarity between organisations as a key part of building a successful movement to confront the housing crisis.

Not only have private renters been growing in number but they have also borne the full brunt of decades of bad housing policy in the UK. When London Renters Union meets new members the same problems appear again and again: poor repair and no way to seek redress, rents too high, bad and even illegal behaviour by landlords, exploitation by letting agents, arbitrary evictions. Sometimes the union might simply help a member with advice, or help write a letter to a landlord. Sometimes members have participated in simple but impactful collective visits to the office of their letting agents: once an agent knows the member has back-up they are usually quick to realise they must do the repairs needed to make a home decent. 

Evictions are particularly difficult to resist in the UK, where, unlike some other countries, bailiffs can return again and again until they succeed. But London Renters Union turned out early one morning when bailiffs were due at a members’ house. Alongside other local people they formed human barricades at the front and rear of the property. When the bailiffs arrived they saw the people and renters union banners, and drove off without even getting out the car. The action bought the member precious time to find another place to live. Other landlords, say union activists, have called off illegal evictions at the mere mention of the union’s name. 

Talking about these victories is important to the union. Meetings aim to be inspiring and participatory, not just about dry administrative tasks or voting on position statements. Celebrating successes creates positive, sociable and accessible spaces in which members support each other. The everyday work of running local branches such as writing meeting agendas still has to be done, but it is shared between members as much as possible, ensuring nobody gets caught up in only doing the admin.

London Renters Union describes itself as a fighting union and a campaigning union. It wants not only to defend individual members, but also to change the landscape of housing. Demands that most housing charities consider radical are just the beginning for the union: rent controls, an end to arbitrary evictions, forcing landlords to take tenants on welfare. “We aim to mobilise our members to transform the housing system in the UK,” said Jacob Wills, a member of the coordinating group. But that doesn’t preclude joining more immediate campaigns, such as the campaign to End Section 21 with their partner organisation Generation Rent. Campaigning pressure from housing organisations recently forced the government to scrap Section 21, which had permitted ‘no fault’ evictions – a sign of the movement’s growing influence.

The aims of the LRU include organising their membership into a radical fighting body. “Education is a really key idea in the union,” says Heather Kennedy. “We are providing training to all of our members so that we can all learn together how to fight for change.” As the union sees it, skilling up all members – not just a few – to take on leadership roles is key to building a truly mass housing movement in London. Not everyone who joins the union will from the outset sees their housing problems as political, but the union is determined to expose the politics of housing for all to see, and to show that it is possible to fight for change. 

The union is also democratic, and that means training people to be in control. Branches are designed to be largely autonomous, and the coordinating group of the union is elected by members for only six months at a time. Policy and demands can be made by members at democratic general meetings. The union aims not just to build a housing movement but also to create a legacy for London: large numbers of people who know how to act together.

It is still at the beginning of its journey: it has three branches and is focused on building them slowly and surely before creating new ones. “LRU has to reflect the diversity of this city to be successful.” said Jacob Wills. “realistically it’s those most affected by housing injustices who are going to see the changes needed and win them.” This means the union sees recruiting on the street and in existing community organisations as essential to ensure that the organisation doesn’t get stuck at the level of recruiting the usual activists.

While driven mostly by volunteer work, the founders also decided that it would need paid staff to operate at scale. From two staff at present, the union plans to grow its paid staff in 2019. While taking money from funding organisations, it is also asking for membership fees so that it can begin to self-fund its expansion. At the recent Labour Party conference the party pledged  to fund independent renters unions if they get into office.

As the plight of renters becomes more stark, the union are happy to have some policy-makers onside, but they don’t want to be reliant on politicians. “Our union is all about building skills, agency and strong community between renters,” said Heather Kennedy. “Building durable supportive relationships with one another is how we can take on the landlords, developers and politicians we’re up against. We see this as a long term project to build community, as part of building our capacity to fight.”

The ultimate goal of the London Renters Union is to ensure that everyone can have a decent home, to turn anger and frustration at the housing system into systemic change. It is an aim both simple and ambitious, and the members know that to succeed they must help promote the demand that housing should exist to serve people, not be a mere commodity. Just as importantly, they know that for long-term success, the union must continue to build the ability of exploited communities to fight for themselves.