Organising the Housing Struggle

The housing crisis isn’t going away just because Labour lost the election. Now is the time for those who want to continue the fight to throw themselves into grassroots campaigns.

In the minutes following the announcement of the exit poll on 12 December, hundreds of people signed up to join the ACORN tenants’ union. Across the country, first time door-knockers and seasoned Labour organisers gathered together, still damp and cold from the doors, to watch the outcome of weeks of hard work be confounded by the news of a solid Tory majority, and were met with shock and disbelief. Now we are faced with five more years of Tory austerity, cuts, and precarity, we have to accept that the result was a blow. But it was also a hard lesson: to really win for our class, we need to be genuinely organised in our communities and workplaces.

Up and down the country, ACORN spent the election campaign ensuring that thousands of marginalised people were able to vote. Those who are hit hardest by austerity are often the most disenfranchised in our society, so our members spent weeks registering people in women’s refuges, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and job centres. Politics doesn’t just happen in a six-week cycle every five years, and that’s why we organise in local communities all year round.

This is something that ACORN has been doing since we were founded in 2014, and have grown from a handful of people knocking on doors in Bristol to a union of thousands, with branches across Britain. We’re well known for our work around housing and tenants’ defence — from physically stopping evictions to winning repairs, deposits, and compensation for our members through direct action, to taking on national banks like NatWest, TSB, and Santander. 

The housing crisis has left tens of thousands of people with no home, and many more live in unsafe, unaffordable accommodation. Renting is precarious — it often feels like landlords have all the power, leaving tenants vulnerable and alone. That’s why we need collective action, and a union to fight for what’s ours. From Portsmouth to Newcastle and from Lancaster to Liverpool, ACORN fights and wins for our members.

Almost all of the cities we organise in are governed by Labour councils. There is no question that cuts and systematic underfunding from the Tories have devastated council budgets. But all too often councils prefer to act as managers of decline, putting all their hopes on a general election victory rather than taking bold, sustained action to protect their working-class constituents in the here and now. 

The ‘dented shield’ argument — that councils protect us from the worst of Conservative savagery while simultaneously implementing it — is simply not good enough, and it’s imperative that grassroots organisations like ours hold them to account to ensure the poorest aren’t hit hardest. This is why we have forced councils in Bristol and Newcastle to take on landlord licensing schemes. In Manchester, we’ve been part of a campaign to get Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham to franchise the region’s buses. One of our biggest wins was successfully preventing Bristol City Council from scrapping council tax benefit which would have hit 16,000 of Bristol’s poorest households — and would have meant £27 million worth of cuts.

We’re not just focused on housing, however. This year we have prevented a polluting power plant being built next to a nursery in Bristol’s most deprived area. We have fought for public control of the bus networks in Manchester, Bristol, and Sheffield. We have successfully fought for the provision of community spaces in Sheffield, and campaigned against forced school academisation in Brighton. ACORN fights on the issues that affect our members lives: whether that’s housing, the environment, or buses.

So what makes ACORN different? Firstly, we follow the iron law of organising: ‘Don’t do for others what they can do for themselves.’ We build the capacity, skills, and confidence of our members so they can collectivise their strength to fight and win their own battles. We take direct action. We’re not afraid to confront  property developers, banks, or landlords directly rather than relying on an unrepresentative legal system. We’re rooted in communities and our organisers knock on doors all year round, come rain or shine, to help build the power of ordinary people and reach out beyond the traditional activist base of the Left. 

This sort of work is why ACORN has been sometimes referred to as ‘the fourth emergency service’. When members face eviction or threats from landlords, they can call the union and members will jump into action to organise robust resistance. Some left-wingers call for reading groups to raise working-class consciousness — but the reality is that our people don’t need any lessons in how this country works. Our people have lost enough, and what ACORN provides is not just the hope, but the expectation, of winning. This is why an uncompromising commitment to direction is vital.  Confronting those who traditionally hold power over us, and beating them, gives our members the only political education they need — that the path to victory lies in acting as one.

Our members speak for the union better than I ever could. Joe is a member in Manchester. He got involved with the union two years ago and has been active ever since. He tells me:

‘Our block in Moss Side was fighting with the management about loads of issues, rent hikes, leaking roofs, no locks on doors, drug use in the corridors. They basically told us “tough shit, move if you don’t like it”. A mate put me on to ACORN. We unionised the block, picketed the management company and they quickly changed their tune. Those issues are fixed now and we now get regular messages from the management checking everything is okay!’

In 2019 alone, ACORN helped to get lettings fees banned, won an end to section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions through a joint campaign with housing groups across the country, and forced NatWest to stop discriminating against benefits claimants by occupying branches across the country. They wouldn’t allow our members to move into their houses so we moved into their banks. We also resisted dozens of evictions, won hundreds of thousands of pounds for our members, and established ourselves as a real presence in scores of estates and neighbourhoods in fourteen different parts of the country. 

In 2020, we will build on this. We will knock thousands of doors, gain thousands of new members and train them up to take on councils, businesses, and rogue landlords to win for our class. We have a model that works, we know how to win and if you’re not a member yet, there’s no better time to get involved.