Weeks after establishing a £5 million support fund for landlords and offering grants to AirBnB owners, the SNP has voted down legislation from the Scottish Greens, supported by Scottish Labour, that would have meant a two-year rent freeze for the private rental sector. How did Scotland’s supposedly progressive party decide to support landlords over tenants?
By fighting against injustices such as Universal Credit at Westminster, the SNP claims a progressive mantle in the minds of people across the UK – but, closer to home, they have come to embody that shadowy force we in the labour movement know too well: neoliberal managerialism.
They have developed the same complacency and conservatism as Scottish Labour had before its fall. The SNP alliance with the Tories over the past few days could be their own Better Together moment, only this time it’s the class question not the national one.
By forming a coalition of capital with the Tories to vote down rent freezes, hardship funds and collective bargaining for care workers, the SNP mirage of a moral high ground over Westminster is evaporating quickly. Regardless, tenants cannot rely on the government, instead only on each other, through our collective strength in unions like Living Rent, Scotland’s tenants’ union.
The union has not slowed down for one second during this pandemic. Even though we can’t turn out en masse with banners and chants at dodgy letting agents like before – or flyer a rogue landlord’s local area informing their neighbours how they are treating tenants. These powerful and often successful tactics have been paused.
Instead we have been able to leverage the reputation the union has built up the past few years. By using the tried and tested methods of formal demands and overwhelming email inboxes we have secured over £30,000 in rent reductions for our members since lockdown began. Each win is led and fought by the tenant. I know this because with the union I fought and won a 50% reduction in my own rent.
The fight goes beyond reductions with issues such as cleaning services in tower blocks and broken heating systems in tenements. We make the point that these housing problems, especially in a pandemic, are a health issue. Focusing on seemingly small issues allows us to do community organising in working class areas by identifying local leaders, recruiting them, and building support to fix the problem together. This way we reach outside of political bubbles and across the lines of nationality to build the power of class and community.
Rent reduction cases and cleaning campaigns have allowed us to train and develop the confidence of our member defence team. Giving them the language to speak about their situation and recognise collective power exists when joining their voice together with others in a union.
One member recently said: “The feeling of working on this together with other union members, even if we don’t have the same power we’d have if we had the same landlord, made me feel empowered and supported.”
What makes this hard is the often hidden and unequal relationship between landlord and tenant, in which the former holds all the power. Successive governments in Scotland have painted landlords, including housing associations, as a generous provider of a scarce resource instead of someone who takes your hard-earned wages each month.
Even before this crisis one third of all tenants in private housing were living in poverty after paying their rent. This trap is engulfing more of the under 35s, migrants and young families each year as the affordable public housing sector shrinks and the private rental sector grows. Many of these people are precariously employed key workers who are on the waiting list for council houses and unable to save for a mortgage.
The pressure that already existed on tenants has been compounded by the coronavirus crisis. Lost your job? Rent still needs paying, even as landlords benefit from mortgage holidays. The furlough scheme means many have lost 20% of their income but are not seeing a rent reduction. The truth is landlords will never give this away. Now we know parliaments will not compel them to, it is time for the union to force them to.
Living Rent is running a joint campaign with ACORN and the London Renters Union to do this, calling for the suspension of rents, the cancellation of debt and stronger protections. To make this happen we need to expand. Our power comes from our numbers. If there isn’t a tenants union in your area then get in contact and we will provide you with the tools to build it.
Looking forward, we see a dangerous situation building up, tenants are getting into arrears already, with Shelter Scotland saying “It is hard to see now what is going to prevent a tidal wave of evictions spreading people into homelessness services which were barely coping before the pandemic.” This is backed up by our own research with the Better Than Zero campaign in which 77% of people said they have or expect to fall into rent arrears in the coming months.
This paints a grim picture of what awaits us as a society – we will be fighting evictions that would have been entirely preventable if Wednesday’s legislation had been passed. We will fight each of these with every tactic in our arsenal, but I predict that our main strength will be the increase of members we see.
These people will likely come from a private rental sector of almost a million people in Scotland. With mortgage holidays for landlords being extended, this sharpens the unequal power relationship that exists for us. Accelerating tenants’ understanding of their place in the order of things. This heightened state of self awareness demands a response from unions. We must offer an alternative to the debt, evictions and hopelessness our parliaments have allowed to be possible.
The rental system is one that is fundamentally about exploitation, we the tenants have our wages extracted by the landlords. These wages are starting to fade away. Currently many rents are being sustained by the government furlough scheme but this is due to be wound up in October. We are moving towards the moment where a bigger showdown between the interests of tenants and landlords will be forced – and under mass unemployment who would blame someone for not paying their rent?
It is this opportunity that if allowed to arise we must take advantage of, whether it will or not is yet to be seen. Property-based capitalism has found unique ways to reward its masters and punish its servants before, likely it will try again. Now though we must prepare for the possibility to organise the power and rage of nearly a million Scottish tenants against a handful of landlords.
The words of Cowgate-born James Connolly ring as true now, in this context, as over 120 years ago “she would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers.” Whatever flag flies over Edinburgh castle the SNP have shown little else will change. The moment for tenants’ unions is coming, but only if we organise to seize it.