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Fighting ‘Manctopia’

An influx of speculative capital is gentrifying Manchester and making affordable housing a thing of the past – but grassroots activists are fighting to reclaim their city from the millionaires.

Since 2014, Manchester has been caught in a ‘billion-pound property boom’ which has drastically altered the city’s skyline. To the outsider, Manchester’s cranes and glossy high-rises project an image of the city as a successful boomtown; a Northern hub that has managed to move with the times. Scratch the surface, though, and find a city whose powers of attraction to global capital ventures in the housing sector often come at the cost of its own people.

Introducing a report on housing financialisation in Manchester for Greater Manchester Housing Action (GMHA), Dr. Jonathan Silver finds that ‘from pension funds to high-wealth individuals and private equity, much of the housing development in central neighbourhoods in the city-region is now financed by actors whose concern is with profit maximisation rather than the well-being of local communities’.

His point is exemplified by research into the amount of ‘affordable’ housing that has been, or rather hasn’t been, built over the last few years. In accordance with city planning legislation, Manchester City Council has implemented a requirement for all new housing developments to make at least 20% of units affordable – but seeing this goal come to fruition relies on new investors playing by the rules.

GMHA’s 2017/18 report found that of the 9,000 eligible homes delivered in that year, none were affordable. After pressure from a combination of housing activist groups and sympathetic councillors, improvements were made, but they were incremental: in 2018/19, 0% made its way up to 0.7%. Housing development in the city has accelerated, but only in a way which lays the inequalities of the country’s broken housing system bare.

One group that has recognised the need for strong tenant representation on the regional level is Greater Manchester Tenants Union. Formerly known as Tenants Union UK, the group decided that a more concentrated focus would better situate them within the emergent nationwide renters’ movement, which at the moment is composed of regionally-concerned groups like London Renters Union, Oxford Tenants Union, and Hull Renters Union.

According to Isaac Rose, one of the union’s organisers, Manchester is seeing the consequences of agglomeration; as the value of land in the city reaches new heights, the people who call that city home are losing out, and landlords take over. ‘People on the lower income end of the housing scale and people who are on social housing waiting lists are unable to live in Manchester,’ Rose tells Tribune. ‘So we have displacement, more precarity of housing, and the breakup of communities, with children unable to live in the areas where they grew up. Areas around the city centre such as Ancoats, Cheetham Hill and Hulme are also starting to be developed.’

Replacing these long-standing communities are corporate landlords who are interested in extracting the maximum possible capital from housing, which means disinvestment from sorely needed social housing in favour of student flats and experimental co-living schemes. The latter extends the model of student halls – throwing a group of people who don’t know each other into a single flat and charging them high rent – into the lucrative young professional market.

According to Rose, ‘there were some proposals [for co-living schemes] that came before the planning committee in the summer that have gone through. If you look more broadly, development capital is seeing co-living and student housing as the way out of this economic crisis that we find ourselves in. That’s just being accelerated in Manchester.’

Manchester’s city planning committee was suspended throughout most of the summer due to lockdown, which made the already obscure and bureaucratic process of opposing development plans tip even further in favour of developers. Beth Redmond, another local housing organiser, says just 3 people were responsible for planning approval during this time.

Controversial proposals – such as one for a development of luxury flats in Hulme – which were initially thrown out of public meetings have now been revisited and passed by this new, unaccountable team. Rose notes that such damning breaches of democratic accountability in the planning process are only set to get worse with Robert Jenrick’s proposed reforms: ‘We will see much more of these decision makers who are not necessarily democratically accountable.’

Gentrification pits capital and social need against one another. In this case, the enormous financial power of global capital pouring into Manchester’s housing market, in the form of developers, unaccountable corporate landlords and an acquiescent council, is pitted against the people who have lived, worked, and studied in Manchester for generations – some of whom have organised into tenants unions and action groups, but many of whom are yet to realise the scale of the problem.

To Rose, the latter category could be mobilised by a proliferation of political education to help residents understand what is happening to their local area, why it is happening, and how they can best oppose it,

People don’t really know how all of this works, so building a mass movement of those who understand what is going on and are able to challenge it through whatever means they have would create a political crisis around the situation. We also need to think about a municipalist strategy for renters’ movements, and how we can get representatives within the council and on that planning committee who are answerable to a renters’ movement. That will probably have to be done through the Labour Party.

The push by developers and corporate landlords to build student halls, in order to pack students across the world into the city and extract rent from them, reached a crisis of its own this academic year. With most university teaching taking place online, and the other much-marketed aspects of student life on hold, the status of students within the neoliberal university system as sources of rent for the university and private landlords both has never been clearer.

Manchester Momentum co-chair Sarah Cundy outlined the problem in her piece for Tribune last month: ‘Those who have come to universities like Manchester sit in extortionately priced accommodation with little-to-no ability to work, little-to-no support from the government, and little-to-no support from university management who view them primarily as consumers.’

The ongoing crisis at universities like Manchester and MMU has led to the re-emergence of the rent strike movement. Students occupied campus buildings throughout November and successfully managed to negotiate a 30% rent reduction for the Autumn term, while continuing to challenge the University in a very public manner.

‘It’s been a massive lesson in collective agency, for the students,’ says Rose. ‘The thing with the rent strike is that there is a single landlord, which makes it a lot easier, as you have a single target under a lot of pressure. Also, students aren’t under the same legal framework as private tenants, so they can’t be evicted, and the university is forced to negotiate with them.’

However, the student rent strike movement has been bolstered by unprecedented collective action in the private rented sector, in which responsibility is atomised among thousands of tenants each accountable to different landlords. ‘Where there are these instances of a single landlord who holds multiple properties in a neighbourhood, or a corporate landlord, there are opportunities to collectivise against that landlord and exert meaningful pressure by withholding rent,’ says Rose. ‘In theory, I think these build-to-rent models provide an interesting opportunity to collectivise rent strikes. The rise of the corporate landlord presents the opportunity for the movement to grow.’

In an unexpected way, then, Manchester’s push to concentrate housing in the pockets of a few hyper-rich foreign investors and corporations may open up greater avenues for resistance from residents. The most effective targets are made clearer, and solidarity among tenants with a shared grievance increases their bargaining position and allows them to take greater risks.

This is the thread of hope beginning to emerge. Gentrification and property speculation do not occur in the abstract and are not contained within the offices of the council or the developers: eventually, eviction notices are served, bailiffs are brought in, houses come down and cranes go up. That means a mass movement of tenants, motivated by an ethos of direct action, can get in the middle of the process and jam the gears.

What this will take is the growth of organisations like GMTU and ACORN Manchester, and the consolidation of disparate but connected movements like UoM Rent Strike and Block the Block within a regional anti-gentrification union – one that recognises that these infringements stem from structural causes, and can be powerfully opposed, and, perhaps, even dismantled, by collective action.