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How Tenant Organising Beat Anti-Benefit Landlords

ACORN Oxford's victory on a campaign to stop discrimination against benefit recipients shows how direct action empowers tenants to break landlords' stranglehold on our cities.

Credit: ACORN Oxford

In the most spatially segregated city in England, something is shifting.

Oxford is known by many as a university town, famous for its role in reproducing the political elite. But it is a city with a population of more than 150,000, and home to large NHS hospitals, a car factory, and an army of invisibilised workers who keep the university’s colleges running.

The city has the highest proportion of renters in England, coupled with the highest rents. It has long been referred to as suffering the extremes of the ‘housing crisis’, and locals have felt this sharply. Struggling with sky-high monthly payments to landlords coming out of low pay cheques, more and more people are priced out far beyond the ring-road, or onto sofas and the streets.

Letting agencies and landlords are used to feeling that they run the city.

This has started to change over the past year, with residents setting up a local group of ACORN, the community union. The group has quickly grown to an active branch of over two hundred members fighting and winning cases where renters face hazardous states of disrepair, illegal fees, deposit theft, evictions, and discrimination.

These discriminatory practices punish renters on benefits, and in doing so capture much of what is obviously wrong with the housing system. A dire lack of social housing forces people into the precarious rented sector. Benefits, capped so low that they barely cover essentials, have to be spent on rent. Wealthy landlords are effectively subsidised by the state. There is no social housing alternative. Ultimately, landlords and agencies decide who is able to live where. And all too often they decide ‘not here’.

‘No DSS’ policies (when agents refuse to rent to people in receipt of Universal Credit or other housing benefit) have been ruled unlawful under the Equality Act. Although you won’t see the phrase ‘No DSS’ (which stands for Department of Social Security, now the Department for Work and Pensions) glaring out from as many webpages as you once would have, letting agents filter out renters through covert means. These insidious practices include exclusionary insurance company rules, unnecessary requests for a guarantor, or merely pointing to landlords’ ‘personal preferences’.

Anyone trying to rent privately while receiving benefits will have a story of being stonewalled by agents, receiving upfront refusals, or tenancies mysteriously falling through all part of a long and stressful hunt for somewhere to live. One ACORN Oxford member and her young children had a tenancy pulled out from beneath their feet a matter of days before they were meant to move in because the landlord took issue with ‘fluctuations in her Universal Credit’, an expected part of receiving childcare support. The branch responded by marching on the property investor landlord, whose total shock at being confronted just goes to show how landlords currently expect to be able to behave with absolute impunity.

So where are ordinary people supposed to live?

For too long, private property owners and developers have been able to shape the places we call home at our expense. In Oxford, this undemocratic experiment has gone so far that a shared sense of identity is now tied to the experience of being pushed out. When the local paper recently asked readers how you ‘know someone is from Oxford’, answers referring to having to leave due to housing costs topped the list. We live in a place defined by being unliveable.

When ACORN Oxford members voted to launch a ‘Yes to DSS’ campaign, it gathered momentum rapidly, powered by an energy that has been building in communities for years — the desire for a real and direct challenge to the stranglehold property owners have on our city. With ordinary people still bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s economic fallout, this issue is coming to a head. Mass job losses and long-term ill health are combining with a wave of evictions, leading to more people relying on Universal Credit while having to find somewhere new to live. The choice was between allowing agencies to accelerate social cleansing through discriminatory practices, or to stand united as a community and refuse to let them get away with it.

The campaign targeted the four most notorious letting agencies in the city, with the lived experience of members bolstered by audio recordings of staff at each company stating that they refuse renters on benefits. A big, bold ‘flying picket’ was organised every other weekend of the campaign, with members forming a unified line around each premises, moving to a different agency every time. The picket lines were noisy and bright, impossible to miss or ignore. Passing cars honked in support, members of the public stopped to talk, people who had never taken a platform before led speeches and chanting — all building up to the presentation of a pledge for the agents to sign committing them to saying YES to DSS.

Unsurprisingly, they refused to sign. The agencies were seriously rattled, repeatedly having to defend themselves in the local press and to the public, and instructing all staff that they were to follow policy to the letter. However, it was clear that the campaign needed a bigger push, and it would require people power.

The surge came in the form of a rally that brought together ACORN members, trades union representatives, local politicians, and the wider community, gaining the backing of local MP, Anneliese Dodds. An assembly was followed by a mass march down the Cowley Road, accompanied by a local all-women drumming troupe, to confront local agency Penny & Sinclair. People enjoying the afternoon along the famously diverse strip of cafes, bars, and shops stood up and joined in; a huge crowd gathered outside the offices to play an audio recording for all to hear. Booing erupted as the voice of an employee blared out from the soundsystem, stating that ‘We don’t as a company take housing benefits or that sort of product.’

A historic victory followed less than 24 hours later, when Oxford City councillors unanimously passed a cross-party motion to stamp out DSS discrimination, the first motion of its kind. It promises that the council will play an active role in publicly denouncing discrimination against benefits claimants, working to identify and act on cases of discrimination.

Significantly, the motion involves the council establishing a permanent ‘tenants forum’ composed of community groups, council tenants, and private renters, who will consult directly with the Housing and Homelessness panel whenever decisions impacting renters come before the council. This represents a vital first step in building collective, democratic channels to ensure that we have a say in how we live.

In 2020, a campaign for landlord licencing in the city was won after mass mobilisation to drown out the landlord lobby, who opposed the scheme and had many seats round the consultation table. This change will automatically give renters a seat without having to fight for it, opening up the space to set sights on new horizons and bigger wins.

In a matter of months, direct and collective action took DSS discrimination from a covert and shadowy practice, accepted as part and parcel of renting in Oxford, to the top of the agenda in a motion passed in town hall.

But the words of Penny & Sinclair’s representative deserve some attention. He made his statement under the impression that he was talking to a landlord, deeming it safe for the mask to come off and lay bare an assumed shared disdain for tenants. It is telling that he didn’t peddle the usual rhetoric, which frames the renter as a ‘customer’ liberated by the choice of the market. The renter here is a ‘product’, selected and exchanged for a fee. Either way, there’s no empowerment to be found on their terms.

Few things sum up the power we have better than the words of defensive rentiers themselves, who flock to online comment sections and forums to share their open disgust for tenants, often explaining their interests as part of a class project with an entertaining, and useful, starkness. A particularly helpful comment was made by a landlord after ACORN members’ collective action forced her to pay compensation to long-suffering tenants. Quoted in the Eastern Daily Press, she explains that through coming up against the union, ‘I came to understand I was not just in a dispute with my ex-tenants, but a well-organised national network with a vision to fundamentally change how property ownership is structured.’

Something is shifting, and it’s got to give. We’re not consumers and we’re not products. By coming together as a community united as neighbours, tenants, and workers, we are building the pressure to reshape where we live, to set a new precedent. We’ll redefine our city as somewhere shaped by and for the people who live here, not a place played like a profit generating game. Together we can reclaim our homes, and our lives.