Last year, after months of paying extortionate rent to live in a cold, damp flat and angry about the impact of the multiple cuts to housing benefit, I decided it was time to do something. It turns out that other people were thinking the same thing. Since then, we’ve become part of a rapidly-expanding network of private renter’s groups across the capital, part of an increasingly linked-up housing movement critiquing the neoliberal housing system and demanding alternatives by which people can access decent and secure housing where and when they need it.
Earlier this year, private tenant’s groups from across London organised a coordinated day of action as part of the Let Down campaign. We targeted letting agents, highlighting their extortionate fees, their lack of regulation and the discrimination shown against tenants on housing benefit. Estate agents are a key component in the pushing up of rents and the proliferation of insecure tenancies.
The actions were as varied as their participants. In Herne Hill, an angry tenant organised a letting agent complaints choir. They held a rehearsal in Herne Hill station around a piano donated to the community, and later performed in nearby letting agents. In north London, the Haringey Housing Action Group delivered ‘cease and desist’ orders to local letting agents, demanding that they bring to an end their anti-social behaviour. Meanwhile, renters groups from Hackney and Tower Hamlets held a giant game of ‘housing crisis Monopoly’ outside letting agents around Angel.
In Brixton, we carried out a ‘community housing inspection’, visiting letting agents to grill them about their practices, culminating in the presentation of an award to Brixton’s worst agent. By the end of the afternoon, the winner was clear – Brixton’s newest letting agent, Foxton’s, were so keen to avoid even talking to us that they went to the trouble of employing bouncers to prevent us from entering their offices.
It wasn’t the first time that Foxton’s latest branch has made the headlines. Due to it being seen by many as a symbol of the accelerating gentrification of Brixton, the branch has found itself the target of paint-fuelled protests on at least two occasions since opening in March. Ever increasing rents and a chronic shortage of social housing is leading many people who have lived here for decades, forming strong and important communities, to find that they or their families can no longer afford to stay.
As usual, the culprit for these cumulative dispossessions can be found in ‘the market’. Those who can afford to are free to choose where they want to live, pushing up prices in the areas they choose, leaving the rest to make do. During the period after the Second World War, there were huge levels of investment in state owned housing stock that would provide decent, affordable housing for a broad swathe of the population, free from the demands of the free market. Since then the stock has been dismantled through right-to-buy programs, sell-offs and privatisation through housing associations who increasingly resemble property developers.
The result is that the public purse, which should rightly support those who need help with their housing costs, is lining the pockets of private landlords and mega-housing associations, with housing costs constituting an increasingly unsustainable proportion of households budgets. Even by the logic of supporters of capitalism, the market can never provide the efficiency they suggest forms the basis of a market economy. This is especially true when considering that the housing supply is necessarily limited by the availability of land and due to it’s basis as a fundamental need – people can’t simply stop ‘consuming’ it when it gets expensive.
In the short term, some renter’s groups are calling for regulation of the market through reforms to control rents, more secure tenancies and properly regulated letting agents, including extending the ban on fees for tenants that currently exists in Scotland to the rest of the UK. But in the long term we need a much more fundamental shift in the housing system, with its removal from the extremes of the market and a much smaller, if any, role for private landlords.
The promising news is that people have had enough and are starting to organise for a better housing system. In South London alone, there are new private renters groups set up to campaign in Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark, complemented by a recently set-up housing action group which acts as a self-help group, supporting people with individual housing problems, from overcrowding to problem landlords or housing benefit changes. That’s not to mention the well-established local branches of Defend Council Housing who have been fighting the bedroom tax, and Lambeth United Housing Cooperative who continue to challenge the council’s vicious and short-sighted bid to sell-off of their homes.
In May, members of these groups and many others converged at Open House, a week-long space bringing together people to organise and take action around the housing crisis, and pledged to work together more going forward. It’s almost certainly the start of bigger things – housing profiteers, beware!
By Christine Haigh | letdown.org.uk