The law is failing renters – time to unionise

NEF are backing the growing renters’ movement - here's why

When I told people in November I was being evicted, there were those who grew wide-eyed and asked Why?” as images of me running a hedgehog sanctuary from my living room or coming to fisty cuffs with the upstairs neighbour flashed through their minds. While those who, like me, live in the private rented sector, just nodded or shrugged, not in the least bit shocked that I was being evicted simply because.

The market rents on my street had doubled since we moved in and the law, as it is now, grants my landlady the right to turf us out and replace us with tenants who can afford to pay up. And so, while it might be comforting to believe that if someone gets evicted they must have done something to deserve it, that is simply not the case in England today. Many of us still hold onto the assumption that the law works to uphold what is just and true, when in fact it puts the profit margins of landlords, letting agents and speculators above our need for a home.

Last year I met a woman called Mary while I was running a street stall with other members of the London Renters Union (LRU) outside Stratford station. A big crowd had gathered because one of our particularly dedicated Union members had volunteered to dress up as a landlord, place himself in novelty stocks and allow the disgruntled renters of east London to pelt him with wet sponges. The atmosphere was electric with catharsis.

The law puts the profit margins of landlords, letting agents and speculators above our need for a home

LRU were inviting passers-by to take the microphone and share their renting experiences. As Mary began to tell her story, busy commuters and shoppers stopped, shaking their heads in disgust or nodding in grim recognition.

Mary explained how, like many private renters who receive housing benefit, she hadn’t been able to find a single letting agent who was willing to rent to her. She eventually approached Advance Estates (now known as Advance Glenisters) in Romford, who offered her a flat, but only on the condition that she pay six months’ rent upfront.

How do you raise six months’ rent if you claim benefits to survive? With great difficulty. Advance pressured Mary to pay the £4,800 in advance rent before letting her see a contract, leaving Mary with no choice but to borrow from family, getting into enormous debts she had no way of paying off.

When Mary was eventually shown the contract, she noticed a small piece of paper clipped to the top that explained if she couldn’t provide a highly-paid guarantor in six months’ time, she’d be expected to pay another six months’ rent or face eviction.

During a torturous four-hour meeting, Mary was pressured to sign the contract, despite her clear distress and uncertainty. Her friend Rodney, who accompanied Mary to the meeting, describes how she was told by one of Advance’s staff, I’m going on a holiday, I’ve got a plane to catch. You’ve got 15 minutes to sign this tenancy agreement.”

Mary never moved into the flat. She knew she wouldn’t be able to raise another lump sum of rent, and feared homeless in six months’ if she left her current flat and moved in. But Advance refused to pay Mary back the £4,800, despite her never having set foot in the property.

If your reaction to this runs somewhere along the lines of The rotters! That must be illegal!” then you’re not alone. This is how most people reacted when Mary told them what happened to her.

But, in fact, no housing law had been broken.

If Mary had had savings or access to legal aid, there’s a chance she could have brought a case against Advance, possibly using consumer rights law, but she had neither.

The laws which underpin private renting are a disgrace. When one in five MPs are landlords and our current system was designed in the eighties to allow landlords to maximise their profits and minimise their obligations to those they rent to, we renters shouldn’t be surprised we’re being exploited.

Housing support services had few answers for Mary. The Citizens Advice Bureau very helpfully assisted Mary with her claim to the Property Redress Scheme but because the law is weighted in favour of landlords and agents, the Scheme found in Advance’s favour.

So what do you do when the system governing something as important as your home is failing you?

Mary joined her nearest renters union and began, with her fellow LRU members, a six-month campaign of direct action; lively public pickets outside Advance’s offices, coordinated mass phone calls to the letting agents, pulling in support from sympathetic local organisations. Mary even persuaded her local MP to write to Advance, threatening a parliamentary debate if they didn’t return her money.

Then last month, just as the situation was looking hopeless, Advance agreed to pay back the full £4,800 in advance rent, plus Mary’s £570 administration fee. After a year of being pressured, patronised and undermined by Advance, Mary finally has justice.

This is why direct action works: it exposes the truth that lies behind all systems of government and finance – that they are upheld by public consent

It’s tempting to cast Advance as pantomime villains skulking in the margins of what is considered acceptable among letting agents. But this would be false. Visitors to the Advance offices will be invited to behold their glorious wall of gilt-edged certificates declaring their excellence in the field of residential lettings. They’re members of every kite-mark scheme going.

In their recent mystery shopping, Which? found that one in four agents, like Advance, failed to provide a contract before the renter had handed over the money. Advance are not outliers of the system. They are the system.

Mary’s victory is important, but Mary and LRU have their sights set on much bigger fish – ending discrimination against people on housing benefit and demanding homes are returned to public ownership. Nothing short of system change will do.

All the big victories won for renters in recent years – a ban on letting agents fees, effective from 1st June, an end to no fault eviction – began as demands made by renters in the grassroots housing movement, when politicians and larger, more established charities were too timid.

The idea that Extinction Rebellion (XR) would have put a rocket up government climate policy by mounting an online petition and writing to the energy secretary is fanciful. XR have broken though because they got in the way and forced those in power out of their comfort zone.

This is why direct action works: it exposes the truth that lies behind all systems of government and finance – that they are upheld by public consent. And so by organising mass disobedience, be this through strike action, collective withholding of rent or, as with XR, blocking the arteries of the nation’s capital, these systems are immediately threatened, exposed as weak and precarious, ripe for being torn up and rebuilt by the people they are so spectacularly failing.

It’s for this reason the New Economics Foundation are backing the growing renters’ movement, through groups like LRU and ACORN, who understand that providing advice or politely lobbying their local council isn’t going to bring about the system change so badly needed.

Over the past year NEF has supported renters in Birmingham and Colchester to organise and take direct action to improve their homes. Over the next three years, we’ll step-up our work with private renters, lending our support to new and existing groups who are unionising and finding ways to build and exert their collective power, to wrestle decent, dignified housing from the landlords, developers and politicians who control it.

Image: Alex Garland (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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