Has renting in London become as risky as squatting?
On 10 April, I was one of the activists from London Renters who occupied Britain’s Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), which is considering proposals to make it even easier for landlords to evict tenants from their homes. The press were milling about outside, Channel 4’s Paul Mason presented a housing special and the BBC was also there, vying for stories of eviction. We’re awash with the tensions of the housing market, and many British viewers who don’t rent in London understandably want to know what that means. But, having invited journalists along, no members of our coalition of private tenants groups would go on camera. Because the odds that one of our landlords may be watching a Channel 4 housing special are quite high - at least higher than them reading a New Internationalist blog.
By speaking out, we run the risk of losing our homes. If a landlord knows we are organizing against a profiteering property system, the game’s up. One member of the Tower Hamlets group recently got eviction papers after he reported his landlord to the council for the gaping hole in his roof, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It might take a couple of months as the courts are so blocked up with evictions, but under section 21 of the Housing Act, landlords don’t actually need a reason to evict us.
So the idea that the DCLG will ease this process further is farcical. But unfortunately these laws aren’t a result of government ineptitude – a third of MPs are landlords, many raking it in from housing benefit. By contrast, renter impoverishment continues apace with 39 per cent of us now living in poverty. The money doesn’t even enter our accounts mostly – it just goes straight from government to MP landlord.
With precarity an inalienable fact of city life for most, renters groups have begun to spring up across the city. Many of those involved are indignant because they still expect security; others are jaded - they have come to expect eviction and intimidation over decades. The same day we paid a visit to DCLG, 40 riot cops arrested 14 people trying (and failing) to stop Camden council evicting a man who councillors claimed was living in too small a room: not much of a win for quality housing for the people as he was dropped off at the council office to make a homelessness application. As renters we are squeezed on all sides.
Agents take their cut; landlords are not held to account for the state of their properties or ordered to reinvest any of their rocketing profits in keeping buildings habitable. Right now, 33 per cent of private homes don’t meet the government ‘decent homes’ standards. Research by housing charity Shelter has found that 1 in 33 renters have been a victim of a ‘retaliatory eviction’, and 1 in 8 are so fearful of being evicted that they will not ask for repairs to be done. Some London Renters activists are in this position.
It's not just repairs that are the problem. We need an end to section 21, longer tenancies than just 6 months or a year, and the prosecution of landlords who are breaking the law. We’ve raised these issues in consultation meetings held by the Department for Communities and Local Government. It was, to our knowledge, the first time they had spoken to tenants’ representatives, and they still haven’t listened.
As the assumption of insecurity grows, conflict with landlords seems inescapable, and eviction resistance begins to mirror other insecure tenures like squatting. But without the right to organize, we can only preach to the converted. I’m banking on my landlord not reading the New Internationalist – I’ll let you know if I hear from him.