Jacob Wills has spent the last few years working with Irish Travellers.

Has renting in London become as risky as squatting?


Renters are becoming increasingly reluctant to speak out about unsatisfactory living conditions as they fear retaliatory eviction. © Occupy

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.

Time to fight for Travellers

The Dale Farm eviction in 2011. Photo reproduced with permission from the Traveller Solidarity Network.

One year ago, the violent eviction at Dale Farm, near Basildon, Essex, prompted the largest mobilization of settled people in support of Travellers ever seen in Britain. But despite this the families were removed on 19 October 2011 and their struggle is not over.

With the prospect of a second eviction looming for those that have resettled nearby, a number of residents are severely depressed, and many are seriously ill. Travellers have the lowest life expectancy of any ethnic group in Britain.

A year to the day since the evictions began, the Traveller Solidarity Network will be protesting at the Department for Communities and Local Government. Billed ‘The eviction to end all evictions,’ activists want to highlight the worsening situation both at Dale Farm and for Travellers and Roma across Britain.

For a brief moment, as activists and residents worked together to try and save the Dale Farm site in 2011 the mainstream media suspended its customary hostility towards the Travellers community.

Local newspapers, however, continue to play on the prejudices and fears of NIMBY (‘not in my back yard’) settled people, adding ‘not another Dale Farm’ to their arsenal of anti-Traveller soundbites. Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, joined them last week by ushering in a new policy to avoid a repeat of an eviction that cost £7 million (over $11 million).

Brilliant, we say, but it seems Pickles has got his reasoning all in a pickle. Word on the street is that you can’t go assaulting an ethnic minority with an army of riot police because you don’t agree with the way they live. And it’s not okay to then leave them,  traumatized on the roadside without water or electricity supplies, with nowhere else to go.

What Pickles is concerned about is that the Dale Farm families were able to mount costly legal challenges against their original eviction. What we need he says is faster, unopposed evictions, and less authorization of Traveller and Roma  sites. In other words,  fewer Travellers.

The Dale Farm families had bought the land they lived on, under government guidance, after numerous previous evictions. In the aftermath of last year’s eviction, some were accommodated by relatives on other sites for a short period.

But local councils threaten revocation of a family’s license if extra caravans are present – it’s rather like the the government telling you that your cousins can’t  stay with you for more than a couple of weeks. So the families returned to the road next to the hazardous ruins of their old home.

Much anti-Traveller racism manifests itself as ‘cultural’, focusing on perceived attributes and behaviours of a community. This kind of racism may distance itself from the old-style biological racism, but it’s damaging all the same.

The state violence against a culture and community such as Dale Farm is reiterated every day in the refusal to give planning permission to Traveller sites. Already over half the population of Travellers and Romani Gypsies live against their will in bricks and mortar housing.

The Localism Act of  2011 is exacerbating  the national shortage of nearly 6,000 Traveller pitches nationally by removing the duty on councils to identify sites for this purpose. Instead, the Government now leaves them to set their own targets, a move that has already more than halved the number of planned new pitches. This will further fuel tensions between settled and Traveller communities and increase spending on evictions. Who will profit? Companies like Constant & Co, the firm of bailiffs that made £2 million ($3 million) from evicting Dale Farm.

In some cases, the Act allows for Travellers to be evicted from land they have bought before their application for planning permission has even been heard. It also puts pressure on housing needed by settled people.

The Fight For Sites campaign has been launched, calling for a system in which the right to culturally appropriate housing is safeguarded, and racism is not tolerated.

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