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Flooded out, then priced out: Katrina’s legacy 10 years on


Kingprince under a Creative Commons Licence

Brain gain and housing strain

Like many of New Orleans’ long-term residents, for many years, Wanda Davis felt too traumatized after Hurricane Katrina to return to the city where she grew up.

Her home in Gentilly was submerged in almost 3 metres of water and its entire contents were destroyed. But it was finding her wedding ring amid the destruction that gave her hope.

‘I lost everything and it was a depressing time for me, so when I saw my ring, it meant I had something to hold on to,’ she says.

When the levees protecting New Orleans failed in August 2005, submerging 80% of the city under water, more than 1,000 people died and over a million were displaced – and many never returned.

A decade on from one of the US’s greatest environmental and engineering catastrophes, most of the locals who were able to come back are feeling the financial strain of living in a city that is no longer affordable for them.

Despite her initial reluctance, Davis is happy to be back home. But with a mortgage, insurance and utility which cost 3 times more than she was paying before Katrina, she estimates that almost half of her income goes toward housing costs.

‘They are rebuilding a newer and better New Orleans, but the cost of living is much higher,’ she says. ‘We have to juggle to make ends meet.’

According to The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, 16% of the city’s homeowners spend half of their income or more on housing costs. Fifty-five per cent of the population rents accommodation, and of these, 40% spend half of their income or more on housing.

Wanda Davis, Gentilly homeowner

Sarah Shearman

The pain of high housing costs is felt more acutely in low-income households, with studies showing that it forces people to cut back on other necessities such as food, transportation and healthcare.

Before Katrina, New Orleans was seen as a largely affordable city to live in. But a decade on, it is only high earners or people from out of town who are feeling the benefit, says Fred Johnson, chief executive of Neighborhood Development Foundation, a 30-year-old non-profit that trains and educates first-time homebuyers.

‘We always had a lot of available properties; they may not have been in the best condition, but they were certainly affordable,’ he says.

Johnson’s work is aimed at helping New Orleans’ renters become homeowners and help them break out of cycles of poverty by building their personal assets. But with rent and housing prices in the city rising sharply – the average price of a house in New Orleans has increased 46% since Katrina – the situation is becoming untenable. ‘It’s increasingly a case of the haves and have nots,’ says Johnson.

A housing crisis is gripping many cities across the US due to the supply of affordable housing falling short of demand. But in New Orleans, a catastrophe the size of Katrina had a tremendous impact on supply. About 70% of New Orleans’ housing stock was damaged or destroyed as a result of the hurricane. The demolition of 4 of the city’s major public-housing projects in 2008, in favour of new mixed-income housing, added further strain to the housing supply.

Brain gain and housing strain

These pressures are felt more acutely by African American residents; as demographics shift, they are being pushed further out of the city centre, says Monika Gerhart, director of policy and communications at The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.

Since Katrina, New Orleans has become whiter and more Hispanic, with the city seeing an influx of workers as part of the relief and reconstruction effort. More recently, it has been touted as one of the fastest-growing cities, experiencing ‘brain gain’ with a higher than average growth in entrepreneurship.

While the city’s population is now at 79% of its pre-Katrina size, almost 100,000 African Americans did not return after the hurricane, according to the Census Bureau’s 2013 population estimates, taking the black population from 67% before Katrina, to 60% now.

Historical African American and working-class neighbourhoods close to the French Quarter and its musical hub of Frenchman Street are rapidly gentrifying, driving up the costs for long-term residents.

This situation makes life particularly challenging for those working in the tourism industry. With low wages in the sector and a public transport system that has not returned to pre-Katrina levels, being priced out of neighbourhoods means longer, more unreliable commutes for workers who cannot afford their own vehicle.

‘They are rebuilding a newer and better New Orleans, but the cost of living is much higher. We have to juggle to make ends meet’

Concerns are growing about the effect these changes will have on the city’s unique and rich cultural identity, which is what attracts millions of tourists every year.

‘New Orleans culture wasn’t legislated in and it won’t be legislated out – it is going to become a bigger and bigger tourist attraction, because that is what we do here,’ says Johnson.

‘But whenever certain groups, African American or others, don’t get an economic hold, people with the money are going to push the people without the money out, and you’ll be a city like Aspen, Colorado – the people who work there don’t live there; they get bused in and out.’

With New Orleans in the global spotlight for the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this week, its future is the subject of fierce debate.

‘New Orleans has faced some hard challenges. The disaster response was a train wreck, then the intermediate phase was slow,’ says Gerhart. ‘At this point, it is about the next 10 years and we need to figure out how to use all the tools in our box, to get all the people who lived in New Orleans, who made this city great, to come back here.’


Homelessness – the facts


Raising the roof in the fight against homelessness


© Building and Social Housing Foundation

Sri Lanka: 50,000 Houses for War Survivors

When Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war finally ended in 2009 tens of thousands of displaced families in refugee camps were eager to return home – to land they had owned before the war. After such a bloody conflict, community life was shattered, relationships broken and houses in ruin. People returning home lived in makeshift, temporary shelters often without electricity or other services.

That’s when the Indian government decided to step in with an offer of resettlement aid. (No doubt prompted by the millions of Tamils living in southern India). The result was the 50,000 Houses project, launched in 2012 with $240 million to support self-help housing and development programmes. The target is to fund 50,000 houses for 225,000 people. To date 45,200 houses have been completed.

The self-help approach planted seeds for people-led recovery. Owners were put in charge of building instead of contractors; housing grants were given to individual families. Encouraging people to make their own decisions and manage their finances built confidence. This culture of self-help is reflected in the quality of the houses, the speed of construction and in the confidence displayed in meeting other challenges.

Partner agencies (UN-Habitat, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Habitat for Humanity and Sri Lanka’s National Housing Development Authority) provided logistical support and technical assistance.


Canada: The RAFT

The Raft is a drop-in centre and hostel for homeless youth in St Catharines, Ontario, a small town in the province’s fruit growing belt, a 20-minute drive from Niagara Falls. The Raft has supported thousands of young people, providing programmes and resources, and helping them to become independent and self-sufficient.

Building and Social Housing Foundation

The centre started in 1994 in response to an interfaith task force on the lack of services for at-risk and homeless youth. Funding comes from service clubs, community groups, churches and individuals. The RAFT began as a drop in centre operating five nights a week but has since expanded to include a 16-bed hostel as well as a range of community-based youth projects.

The goal is to help young people take control of their lives, to build self-esteem and confidence while empowering them to become involved members of their community.


Australia: Geelong Project

The Geelong Project is an ambitious partnership between agencies across the spectrum of homelessness, youth justice, family violence, mental health, disability, education, employment, recreation, cultural diversity and aboriginal services.

Building and Social Housing Foundation

In a nutshell, the earlier a problem is spotted the earlier the intervention and the likelihood of nipping it in the bud. In this case that means reducing homelessness and the social, emotional and health problems linked to it. Effective early intervention means uncovering risk factors such as family conflict, mental health issues, unemployment, poverty, alcohol or drug issues and crime. But it also means strengthening protective factors such as community connections and healthy family relationships.

Early intervention can be early in the life of a child or early in the life of a problem. Either way, evidence shows that many of the harms associated with homelessness can be prevented or reduced. One of the challenges is to determine when and how to intervene effectively. But one thing is clear: the role of families is crucial.


Jordan: Urban Shelter Project

Building and Social Housing Foundation

This project works with Jordanian owners to refurbish uninhabitable properties to create homes that are then leased to Syrian refugees, rent-free for 18 months. Funds are used to subsidize the refurbishments, which has a positive impact on the local economy by increasing the availability of housing and providing jobs. More than 5,000 housing units have been improved, providing housing for over 18,000 refugees and creating over 20,000 short-term jobs.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) provides funding to bring the properties up to scratch. The NRC also provides legal aid to Syrian refugees to help them with civil documentation, refugee registration, and housing, land and property rights. The project has revitalized the local economy with more than $10 million in new investment, and continues to fundraise to renovate additional properties.


Britain: Stonewall Housing

Since 1983 Stonewall Housing has provided housing advice, advocacy and support for LGBT+ people who are frequently discriminated against when trying to find decent, affordable housing. Stonewall develops awareness and procedures that create equal access to services. People who are vulnerable to double discrimination, such as LGBT+ refugees and migrants, are also helped to overcome barriers in their housing search.

Building and Social Housing Foundation

Services include a free, confidential housing advice helpline; drop-in housing advice workshops; specialist and awareness training for social housing staff and tenants; providing consultancy and information to other agencies about housing for LGBT+ people; and lobbying and campaigning for their housing rights.

Stonewall Housing’s aim is to ensure that people live in safer homes, free from fear, where they can celebrate their identity and support each other to achieve their full potential. Their projects focus on addressing social inequalities, helping their clients to stay engaged in wider society.

Stonewall Housing has launched a number of much-needed projects including one that challenged Forced Marriage, ROAR (a project on domestic abuse) and Finding Safe Spaces (aimed at rough sleepers).


Chile: The Resilient Social Housing Project

Building and Social Housing Foundation

The 2010 earthquake and tsunami destroyed more than 11,000 homes and other buildings on the Chilean coast – shattering communities and people’s livelihoods. The original plan was to move people quickly into new housing away from the sea. But local communities weren’t keen. They wanted to stay where they were and to continue their traditional lifestyle of fishing and collecting algae.

So a demonstration project was conceived. Local residents whose homes had been destroyed were canvassed for their ideas and input. As a result 180 ‘stilt houses’ were built in 5 villages. The new houses were designed to survive natural disasters. They are earthquake proof and can be quickly and easily repaired if battered by future tsunamis.

The costs – about $25,000 per house – were covered by the Chilean government’s Ministry of Housing and Urban Development. So the residents were able to acquire their new homes without going into debt. Annual upkeep is their responsibility, much easier since they continue to earn their living from the sea.

This pioneering approach to social housing in Chile has shifted the goal-posts and should become a modelfor new social housing initiativesacross the country.



Community action for affordable London homes

An inner-city neighbourhood in north London has a radical plan to fight gentrification by setting up Britain’s biggest-ever Community Land Trust (CLT).

The residents of Camley Street in Camden live within walking distance of luxury flats in King’s Cross, where rapid gentrification has seen house prices sky-rocket.

‘There was growing concern with the “Manhattan walking up the street”,’ said Christian Spencer-Davies, in reference to two recently erected student accommodation towers in the Camley Street area.

Spencer-Davies, who runs a local business, is one of the leaders of the ambitious initiative to set up a CLT to buy land from Camden Council and develop it in the interests of the residents.

The group proposes a visionary, community-led, community-owned building scheme over a 10-year period. The project would deliver sustainable and affordable buildings for both housing and industry, with additional green spaces, including roofs that double up as public parks.

Overall, the plan includes providing up to 900 homes; for around 50 per cent of them, prices to rent (or buy over time) would be capped at no higher than a third of average local incomes, rather than at market rates.

Residents and businesses in Camley Street, a largely working-class neighbourhood, feared being priced out of the area after student flats appeared and industry buildings were knocked down.

‘We recognized the threat,’ said Spencer-Davies. ‘People are at risk of being evicted so that everything can be transformed. There was no point sitting and waiting.’

Pension funds, attracted by long-term yields and the sustainability of the project, have expressed a strong interest in investing the necessary $984 million in upfront funding.

The group in Camley Street is now waiting on a response to its submission from the Labour-controlled Camden Council.

Spencer-Davies believes the balance is tipping in their favour. ‘I think it’s a yo-yo between 60 and 90 per cent that it will happen,’ he said.

‘It would be about 20 or 30 times bigger than anything ever done,’ said Stephen Hill, of the Camley Street plans. A board member of the National Community Land Trust Network, Hill has seen the sector grow six-fold since 2010. ‘CLTs give people who are angry about housing an opportunity to really do something about it.’

CLTs started over a decade ago, mainly in small rural communities. The past five years have seen the idea spread to urban communities. Some 225 CLTs are now in existence – Brixton Green CLT just got the green light to build 300 homes, half of them affordable.


Requiem 4 Grenfell

The eerie structure
haunts the clouds,
its charred skeleton
arrests the rush-hour traffic
and confuses the migratory birds
who seek a nest
amid the debris.

Residents of Grenfell resume their daily pilgrimage. Requiem 4 Grenfell

Exhausted neighbours resume their daily pilgrimage
past a gallery of faded photographs
whose innocent faces
contemplate another day in limbo,
their drained hearts
trying to tune into
the latest episode
of this never ending saga.

Requiem 4 Grenfell.

Corporate manslaughter
decree the masonic suits
giving another turn
to this absurd
But corporate has no faces
and bestows a convenient anonimity
to the real culprits;
and MANslaughter
falls so short of including
the women, children
and those of mixed gender preferences
who, along with cats, dogs and parrots
disappeared on that terrible night…

My strong empathy has a history
for I, too, was not accounted for,
during many weeks in my younger years,
forcibly hidden behind a dirty hood
in a concealed basement
in a distant corner of the world.

My comrades missed me in the barricades
which we erected
against a cruel dictatorship,
my loved ones moved heaven and earth
in the hope that I would be still alive…

They finally found me,
and freed me
and sent me into exile
to these cold islands
where decades later
I had to witness the sad irony
of seeing so many who also came here
to escape an abysmal past
or an uncertain future
finding themselves betrayed
by indifference
and inequality…

Ashes to ashes
is written in ancient folios…
The names of the Grenfallen
are also recorded
in the Book of Life,
a memory that no one
can erase;
and they will be remembered
and honoured
with the dignity
that they could not find
on this side
of destiny


by Julio Etchart
London, 2017

Author and photographer Julio Etchart says:

‘As you can see from the poem, my empathy with the victims has a history, for I was also “disappeared” for months in a secret detention centre during my youth in Uruguay in the 1970s, after protesting against one of the worst Latin American dictatorships of that time.

‘I came here as an exile, and I have a natural affinity with those who have followed a similar path.

‘The tragedy of Grenfell is that many of the victims were also trying to escape a similar fate, only to end up being erased from the face of the Earth.---’


Priced out no more: how a London group defied gentrification

From the top floor of an industrial building just north of central London, Christian Spencer-Davies pointed towards the city centre.

In front of us there was another low-rise industrial structure, and around it half a dozen cranes looming over other buildings. A little farther, two towers dominated the skyline – flashy student accommodation halls that residents call ‘Manhattan walking up the street’.

‘Just a few years ago, nothing was there,’ Spencer-Davies said.

We were at the top of the Cedar Way Industrial Estate, just off Camley Street, within walking distance from King’s Cross.

A small area of Camden carved out between the railway and the canal, Camley Street is home to some 1,000 residents, mostly working class, and a few medium-sized industries. Many of them operate in the food sector, catering for central London.

Residents took the two towers to be early signs of a radical transformation seen across many other urban areas – gentrification. After the regeneration of King’s Cross in 2013, developers turned to its surroundings. The area attracted more interest, more investment, more businesses willing to relocate. Prices rose.

‘[In Camley Street] an old industry building came down,’ Spencer-Davies explained to New Internationalist. Cranes popped up. Then came the two towers.

If we didn’t do anything, we knew we wouldn’t be strong enough compared to the pressures developers could put on Camden Council to redevelop the area’ – Christian Spencer-Davies

Over time, the community grew concerned more faceless student blocks would pop up in the neighbourhood, fearing a spike in housing prices and that welcoming more students with no interest in the community would impoverish it. The local industries, on short-term leases from Camden Council, also grew worried the leases wouldn’t be renewed, and they too would have to relocate – following a London trend.

The map shows the location of Camley Street within North London. Via Bing Maps
Camley Street within London. Via Bing Maps

Unlike many other areas where residents fell victims of gentrification, Camley Street decided to act before it was too late. The community wasn’t reassured the council would do enough to prevent them from being pushed out, so they took matters into their own hands, and worked at plans for a Community Land Trust. This is the story of how a community fought to preserve its space, creating an alternative to the fate property speculation had for it.

People before profit

Community Land Trusts, or CLTs, are a radical form of community housing whereby the community acquires land (usually from the local authority), and then offers homes at genuinely affordable long-term leases, linked to median local salaries rather than market value.

In St Clement’s CLT, London’s first CLT established in 2016, one-bed flats were offered for sale at £130,000, compared to the £450,000 expected for similar flats in the area. The only catch: buyers can’t make a profit out of reselling their property; the housing will remain affordable for future occupants.

CLTs have the potential to shelter communities from the buffeting winds of the property market, because they empower the community to put its own needs –not profit – at the heart of local planning.

‘CLTs compete with developers to determine the future of a given area,’ explains Elena Besussi, a Planning Teaching Fellow at University College London.

Only one can win: CLTs or developers. ‘The key question is: who is the author of the transformation of cities?’

Thinking big

In Camley Street, the demolition of the first warehouse sparked local businesses’ concerns.

‘We needed something drastic to protect the [local] industry,’ explained Spencer-Davies, who owns an architectural modelling company, when I met him in Camley Street. ‘If we didn’t do anything, we knew we wouldn’t be strong enough compared to the pressures developers could put on Camden Council to redevelop the area.

CLTs give people who are angry about housing an opportunity to really do something. This is important given what’s happening in London these days’ – Stephen Hill

Alex Smith, [managing director of muesli-makers Alara, and chair of the Neighbourhood Forum] had an idea: build housing. And if we did housing, wouldn’t it be nice if it were affordable?’

The Neighbourhood Forum agreed and the group got in touch with lawyers, architects and planners.

Eventually plans were drawn up for Britain’s biggest-ever CLT – ‘20 or 30 times bigger than anything ever made,’ according to Stephen Hill, who has advised CLT groups since 1989.

It’s such a bold, radical plan that it’s been included in a book on Critical Planning Practices, and that Spencer-Davies has been invited to talk about it at the University of the Arts London.

It entails gradually pulling down the old warehouses and houses to make way for a neighbourhood redevelopment addressing the community’s needs.

Camley Street would offer more homes (700-800 of them, for about 2,000 people) and more space for industry. The area would become more affordable, ecologically sustainable, while also boasting more community spaces and plenty of green space.

Both local businesses and residents would be able to remain, and houses rented out at genuinely affordable rates – likely capped at 33 per cent of local median salaries, divided into different tiers. By contrast, in London many people renting privately currently spend up to 50 or 60 per cent of their salaries in rent.

A sketched section of the sustainable redevelopment of Camley Street as proposed by the community. Via Karakusevic and Carson architects
A sketched section of the sustainable redevelopment of Camley Street as proposed by the community. Via Karakusevic and Carson architects

The group in Camley Street was also able to find pledges for the funding needed to deliver the project – some £750 million, mostly from pension funds. (‘The bit that excites investors is that this is recession proof,’ Christian Spencer-Davies said.)

The CLT would also be financially sustainable. The plans would entail repaying all its loans within 75 years – and estimates that within 100 years it would make enough money from affordable rents that it could even decide to do a full rebuild.

‘Recession in the property market is guaranteed to happen at some point, but the whole housing market can go to fuck – and we’d still be cheaper,’ Spencer-Davies said.

Resisting gentrification

The size of the proposed Camley Street CLT is a first, but CLTs themselves are not new.

They’ve been around for decades, first in rural areas where nobody but the community was active in building, then in places where high proportions of holiday homes were forcing residents out. In the last five years, they have become a tool to resist gentrification in small urban communities (20-30 homes), like the one in St Clement’s.

Now, they are spreading fast. According to the National Community Land Trust Network, the number of CLTs in Britain has grown six-fold since 2010 – today, there are 225. The movement has reached larger urban communities in London, Bristol, Leeds and other cities. In London, Brixton Green CLT has already been approved and will deliver some 300 homes – half of which will be affordable. There is a proposal for the St Anne’s Hospital site in South Tottenham and a community group is planning to propose one on the Holloway Prison Site.

The map shows existing CLTs in England and Wales.

‘In London the ambition of communities is spurred on by the fact that there’s so much development going on, but very often without adequate amounts of affordable housing,’ says Stephen Hill. ‘CLTs give people who are angry about housing an opportunity to really do something. This is important given what’s happening in London these days,’ he says, referring to the Grenfell Tower tragedy – in which a 24-story council estate owned by one of Britain’s wealthiest local authorities caught fire killing at least 71.

Elena Besussi agrees: ‘If the [property] market is really driven by demand, the greatest demand there is in the UK at the moment is affordable housing.’

The breakthrough?

Fast forward to today, and plans for the Camley Street CLT have been on hold for a while – since autumn 2016, according to Stephen Hill.

Everybody who has been contacted for this article believes the CLT has all the ingredients to be successful. The CLT group has presented a study to the council and say they can ‘start building tomorrow’ if it is approved.

But a CLT’s chances of success so often depend on the political courage to back it – and this can be an obstacle. Councils can be under pressure to run ‘competitive’ tendering processes, and often lack experience with similar projects, so they’re incredulous that communities could really do something like a CLT, and of such scale.

After months of stalling talks, the project has made sudden progress in December 2017. Policy-makers within Camden Council have recognized the potential of the CLT plan, and the Council even expressed interest in taking on the development of the area.

Note: Paul Tomlinson is actually Councillor of St Pancras and Somers Town, not MP, as the tweet says. Via CSSZ’s Twitter account

In this scenario, the Council would pick up the vision of sustainability and affordability behind the CLT, possibly retaining the right to change some points of the plan, and then do the building itself – so it would not be a CLT anymore, but many of its positives would become reality for the local community.

The local group has welcomed the council’s interest. ‘We’re not adamant that we want to be the developers,’ says Spencer-Davies. ‘Our battle has always been to make the businesses stay and to keep rents affordable.’

Just change

Even if it is still uncertain whether the huge amount of work put in by Spencer-Davies and the CLT group in Camley Street would produce Britain’s biggest ever CLT, experts believe that the work to plan it is worth it.

Stephen Hill says that if one of the mega-CLTs is approved, it may spur a new wave of communities to plan their own, while also helping convince other local authorities and policy-makers of their viability. And even if they aren’t approved, the work behind the plans can enable communities to have a voice in the future of their area – as is happening in Camley Street. But it is hard work.

‘Doing a CLT takes over your life, you really have to want it,’ Hill says. ‘And even then, schemes don’t go ahead for all sorts of reasons. Often you may not be able to house yourself through this. You’re doing it for your community.’

This kind of altruistic idealism is consistent with what Christian Spencer-Davies told me. It’s hard for some people to understand why he’s done all this. Why would anyone put in months, even years of work, not pocketing a penny, and without any guarantee of success?

To him it’s simple. ‘I just like to stay where I am.’

For practical information on how to set up a Community Land Trust, visit http://www.communitylandtrusts.org.uk/

This article has been amended on 24 January 2018 to correct Elena Besussi’s job title. It stated she was a Professor; she is a Teaching Fellow instead.


Can’t pay, won’t pay

An elderly man wearing a protective face mask passes a sign publicizing a rent strike during the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Toronto, Ontario, Canada April 6, 2020. REUTERS/Chris Helgren/File Photo
An elderly man wearing a protective face mask passes a sign publicizing a rent strike during the global outbreak of the coronavirus in Toronto, Ontario, Canada April 6, 2020. REUTERS/Chris Helgren/File Photo

Julian has worked in exhibition centres in Australia for several years. The Latin American whose employment has always been on a casual basis, with no contract, lost all of his work as coronavirus hit and doesn’t expect any more for eight months. With no income, he can’t pay his rent for the shared Melbourne house he lives in, so has joined nearly 18,000 other people in Australia on rent strike.

Across the world significant amounts of people have stopped paying rent, and in some places mortgage payments, in the wake of Covid-19. Many simply don’t have the money and now face homelessness. Rent strikes are taking place in the US, Spain, Canada, France, Britain, South Africa and elsewhere as activists call for a stop to rent payments and evictions and for everyone to have shelter and space to get through the pandemic.

Informal workers have been badly hit and usually get no protection from the state. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that almost 1.6 billion informal economy workers globally, have been ‘significantly impacted’ by Covid-19 restrictions and that their rate of relative poverty is set to increase by almost 34 per cent.

‘Most people have been forced into positions of even more precariousness – international students, migrant workers, refugees – these are the people that obviously capitalism would not take account of at all. It’s people like me who are left on our own,’ explains Julian. ‘They bring us here as cheap labour. That’s how they create wealth.’

UK housing charity Shelter has warned of a ‘tsunami of evictions’ there once the lockdown ends

Gentrification, escalating house prices, austerity, poor tenant’s rights and precarious employment means that many renters were already teetering on the edge of being able to make their monthly rent payments, even before coronavirus.

‘Over the course of the recent years, surging house price across the country have been accompanied by surging rents,’ explains Charlie, an organizer with Rent Strike Aotearoa. ‘That’s a chronic problem, along with the ensuing issues around mental well-being; we are seeing anxiety stress and depression as people struggle to pay rents and have to incur debts in order to meet rent payments.’

Organizers with Rent Strike South Africa also stress that there was a huge housing crisis there before Covid-19. ‘Our perspective is that the virus is not the problem so much as our political system that failed and continues to fail us,’ the group said in a statement. ‘State-capitalism, and the effects of ongoing colonial and apartheid geographies play out everywhere in issues surrounding housing and land.’

Informal workers in South Africa had already begun to lose their income in early March and so rent strike organizers started planning the campaign a couple of weeks before the nationwide lockdown began on 26 March: ‘We acted as quickly as possible to inform people that if it comes down to feeding yourself or paying your landlord’s bond, you could choose to feed yourself... our response has been based on understanding Covid to be a long-term problem that will not be alleviated simply by the lifting of the lockdown.’

In the UK, where more than one-third of private renters already live in relative poverty, London is the epicentre of the absurd housing market, and the country’s Covid-19 outbreak. Many renters in the capital were already spending over half of their income on rent – more for those on lower incomes, or working in the gig economy.

‘What we really want to press home is that this crisis wasn’t really caused by coronavirus,’ says J, an organizer with the London Rent Strike. ‘The virus pushed it that little but extra over the line to make everyone in crisis at the same time. It’s not really Covid that’s the issue here; it’s capitalism being used to dictate whether someone has a roof over their head or not.’

When he spoke with New Internationalist in early May, the 25 year-old was on furlough (a government scheme which means he gets 80 per cent of his salary paid) from his job working with charities. This was tiding him over, but he didn’t know for how long. ‘I don’t know where our finances will be in three months. Yes, I could pay the rent in May and probably in June, but after that I could be penniless because redundancy is coming after that for sure.’

According to a poll carried out in the UK in mid-May, one in five renters had been forced to choose between food and bills or paying rent, and one in four said they had already had to leave their home because of coronavirus. 

‘I’m trying to do the right thing’

This most recent rent strike wave has included thousands of university students. Alfie Brepotra is an organizer with the campaign at Warwick University. When New Internationalist spoke to him he was cramming in media interviews between exam revision fir his management degree. ‘It’s quite a tough time at the moment’, he said.

At the end of March he lost his job and the paid work he had lined up for the Easter break. He followed the government advice and spoke to his landlord, who owns multiple properties, about his situation: ‘She said, “you are either going to pay me or I am going to take you to court”.’

He has few options for financial support and is stuck paying rent for a house he is not even living in. ‘I’m trying to do the right thing by social distancing, so I can’t go back to my place.’

Full-time university students in Britain are not usually eligible for social security payments and so those who need to supplement their incomes do so through part-time work – often in sectors such as hospitality, hit hard by Covid-19.

Most of us would want to see housing entirely taken out of the market and be treated as a human right like it should be. That’s the dream anyway. And it’s the first time that something like that has ever felt possible with the level of upheaval that we’re seeing

Students can get loans to cover their living costs but in more expensive cities these are not enough to cover rent. For those without financial support from family, their ability to carry on with their studies could now be in question. ‘Landlords have suggested that students get personal credit cards’ said Brepotra.

International co-operation seems to have been in short supply lately but housing activists have been getting organized across borders. For many, this energy has given them optimism for the international tenants’ rights movement.

For Neville Peterson, a member of the Communicare Tenants Union, joining the Rent Strike South Africa campaign was also about being part of an international movement. Communicare is a housing provider which owns over 1,300 in Cape Town. Tenants have been in a long battle over exorbitant rents and utility charges. It is thought that just over 1,000 Communicare tenants are now withholding their rent.

‘People are scared, people are vulnerable. People don’t have money for lawyers and to appear in court [to defend against eviction],’ says Peterson. ‘We are upset with government because they are not coming to the fore with assistance and even the rental holidays that they are mentioning – yes you can stop it for a period of time, but if you have to pay it back in three months time or two months time it will have to be double the rent. Rental holiday periods, we are not happy with that. We won’t accept that. We want an unconditional freeze to rentals that you don't have to pay rent.’

As governments seek to ease off Covid-19 restrictions, open courts and pull back financial support, mass evictions and repossessions could be just around the corner. UK housing charity Shelter has warned of a ‘tsunami of evictions’ there once the lockdown ends.

This is why rent strike organizers are looking beyond Covid-19 lockdowns. ‘We don’t want any sense of back to normal because normal was shit for 99 per cent of people,’ says J. ‘We want complete change in how the rental sector works. We could be looking at entirely new ways to deal with housing. Most of us would want to see housing entirely taken out of the market and be treated as a human right like it should be. That’s the dream anyway. And it’s the first time that something like that has ever felt possible with the level of upheaval that we’re seeing.’

‘I’d like us to win a rent and mortgage amnesty,’ says Farida, another organizer with Rent Strike Australia. ‘Whether or not we win that I think what we’re building is something very important. We’re building a community of people. We’re building a grassroots fighting community of people for the rights of tenants and mortgage holders. This hasn’t happened on this scale in this country in ages. We’re going to need this community in the years to come.’

‘We are reaching a tipping point,’ says Julian. He is hopeful that out of this crisis can grow something more positive. ‘When it gets rough people actually see the need for solidarity. Solidarity is something that we should extend and it should be a value that we all have.

‘I’m hoping for hope. Not hope on the gods, not hope in the government – hope in humankind, hope in the solidarity that we can extend to each other. That’s what I’m hoping for and that’s what I would like to see that we come through these tough times and that we move to another period where we can actually be more aware of what’s going on, what is being done to most of humanity.’


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