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Has renting in London become as risky as squatting?

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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.

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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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