“As far as I’m concerned, all rent is theft,” says David Dahlborn, union accommodation officer at University College London (UCL). “But we’ll take it one step at a time.”
Dahlborn is addressing a meeting led by the Radical Housing Network (RHN), as part of the Brick Lane Debates. We’re here to discuss rent strikes; their feasibility, the legal implications, the practicalities of organising, the possibility of change through a mass refusal to pay landlords.
UCL students are doing this right now. Since 8 May, around 60 students have refused to pay rent, on the grounds that conditions are unliveable in halls of residence.
The strike has got messy, with the university refusing to meet its demands. Students have been told that, unless they pay, they won’t be allowed to graduate and may be expelled from courses. Nonetheless, the recent success of student rent strikers at SOAS suggests a win isn’t impossible.
Students may not be the perfect model on which to base ideas of a wider rent strike, however. Lots of the strikers have “gone home for the summer,” Dahlborn admits. Not an option for everyone.
Still, the mood in the room is that something needs to give. A show of hands suggests that pretty much everyone here would be up for a rent strike, were it properly organised.
“We all know the state of the housing market, especially in the south-east,” RHN’s Theo Middleton tells me. “Renters are paying half their income to rent shoe-boxes with mould on the walls, families are being forced out of the city, and a two-tier society is emerging with an unbridgeable chasm between those who own property and those who do not.”
She adds that renters in both the social and private sectors “are being forced into conditions of spiralling insecurity, stripped of all rights and protections – and politicians are doing nothing about it because so many of them are the beneficiaries. The exploitation of renters must stop: the conditions for rent strike are now.”
The logistics of organising a rent strike in the wider population are daunting. Aside from student actions, there has been no large-scale rent strike action for decades. Crucially, those who are most vulnerable – families, people with uncertain immigration status, those already on the brink of eviction – may be reluctant to make their position any more precarious. When you don’t have a back-up option, withholding rent is a dangerous option.
Rent strikes have a history in Britain, however. This year is the centenary of the 1915 strikes which began in Glasgow, led by Mary Barbour. Protesting over slum landlords, evictions and soaring rents, the strikes eventually helped force the government to introduce private sector rent controls.
Again, in the early 1970s, tenant action swept the country, this time in protest at the Conservative government’s Housing Finance Act. Rent strikes took place in 80 local authorities. In Kirby, Liverpool, the strike continued for six months, and was captured in Nick Broomfield’s film, Behind The Rent Strike. “If we all pull together, all pull our belts in, all produce more, put our backs into it, then it'll be a better life for all of us,” spits the documentary’s furious, sardonic star, Ethel Singleton.
Singleton’s anger at the farce of being “all in it together” rings true today. And so, too, the situation in 2015 echoes that of 1915: today, private renting is at its highest level in 100 years.
Some people are benefitting from all this. This March, rents on private homes in the UK increased by 2.1 per cent year on year. Buy-to-let landlords are seeing record £14bn in tax breaks. Election victory for the Tories sent the share prices of Barratt Developments and Foxtons soaring. Meanwhile, government spending on social housing and the housing budget for local authorities has been cut by more than 40 per cent since 2009.
However, the housing movement is gaining strength. The success of the New Era estate in fighting off eviction and the widespread support for the Focus E15 mothers proved there is power in organising.
Dan Wilson Craw of Generation Rent tells me rent strikes are something he hears mentioned with increasing frequency. “The pressure is building,” he says. “Outlets are needed for that rage, and rent strikes are definitely a prospect.”
What form these would take remains to be seen. The RHN is suggesting an online pledge which, once it reached a critical mass, could trigger a mass rent strike. Building on the growing number of housing campaigns across the UK, the possibility of creating a national tenants union is thrown around.
But questions remain unanswered. I asked the National Landlords Association what withholding rent would mean for striking tenants. The answer: an appearance in court and eviction. The fact that you were part of a strike would likely be immaterial.
Women have traditionally taken the lead in rent strikes, which span the domestic and the political spheres. Arnie of the London Black Revs, a revolutionary socialist group, says that close-knit communities like Brixton, currently facing destruction, would be good places to start; he suggests street-by-street canvassing as a means of rallying support. But although benefit sanctions, rising rents, evictions and the extension of the right-to-buy scheme mean the anger is there, who would dare risk their home?
“The key is solidarity,” Middleton says. “We need to build networks of public and private renters across the country that can support each other to take rent strike and resist evictions. The more of us there are, the harder it will be for them to take punitive action against us.”
A nationwide rent strike is a tantalising idea. In the meantime, RHN is calling for support for the striking UCL students. “It’s important we don’t just leave UCL students hung out to dry,” says the organisation’s Ben Beach. “If we can win the UCL rent strike, it would do a lot to validate the idea that rent strikes can be effective."