On Britain's left, there's growing talk of a national rent strike

The Wilkins Building at University College London. UCL is currently the scene of a student rent strike. Image: Diliff/Wikimedia Commons.

“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."


In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  

“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.