“The rent has increased by 80 per cent, but the mould still keeps coming back”

Oh, landlords. Image: Getty.

When London Renters Union member Ghazal moved with her family into a house in Newham, the kitchen ceiling was almost completely covered in mould. Every time the landlord does a quick repair job in response to Ghazal’s complaints, he promptly hikes the rent. Ten years on, the rent has increased by 80 per cent, but the mould still keeps coming back.

Pooja has been told by her landlord that she has to choose between paying a 20 per cent rent hike or be evicted to make way for someone who will. Another of our members was recently forced to move an hour away from where his young son goes to school because he can’t afford the rent in Newham anymore.

Rents in London have risen 22 per cent since 2011. At the London Renters Union, we meet dozens of people each week, whose rising rents are leaving them with little left over for food or other essentials. Rent rises are driving gentrification in our city and forcing countless people away from their communities and support networks.

It’s in this context of real human suffering as a result of London’s profit-driven housing crisis that Sadiq Khan’s call on Friday for the power to introduce rent controls should be warmly welcomed. He is calling for powers to establish a London Private Rent Commission that would maintain a much-needed database of landlords and rent payments and set a maximum rent level for different areas in London.

Even if the mayor of London being given such powers still seems a long way off, the boldness of the proposals and the focus on reducing rents rather than just stabilising them shifts the debate about who and what housing in our city is for. An announcement like today’s would have been unthinkable five years ago but London’s renters are demanding change and a renters movement is growing fast across the capital. Hopefully we’ll one day look back on today as a massive and historic step towards transforming the housing system so that it works for renters rather than investors.

But there’s still a long way to go. For starters, the mayor hasn’t set out how much he’d like to see rents reduced by, preferring instead to say that this will be determined by the hands-off Private Rent Commission he hopes to create.

It’s generally accepted in the sector that housing that costs someone more than 30-35 per cent of their income is unaffordable. A two-bed in Newham typically costs £1,400 per month, which is 60 per cent of local incomes. To be effective, rent controls need to eventually reduce rents to 30 per cent of local incomes after tax, so people can stay in their communities and flourish in their homes without having to skimp on other essentials just to make the rent.

It’s also concerning that Sadiq’s proposed London Private Rent Commission would have powers to “incentivise investment” in the private rented sector and make build-to-rent more attractive for landlords and investors.

At its core, London’s housing crisis is driven by the assumption that underpins our broken housing system: that houses are commodities, rather than homes for people to live in, a situation that has only worsened since London’s property market became a more attractive option for investors after the financial crash. 

Renters in London this year will hand over £22bn from their wages to private landlords who can pay off their mortgage and then sell up, while their tenants are left with nothing to show for years of rent payments.

Rather than providing fresh incentives to investors looking to profit from people’s need for housing, the mayor should be looking at ways to bring more housing into public democratic ownership. He could ask for powers to issue compulsory purchase orders on the 22,000 long-term empty homes in the capital. Or he could find a way to offer landlords upset at the prospect of rent controls the ability to sell their homes to the public sector or community trusts, so they can be rented out at affordable rents with indefinite secure tenancies.

Truly transforming the housing system means shifting the balance of power and that requires action from below as well as from above. Sadiq should also look to empower renters themselves, and their organisations. In just our first year, thousands have joined the London Renters Union and we’ve supported more than 50 people to improve their housing situation – including by taking direct action to prevent evictions and force estate agents to hand back thousands of pounds they’ve wrongly withheld from renters. We were part of the End Unfair Evictions coalition that secured an announcement from Theresa May that the government will scrap Section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions. Along with ACORN and Living Rent, two renters unions, we forced NatWest to scrap policies that discriminate against renters who receive benefits.

The Labour party leadership recognised the vital role that a mass movement of organised renters could play in transforming society when they pledged to fund renter unions when next in power. Sadiq should follow this lead by making sure renters unions are given a prominent role in his proposed London Private Rent Commission. He could also take further steps to empower renters such as supporting the right of renters to go on rent strike and to enter into collective bargaining with big landlords. 

Ultimately, Londoners and people across the UK need a housing system that prioritises everyone having a decent home rather than profits for landlords and investors. Hopefully Sadiq Khan’s announcement on Friday takes us closer to that reality.

Michael Deas is coordinator of the London Renters Union.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.