Prior to the creation of trades unions, workers didn’t have a voice and couldn’t lobby for better conditions and pay. It was only when they saw themselves as a big gang gathered under a particular umbrella, that they could dictate their terms. Where there is no unifying sense of broader self interest you don’t have a voice.
Renters have the same problem. By and large they are a disparate group of individuals. Any sway over the landlord lobby comes largely from pressure groups such as Shelter but in recent years attempts to start renter’s unions have been gaining pace.
I’ve been a staunch trades unionist my whole working life, not just as a member but also shop steward and sitting on executive committees. Even my only brief period outside of housing work, 3 years as a professional musician, I was still a paid up member of the musicians union.
So I’m a big fan of the various renter’s unions springing up and expanding in many areas, including the serious activist end, seen with Acorn, who attend illegal evictions in gangs and physically protect people from being thrown out, echoing the approach of Mary Barbour and the Glasgow rent strikes in 1915, chasing off bailiffs and the Peckham rent strikes in the 1930s. I think that’s brilliant.
I know loads of great people in the renter’s unions as well, clued up, motivated and bright but I think there is one big problem that I think they recognise as well. They are made up, not exclusively but still predominantly of young, white, generally well left of centre people with strongly held political beliefs.
The tenants that Safer Renting work with, who occupy the worst properties imaginable under the most appalling landlords, generally don’t fit that profile.
In a report published a few weeks ago by York University’s Centre for Housing Policy, their research revealed that only 2% of occupants in overcrowded HMOs are white British. 98% come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and our clients bear this out.
The vast majority of renters we deal with are migrant workers, or British citizens of originally foreign origin, employed in low paid, zero hours contract jobs in hotels, restaurants and construction.
Language is often a barrier. I don’t know exactly how much we spend on our phone interpreter service ‘Language shop’ but I bet it would make me wince if I saw the bill.
Whilst these are exactly the sorts of renters that could benefit most from being in a renter’s union, they are the least likely to join, being routinely divided by language and culture. Some see themselves connected through their religion rather than political movements. Many don’t even see themselves as politically motivated at all and if they are, may well not see themselves as part of the left.
The renter’s unions are truly open to all and would warmly welcome anyone from any group but it doesn’t get around the problem of people currently on the outside looking in, not seeing themselves being members and its difficult to see how unions could solve that problem on their own.
As human beings we naturally tend to gravitate towards social groups where we might feel at home. Its not so much about how welcoming that group would be.
Turning a full 90 degrees but with the same problem in mind. Could local authorities do something to reach out and band those disparate groups together? I think they can.
As already stated, it’s the disenfranchised groups that live under the worst landlords in the poorest accommodation. These landlords are often portfolio owning or they are dodgy agents running hundreds of properties all over the show.
Local authority housing enforcement often know exactly who these people are and what properties are involved. The renters living in these properties could be united by the council forming an alliance with them, both allowing them a voice and providing a supportive network.
The disparate group of renters suddenly being united for no other reason that they are suffering the same conditions under the same shitty landlord or agent.
Back around 2012 I remember watching a documentary on landlord Andrew Panayi, who owns large chunks of the Caledonia Rd in London, where he referred to his tenants as his “Cash cows – to be milked”. A statement that inflamed his tenants and caused them to band together to take him to task, forming a group called “The Cally Cows”.
A sort of temporary ‘Pop-up’ union as it were, united not by merely being tenants but tenants under a particularly unpleasant man.
If the local authority enforcement teams were to bond and unite with the renters it would help them to gather evidence and statements to take these crooks down and the renters would benefit from being united and therefore, as with trades unions, more difficult to single out, as well as having a conduit or hotline to the council.
What would a local authority have to do to make this happen?
Firstly they would need to widen their focus from the technical problems at issue, to incorporate the needs of the occupants and be responsive to their situations. In so many cases the officers are quite understandably concentrating on what they have directly been employed to do but enforcement, as we see all the time in Safer Renting, can result in an increase in harassment and illegal eviction.
In many of our cases we speak to the tenants, who tell us about various visits carried out by council officers but they don’t remember who they were or what team they were from.
In addition, the dodgy landlords and agents often tell their tenants not to cooperate with the local authority because the council will make them homeless. Which is quite a threat, made regularly, so the enforcement team could benefit from having a more hands on and inclusive approach to reassure them and win them over.
The council would need to be more personally involved with the concerns and experience of the renters during the time they are targeting a property and this would involve multi agency tasking within the council itself.
Homelessness units would need to be in the mix to ensure there is a safety net should something go south without warning and the renters could benefit from having a single point of contact within the council who they can get hold of swiftly by phone or email should the need arise. Their shop steward as it were.
The authority could also host events, gathering all the concerned renters together to share with them what is going and to listen to the renters and their concerns. Renters in different properties under the same landlord or agent would be helped to meet and connect with each other, perhaps forming emergency WhatsApp groups to alert for a swift back-up by others in the group who might be close by.
Building and maintaining the relationships with the renters living in the properties subject to action would go so far to instill confidence.
Individual officers that I work with are often very concerned about the safety of the tenants living in properties of interest but the system isn’t in place to do something about those concerns.
Of course no such approach would go smoothly. This is rogue landlord world not Disneyworld but if councils worked on their relationship with the renters, instead of the technical problems with the building alone, they would have the opportunity to provide more protection and to create a safe space for people to work with them.
Having a wider, wrap around advice and support network in place could work like a temporary union for people who don’t see themselves joining a mainstream tenant’s union.
By Ben Reeve Lewis