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“I was waking up every morning and thinking: ‘Is it going to happen again today? Is today the day I have to call the police?’” William* had only been living in his new flat-share in Bristol for a month before lockdown was announced. As a key worker with a seriously ill mother, he was acutely aware of the risks the virus could pose for him and those around him. But his landlord had begun breaking the lockdown to give tours of the flat to prospective tenants in order to fill the property’s two remaining rooms.
The more William complained to his landlord the more he was dismissed with promises of professional cleaning and PPE or simply told: “if you don’t like it, you should just stay in your room”. The tours increased over the following weeks, with people visiting the flat unannounced every other day, until one day William couldn’t take it anymore. “I spoke to the police about it because I didn’t know what else to do”. But when a police officer came, the landlord lied and claimed he was actually a resident of the property. “He knew the law, and knew just how to lie to get around it,” William says. “When that police officer walked out the door and left me and him there alone I felt completely powerless. I left the house that day because I didn’t feel safe at all.”
If coronavirus didn’t cause all the problems among British renters, it certainly brought many of them into focus. In recent weeks, newspapers have been awash with stories of unscrupulous landlords abusing their power. From doctors evicted as they fight the pandemic to one Uber driver who died after being made homeless. Millions of private renters have reported being forced to choose between food and bills or paying rent as a result of the economic damage of coronavirus.
In the midst of all this, one movement has been gaining increasing traction: renters unions. Several organisations operating as trade unions for private renters have reported spikes in new members and cases since the beginning of the pandemic. Just this week one renters union, Acorn, was called in to give legal aid to a member evicted for using too much tap water to wash her hands in line with government advice. One group, London Renters Union, says it has received “nearly a thousand” new members in the first week of the crisis due to a “big rise in violence and harassment” from landlords trying to illegally evict tenants.
William also ended up turning to Acorn to get help taking his landlord to court. Acorn, or the Association of Community Organisations for Reform Now, is one of the largest renters unions in the UK. Founded in Bristol in 2014, the organisation works locally to fight on community issues like rents or public transport, using a mixture of collective action, targeted campaigns, building public awareness and legal aid for its members. Dani Wijesinghe, the group’s national administrator, wants Acorn to be something that can “actually, in a really meaty way, stand up to landlords and secure real wins”.
Over the last few years these groups have been scoring some of those wins. The majority of their work surrounds cases like William’s, where they fight the abuses of a single landlord. Wijesinghe says Acorn has “blocked hundreds of evictions, and won tens of thousands of pounds in repairs and compensation” in recent years. It has also claimed victories in larger campaigns, including against banks like TSB, NatWest and Santander, who it successfully pressured into dropping a clause that stopped people applying for a buy-to-let mortgage from renting to those on housing benefit.
When coronavirus hit the UK, problems started to pile up for renters, leading more and more people to ask renters unions for support. From illegal evictions and physical violence to landlords breaking lockdown and fraudulent usage of the mortgage holiday scheme, renters unions have been fighting – in court and through collective action – a swathe of new abuses against tenants.
While physical evictions have been paused during the lockdown, Acorn says that among their 1,000 Bristol members alone, between ten to 20 section 21 eviction notices have nonetheless been filed. Some groups like London Renters Union have been organising rent strikes, which have called on tens of thousands of renters across the country to refuse or reduce payments to landlords. The idea has gained particular traction among university students who found themselves liable for campus rent payments even if they had left their dorms to continue studying at home. Acorn has also started filling holes in council community support by delivering food and medicine packages to people self-isolating or shielding.
Well before the crisis Citizens Advice, a charity, had warned that loopholes in regulation had given dodgy landlords undue power to abuse their tenants. According to some of the people working with renters unions, that sense of powerlessness among renters has only been worsened by the government response to Covid-19.
“There wasn’t any kind of targeted relief for renters other than shutting eviction courts for a while,” says Clare Walden, a leading organiser with London Renters Union. “Despite all the problems this crisis has caused it feels we have really poor protection for renters.” Landlords received no-strings-attached mortgage holidays, but many renters feel like they have been left out to dry.
One of Acorn’s biggest worries is the “glut of evictions” it predicts will come when the government’s partial freeze on evictions is lifted at the end of August. “What’s going to happen is – when the freeze ends – all the backlog of evictions will be processed quickly by the courts,” says Wijesinghe. “There’s gonna be no legal aid available and there’s going to be a disproportionate amount ruled in favour of landlords and many more people are going to be evicted unfairly.”
Renters Unions are not just a UK phenomenon. In the US, tens of thousands of people have participated in rent strikes organised by similar groups, which also say that government support for renters has been wanting. Despite the pandemic leaving tens of millions of Americans without jobs and incapable of paying rent, many states haven’t even paused evictions, let alone subsidised or cancelled rent payments.
The rise of these groups poses interesting questions about the future of trade unions. Since 1979 membership of trade unions has halved. Ever since, it has become commonplace to see unions as relics of the past, good for movies about striking miners but hardly institutions with growing influence in modern Britain.
This makes the rise of renters unions all the more conspicuous. Part of the explanation is that the set-up of these unions makes them more adept at fighting problems caused by coronavirus. Renters unions tend to be smaller decentralised groups that can be more versatile and adaptable to new challenges than larger unions like Unite, GMB or Unison, according to Alastair Reid, a researcher in history at the University of Cambridge. “[Trade unions] are not very manoeuvrable and when I talk to the general secretaries of those unions, they’re kept awake at night thinking about pension funds and dealing with bureaucratic matters,” he says.
And renters unions cater to renters across all of society and not a single workplace, which means they can deal with wider societal concerns. That said, memberships numbering in the thousands are a far cry from covering even a significant fraction of Britain’s 4.5 million renters.
That these organisations are mushrooming in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis is a mixed blessing. From London Renters Union and Acorn to The Tenants Union, Generation Rent, Living Rent and several more, the sheer number of groups can cause problems of its own. “Whilst it shows the issue is hot, there’s possibly too many groups and it’s diluting the message,” Wijesinghe says. “It just objectively makes you weaker when you have several organisations vying for dominance.”
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