How activists have fought back against the escalating housing crisis

How activists have fought back against the escalating housing crisis
The last five years have seen astronomical rises in rents, evictions and spiralling rates of homelessness but communities have been organising, fighting back and, whisper it, winning.

In the run-up to the general election on 4 July, Labour and the Tories have both made big promises to address Britain’s current housing crisis. Over the last month of public fighting between two deadbeat parties that are largely the same, we’ve seen both suits-in-charge make similar pledges. The Labour manifesto has promised to build 1.5 million homes in the party’s first term; to immediately abolish “no-fault” evictions; to “empower renters to challenge unreasonable rent increases”; to introduce a mortgage guarantee scheme for first-time buyers; to work to end homelessness; and to bring in time limits during which landlords must address dangerous hazards in the private sector. Meanwhile, the Conservatives have also pledged to abolish no fault evictions; to build 1.6 million homes in their first parliament; to launch a new and improved “help to buy” scheme; to allocate social housing first to those with a “local connection” or a “UK connection”; and to incentivise landlords to sell to existing tenants.

As something that affects all voters, ranking as the sixth most important issue shaping how Britons cast their ballots, it makes sense for the two main parties to grandstand around housing. But, amidst promises to turn the housing crisis around, we shouldn’t forget the Tories’ role in exacerbating it. In 2019, activist and campaigner Tom Balderstone wrote for Huck on the staggering rise in homelessness during the Conservatives’ decade of premiership starting in 2010. Since then, the government has continued to exacerbate the poor housing conditions that lead to homelessness, for example, allowing rents to skyrocket, while protecting the rights of the landlord class.

Siobhan Donnachie, who organises with the renters’ campaign group London Renters’ Union (LRU), agrees that housing rights and living conditions have only deteriorated since our current government was elected in 2019. “Across our membership, we've seen a massive rise in evictions, rent rises up to nearly 100%, and horrific, unlivable conditions.”

“Part of our membership lives in social housing, and they're facing really unaffordable service charges, while social housing providers ignore their requests for repairs,” she tells me. “We're seeing people plunging further and further into poverty and homelessness…it’s all just massively intensified.”

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Siobhan doesn’t see the exacerbation of these conditions as inevitable, but due to policymakers’ reticence to act in favour of those who are poorer. “The Tories have ultimately failed to intervene to protect people's rights – like [the right to] a safe, secure, affordable home – at all costs of protecting landlord interests.”

This inaction comes in the shadow of big promises made by the party in their last election manifesto. In 2019, the Conservative government pledged to put an end to Section 21 notices, also known as “no-fault” evictions. Under this legislation, landlords can put an end to a tenant’s residency for no stated reason, at short notice. Every week, around 300 people in the capital are hit with a Section 21 eviction notice, and recent analysis found that over 80,000 households have been threatened with homelessness through no-fault evictions since the Tories first promised to ban the practice. There is a human cost to this enforced precarity, Siobhan tells me, with 55 children under the age of one having died in emergency homeless accommodation since 2019. In 2023, the Renters’ Reform Bill, the legislation that could have ended Section 21, went to the House of Commons. But a group of backbench MPs, including a large number of Tory landlords like Jacob Rees-Mogg, backed controversial amendments that would put the ban on hold for the foreseeable future in order to allow for eviction for ‘anti-social behaviour’. Working to protect their own interests, these MPs are not outliers in the party – at least one in five Conservative MPs have made over £10,000 in the last year as landlords.

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A lack of investment in social housing has further lined the pockets of private landlords. Recent research from the New Economics Foundation found that the government will pay out 70 billion pounds in housing benefit to private landlords over the next five years. These benefits, which subsidise tenants’ rents, will be a total six times the amount spent on new affordable homes. As the government has divested from social housing and allowed the private rental sector to continually expand, unregulated landlords have been able to continually hike rents with little to no consequence. At the same time, living conditions have naturally eroded.

Siobhan also sees repeated crises over the last five years, like the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost of living crisis, as having intensified the existing problems the housing sector was already experiencing in 2019. In the face of this, she tells me: “the Tories have really relied on housing-based wealth. High house prices and high rental prices have enabled them to hide poor productivity, economic growth and industry growth.”

She adds: “Now we’re at the point where housing is a leading industry in the UK. It’s the most secure, profitable way to make money.”

Another issue, facing buyers rather than renters, is the sale of leasehold estates. In 2023, the government announced that it would ban the sale of leasehold residential properties – a form of home ownership in which buyers own a property, but not the land on which it stands. Leaseholders keep the property for a select period of time, during which they can be charged “ground rent” – a charge to literally keep their property on the grounds on which it has been built. In 2019, then-housing secretary Michael Gove said that he would reduce ground rents to near-zero, another 2019 manifesto promise that has yet to be fulfilled, and has been rolled over into the party’s 2024 pledges.

In addition to ground rents, most leaseholders have to pay additional “service charges”, which total an average of £1500 in the UK. Millions of property owners in England and Wales are leaseholders, but it is the only place in the world where this system, recently described by a group of dissenting Tory MPs as “feudal”, exists.

This isn’t to suggest that people have taken the last five years of harmful Tory housing policy lying down. As a union, one large function of the LRU is to help renters build a sense of community and collective power. Siobhan tells me: “our housing system is designed to make us feel alone and powerless. Tenants’ unions and organisations resist this. No one has to fight alone.”

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Some of this looks like firefighting. Both LRU and fellow community union Acorn train people up in eviction resistance, which often involves bringing banners and food, and knocking for neighbours to physically block bailiffs from properties. In 2021, for example, between 70 and 80 people successfully curbed the eviction of a mother of three in Walthamstow. Organising with LRU, they obstructed the letting agent and locksmith, while the tenant locked herself inside the house. Acorn says that similar resistances have taken place across Bristol, Birmingham, Coventry, Huddersfield and Southwark.

Despite these successes, Siobhan tells me: “We can’t be putting out fires all the time. We also need to fight for bigger transformation.” She says that this has taken the form of the housing movement more broadly pushing for an end to Section 21. “We were seeing a lot of pushback from national charities who thought that there wasn’t political will, or that it was too radical an ask. We were able to shift the political consensus to make it publicly agreed that it must end.”

This goes for the government, too. Although it has circled back on many of its promises on housing, its choice to publicly make these commitments in the first place shows that the window is shifting.

Progress for renters was also made during the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, when LRU established “Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!”, a campaign that resisted evictions and supported those who couldn’t pay their rent as they lost their income streams. LRU membership tripled, and 2,500 people pledged to withhold enough of their rent to meet their basic needs. Hundreds of people demanded a rent reduction using the union’s resources, and the concept of rent strikes was popularised on a national level, picking up particular steam with students. By the end of 2020, almost half of private landlords had cut tenants’ rent, with only a third reporting that they had done so proactively.

Advances made in Scotland present further evidence that the dial is shifting. Tenants’ organisations across the UK have asked for rent controls for a number of years – with Acorn arguing that rents should be capped at 30% of median local income. Following these calls, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced a rent freeze in 2022, which extended for private tenants until April this year.

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As was the case for racial justice organisers and mental health campaigners I have spoken to throughout this series, housing organisers are largely pessimistic about the possibility of genuine change under a Starmer-led Labour government. Labour, for example, had promised to abolish leasehold within 100 days of government if elected, a commitment that it has since dropped. While having pledged to build 1.5 million new homes, the party has said that it would keep “right to buy”. This housing scheme, introduced by Margaret Thatcher, allows tenants to buy the social homes that they live in, and has led Britain to lose 260,000 social rented homes since 2010. As a result, Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham described keeping the scheme while building new homes as akin to “filling a bath but with the plug out”.

Siobhan is, however, interested in the ways that the Labour Party have started to adopt some of the movement’s language. “We’re also seeing them acknowledge that government intervention on the housing crisis is needed.” Labour has pledged to go further than the Tories on disrepair — committing to extending Awaab’s Law, which was passed last year and ensures that social housing landlords address dangerous hazards within a strict time limit, to the private rented sector. They’ve also pledged to crack down on up front payments demanded by landlords, as well as saying that they would end Section 21.

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When it comes to what we do next, Siobhan says that organisers should continue to build on incremental wins, to more broadly build a strong housing movement, which might have the security to once again use more direct tactics like rent strikes. “It’s about creating more space to [implement] these tactics, to win, fundamentally a housing system that is not exploitative.”

With the outcome of this election most likely amounting to a change of management, rather than more radical transformation, this is a difficult task. But the work of the housing movement, during the bleak and precarious conditions of the last five years, has shown us that it is possible.

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