Throughout the pandemic, the government has neglected students – particularly when it comes to housing. But a group of old school activists are stepping in and using radical politics to fight for a younger generation.

Throughout the pandemic, the government has neglected students – particularly when it comes to housing. But a group of old school activists are stepping in and using their radical politics to fight for a younger generation.

Among the many trials and tribulations of student life, dealing with letting agents and landlords is one of the most taxing. From deposit theft to unsafe living conditions, the pains that come with student housing are endless. During the pandemic, these issues have only seemed to have escalated. Countless students are now facing a housing crisis, and locked into year-long contracts for homes they can’t legally live in. It’s clear that the way landlords and letting agents treat students needs to change.

Enter a group of old-school anarcho-syndicalist activists, who are helping vulnerable students take on their dodgy landlords. Formed in March 1994, Solidarity Federation (more commonly known as SolFed) is a collection of groups across the UK and Ireland helping to fight for workers and tenants’ rights. Anarcho-syndicalism is a political philosophy that believes revolutionary industrial unionism is needed for workers to regain control of the economy and broader society. As a school of thought, it highlights the importance of direct democracy and solidarity.

The ethos behind the SolFed is anti-hierarchy and anti-authoritarian. In a time of uncertainty for countless students, these anarchists are not only helping a younger generation, they are also helping to pave the way for more accountability in the privately rented sector. 

Echoing the sentiment of the National Unemployed Workers Movement, Plan C, and a plethora of other activist movements, the group campaigns against capitalism “because it exploits, oppresses and kills working people and wrecks the environment for profit worldwide”. 

Their aims state that in place of government hierarchy and privilege for the classes who control the state through oppression and exploitation, “We want a society based on workers’ self-management, solidarity, mutual aid and libertarian communism.”

The group claims that the issues workers and tenants face “are wide-ranging”. The fight against “anything which defends or contributes to our mutual quality of life. It is all part and parcel of building a solidarity movement.”

Ruby* joined SolFed as a teenager in October 2018, after the organisation helped her with the struggles she was facing moving into her first student house after leaving uni halls. “The letting agency continuously delayed our move-in date, because there was unfinished building work that they hadn’t told us was happening. They then pulled out of the contract a week after our move-in date and left us homeless with no house to move into,” she explains. Ruby says that the letting agency ignored her calls and refused to communicate – other than telling her and her housemates to just find a new property. “At the time, I was couch surfing and had nowhere to go before the start of my course.” 

“SolFed organised demand letters and pickets to try to put financial pressure on the agency to give us compensation for breaking the contract, as we were forced to move into a more expensive property,” says Ruby. 

While the letting agent didn’t budge, Ruby, inspired by the action SolFed had taken, joined the group and got involved in helping others fight for their rights. “What I like about the politics of anarcho-syndicalism and SolFed in particular is we recognise that workplace issues and housing issues affect all of us under capitalism. The best thing we can do is stick together and try to help each other out, whether that’s unionising a workplace or marching on a letting agency with demands.”

As a student, even if you have the law on your side, which Ruby didn’t, housing disputes present a whole other set of problems. Going through small claims court can be a timely process; many students can’t afford to wait months for an uncertain outcome. A government review found that the average outgoings of a full-time student living in London is £11,679, while the maximum loan available you can get is £8,700. As countless students can’t find work in the retail or hospitality sector during the pandemic, fighting for your rights as a tenant is more vital than ever. 

But SolFed are determined to change that. Despite being notoriously vilified in local press, SolFed’s use of direct action is entirely legal. Direct action takes various forms, but some of the most commonly used methods are disseminating information through leaflets, local bulletins, and holding meetings to help raise awareness about issues and encourage local involvement. SolFed states on its website: “Direct action is not limited to spreading information. It means a physical presence in defending and promoting a better quality of life.”

Unsurprisingly, the fight for tenants’ rights has brought about an intergenerational comradery between seasoned anarchists and young tenants. Openly looking to challenge sexism, ageism, transphobia, homophobia, racism, and ableism, SolFed is open to all. Whilst some members are older activists and retirees, there’s a growing influx of students and teenagers looking to take part. 

As one member of SolFed tells Huck, landlords and letting agents “continually take advantage of students by exploiting their lack of knowledge or experiencing with renting”. But through various community events, pamphlets such as their widely-distributed “Stuff Your Landlord”, and educational courses, SolFed are not only helping young people fight for their rights — they’re educating them on their rights, too. 

Local branches include the popular student cities of Aberdeen, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, London, and Plymouth. In cities with grossly inflated rental costs like Brighton and Bristol, solidarity against tenant exploitation is needed now more than ever. 

In 2018, Brighton SolFed won a case for five tenants whose toilet had been overflowing with faeces for six months. It was only during a house viewing for prospective tenants, six months after first reporting the issue, that the students learned that a house fire had caused serious damage to the plumbing. 

As this had not been disclosed to the students before they signed the contract, the tenants were issued a sum of £2218 after the letting agents grew fearful that SolFed would take to publicising the case. The letting agents had rebranded a year earlier after becoming notorious for mistreating and exploiting students. 

“It was sheer luck that we overheard the letting agent talking about the fire, as we wouldn’t have known otherwise. When we signed up to the house as teenagers, we just assumed that’s the kind of thing we’d be told upfront,” says Marcus*, one of the tenants. 

“Our case with SolFed helped us learn so much about what we are entitled to as tenants,” continues Marcus, “and stopped us from feeling powerless against our letting agents that clearly took advantage of our age and inexperience.” 

Another Brighton case involved helping four tenants who were forcibly removed from their home following landlord attempts to evade fines for renting the house as a ‘house in multiple occupation’ (a property which is rented by three or more tenants who aren’t part of the same household) without a license. Even in cases where tenants are favoured by the law, seeking justice and compensation is harder than you’d think. 

In 2019, housing charity Shelter suggested that “almost three million people in England are one paycheque away from losing their homes”. While the cost of renting increases every year, the minimum wage has seen a dismal increase. 18 to 20-year-olds (the age of most students) are only entitled to £6.45 an hour. The average expected total cost for accommodation for students on three-year degrees is estimated to be £14,742, excluding living costs and academic expenses. SolFed argues that the economic gap between a lot of us and the precariously housed is far less than you’d expect. 

Students of the pandemic-era have been particularly hard hit. According to the National Student Accommodation Survey, the average 2020/21 student has so far paid £1,621 in rent for empty rooms for which they have not received a refund. Meanwhile, more than 1.8 million homeowners took advantage of the mortgage holiday that was offered last year. 

Although the government has introduced hardship funds for selected students, countless students are unable to leave year-long contracts, signed before universities announced that all teaching would be moved online. Although some universities are refunding students in halls for unoccupied accommodation, landlords have no obligations to relinquish students from their contracts. 

In light of this, it’s hard to overlook the government’s callous decision to continually neglect students throughout the pandemic – but this only serves to highlight why SolFed’s work is so crucial. Student tenants desperately need help and have been continually failed by the government to hold the privately rented sector to account. 

But, with education and this level of comradery, there is always hope. Hope for a better future with kinder politics, and hope that we are on the cusp of radically undoing the systematic exploitation of young renters. 

*Names have been changed to protect identities

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