Bristol As ACORN International organizers from Rome, Prague, Edinburgh, Bristol, Toronto, Vancouver, London, and the USA shared stories of issues, campaigns, and tactics in our annual meeting a surprising issue with global connections has begun occupying more and more of our conversations, beginning to crowd into time normally devoted to the cost of remittances and closing the digital divide. The surge of global inequality has been felt with particular hostility in the housing markets not only because home ownership has become dauntingly unrealistic for most, but also because the stock of public or social housing has fallen precipitously, throwing millions into the arms of private landlords.
Local laws have never been friendly to tenants, privileging property rights above all others, but public policy has not kept up, still pretending that most landlords are simply small homeowners opening up a piece of the property for neighbors so that they can make their own mortgages. Over and over again the organizers brought up campaigns to win landlord licensing or certification regulations, especially any rules with real teeth and enforcement.
Judy Duncan, ACORN Canada’s head organizer, summarized many of the arguments saying that a “complaint-fine” system will never work, depending on tenants to turn in violations on rental conditions for their own landlords who then hardly get a hand slap. In a political climate where public resources and governance have been stripped past the bone, complaints die on too many vines. The ACORN Bristol organizers talked of the downsizing of Bristol city government from thousands of workers to less than three hundred. The minimal fines based on the nostalgic memory of small landlords means that a fine in Toronto of $250 for a high rise owner with five buildings standing shoulder to shoulder in Scarborough is cheaper to pay than it is make the repair.
The issues are not minor door jams and ceiling cracks but gaping holes in the winter, asthma inducing mold, lead and toxins, and other severe health issues. The Canadians made the point again that equivalent public health practices in food and eating establishments are “ticket” based with inspectors empowered to ticket with real financial penalties. In housing complaint-based warnings lead to hearings, delays, and general foot dragging. Health departments can simply shut establishments down, but arguably the health dangers in un-repaired housing units are even more threatening, yet public authorities are playing patty cake and property rights are trumping human rights.
In Scotland long established rules about letting or real estate leasing agents are simply not enforced for decades. In Rome landlords have tied up ACORN Italy for a year in a fight to get rid of the procedure where tenants were able to register their landlord properties to put them on tax rolls, while getting a rent reduction.
As the number of tenants increase and it becomes a permanent condition real regulations and enforcement are going to increasingly be on the agenda. Landlords beware!