Right to Housing but a Catch-22 for Tenant Rights in England

picture taken by ACORN in the Newham borough of London where we are organizing

picture taken by ACORN in the Newham borough of London where we are organizing

London   Meetings with the director of the newly formed Tenants’ Foundation, the director of Generation Rent, and ACORN United Kingdom’s organizing coordinator and head organizer in London yesterday was a deep dive into tenant rights — and wrongs — in England. The big picture is dire for tenants throughout the country, and most intensely in London. For most low-and-moderate income families home ownership is a myth expect perhaps in Northern England, so the trick is how to survive as a tenant in a time of dramatically escalating housing values, and therefore soaring rents sucking up increasing levels of family income.

The maze is yet harder to navigate with the drastic reduction in social or public housing units where rents are lower therefore moving people into tenancy under private landlords where rents are unlimited and rights are more constrained. For lower income families the imposition of the “universal credit” program with hard caps at 26000 pounds and likely falling to 23000 pounds including all forms of assistance from housing benefits, unemployment or other support, regardless of family size or circumstance, often means disaster.

If we often argue that property rights are the most fundamental and foundational rights in the United States, we may only be guessing at how sacred they are in England. I was most confounded by what seemed institutional “redlining” and legalized de facto discrimination against benefit recipients or claimants, as they are known in England. Nominally, there are non-discrimination laws in England offering protection from discrimination based on race, gender, religion, nationality, and sexuality. There is no protection for discrimination based on income or employment status, so it is in fact legal for private landlords to refuse to rent to benefit claimants.

England allows mortgage lenders and insurers to redline by charging landlords more if they rent to claimants, thereby directly discriminating against poorer or displaced families in wholesale fashion. A housing rights website notes the painful paradox:

[England’s] anti-discrimination legislation protects people from both direct and indirect discrimination. Indirect discrimination occurs where a policy, which is not discriminatory in itself, if likely to impact disproportionately on people who are protected under equality laws. Some people may argue that this type of policy could be seen as indirect discrimination if, for example, housing benefit claimants were predominantly female or predominantly from an ethnic minority group. However, this type of discriminatory practice can be legal if it can be reasonably justified. A landlord whose mortgage lender imposed these conditions on him or her would be justified in adopting this practice.

Private landlords have reveled in being able to discriminate and are taking it to the bank. Their own testimony indicates how rapidly they have decreased available housing stock for the poor or dislocated. In testimony their association has said, “…in the last three years there has been a 50% drop in the number of landlords taking people who are on benefits. It is now down to only one fifth; 22% of our landlord members whom we surveyed say they have LHA tenants, and 52% of those surveyed said they would not look at taking on benefits tenants.” Almost as bad, different from US section 8 programs, landlords do not apply and are not inspected to insure that their housing is safe and meets habitability standards, so rule the roost completely.

Because there is a “right to housing,” if evicted, and evictions are going through the roof, a family can go to their local borough council and ask for housing. With lengthy or frozen lists for social housing and recalcitrant landlords acting with impunity for the highest dollar in a tight market, such families have to be housed by the council, but often can’t be accommodated in the borough or even in the area so some uproot people and send them away, paying for them to stay more cheaply in Birmingham or anywhere they can find. They are also putting families up in bed-and-breakfasts, hostels, and just about anything this side of squats at a national price of between 25 and 30 million pounds, which many refer to as a private landlord subsidy.

Something has to give, but the backs being broken first are tenants, especially those who are the poorest, while inequality increases and London and other cities in England become harbors for the rich and simply way-stations and holding areas of others. All of us were talking about organizing, but, soberly, with the recognition that there are mountains to climb any direction we look from the bottom to the top, far past our sight-line.

Setting the “Real” Living Wage in the United Kingdom

_85293800_gettyimages-492437705London   The conservatives in the United States may have managed some permanent confusion among workers by labeling their decades long campaign against unions and dues collection, the “right-to-work” laws, but on our side of the line the several decades we have fought “living wage” campaigns was an equally powerful organizing bulwark against ongoing efforts to freeze millions of workers at the minimum wages, making it clear the minimum was simply not enough for workers and their families to live. In the United Kingdom this fight over labeling has become a very important battle of the brands.

The Guardian summarized the dispute well, writing:

The long-running campaign shot to political prominence last July when the chancellor made a “national living wage”, to be set at £7.20 an hour in April, the centrepiece of his budget. But [Secretary of the Exchequer] Osborne’s statutory minimum, which is set to rise to about £9 an hour by 2020, will apply only to over-25s and remains below the living wage, which is calculated to reflect the cost of a decent standard of living for a full-time worker. The living wage now stands at £9.40 for London, where it is calculated by the mayor’s office, and £8.25 across the rest of the UK. More than a quarter of FTSE 100 firms have signed up to pay it to their staff, with Lidl, the supermarket chain, among recent high-profile converts.

Converting the pounds to the dollar and translating English to American, the conservative government is essentially proposing an increase in the federal or national minimum wage in the UK to $10.42 this spring and then $13.03 in US dollars by 2020. The living wage campaigners numbers in London equal $13.61 in dollars and nationally $11.94, so these are differences worth fighting for obviously. The living wage campaigns in the UK are won by voluntary compliance rather than being established as mandatory minimums, and the signees claimed around 66000 workers under agreements in 2015, I was told now believe that they are closer to 100,000 workers.

So, what’s to do about this somewhat slick, though flattering, attempt to appropriate the terminology and spirit of wage increases while not giving them out in reality? A high level, blue ribbon commission has been formed with labor, churches, foundations, and economists to try and re-calibrate the figures in establishing a competitive standard to establish a new “living wage” for progressive forces. The commission debated calling itself the “real” living wage outfit or changing their name, but instead rightly entered the fray. As we know from the US and Canadian campaigns such pursuits can become fool’s errands as one tries to balance political reality against all of the elements that might justifiably be included in such formulas. In the US the arguments have always been around health care and day care costs. In Canada, childcare has often been the bridge too far for some city bylaw fights.

With voluntary compliance some might think this is an argument more about posture than policy for progressives trying to keep the pressure on while holding tightly to their signatories, but talking to people close to the Commission’s deliberations there’s much more at state. The devolving governmental powers in Scotland won by the Scottish Parliament after losing the independence vote last year have the Scottish National Party and its allies on this issue, including from the labor unions, moving to establish a living wage standard for public, governmental workers in Scotland. The Scots have indicated to the Living Wage Commission that they are interested in setting their rate at the number the commission recalibrates, assuming the economics aligns with their politics and finances as well, The potential for Scottish adoption of the, what can I say, but “real” living wage, makes this dispute and the number crunching that undergirds it much more than a spitting match about terminology, giving it a strong push against what fairly, we and others, could now label the lesser “so-called” living wage set by the conservatives in the national government at Westminster.

Bernie’s Brother is EVERYWHERE in England

Larry Sanders. Source: telegraph.co.uk

Larry Sanders. Source: telegraph.co.uk

London   If anyone thinks that they can escape the US-election battles on the 24-hour news circuit, don’t come to England!

Eating lunch with a seasoned political operator often in and out of Labor governments and the institutions that surround them, he asked about the Clinton-Sanders campaign, but even before we got our orders out, he told a funny story about winning a bet with his partner. He had told her that Bernie Sanders’ brother had been leading the news on all media ever since New Hampshire, and he had just about had enough of it. She looked at him with bemused disbelief, and, voila, he turned on the radio, and there was Bernie’s brother bringing a bit of the Bronx to the BBC!

I laughed as well, asking naively if Bernie’s brother lived in England, and nodding and laughing along as he told the story. Less than an hour later, I picked up a free copy of the Evening Standard on the tube in London, and darned if there wasn’t an interview with the Bernie brother smack dab in the middle of the paper.

In the USA we are used to brothers running towards the political flame like moths. We had Roger Clinton and his show during Bill Clinton’s presidency, and of course Jimmy Carter’s brother couldn’t stay out of the news either, and too often it looked like hands were stretched out wide and trouble was a coming. The Bush sons and then brothers populated another world. Certainly stories of Jeb trying to “represent” while the old man was President have been widely reported in various wheeler-dealer moves at the time.

But, a candidate’s brother? Usually, the handlers keep them under wraps for as long as possible. Don’t they?

Larry Sanders, yes, that’s the Bernie brother’s name, just like the old HBO comedy show some years back, either didn’t get the memo or hadn’t hear of this internet thing or the globalization of the news cycle which can take a quote and twist it across mountains and oceans. Or, the Bernie brother has a bit of Trump in him and just lets it sail.

I saw what my friend meant quickly. The interview was “we,”“we, “we,” on one position after another. For example, the newish and controversial leader of the Labor Party Jeremy Corbyn is also old, white, and progressive. Bernie brother assures us that, “There are comparisons with Corbyn and if Bernard wins we will have a special relationship with him.” We? He takes credit for Bernie’s political views. “I used to babysit him and talk about the political books I was reading, so it’s my fault.” Ol’ Larry takes slaps at Hillary for supporting the Iraq war and welfare cutbacks. He claims Bernie didn’t want to run, but did so by default when Senator Elizabeth Warren wouldn’t make the jump.

War, peace, the Clintons, youth, and Bernie’s personal life are all fair game for Brother Sanders in his 15-seconds of fame in Oxford where he was a social worker and former city councilor. He says he’ll vote in the US elections for the first time since 1968. And until then, for better or for worse he’ll give his opinions about his brother and his political positions in England anytime someone sticks a microphone anywhere near his face on this side of the Atlantic.

Encounter Knowledge

passportWashington   Hopping on a plane to Dulles and then over the water to London for various meetings with ACORN United Kingdom organizers and others, you find yourself dragging over to the airport and running through the pros and cons in your mind.

Believe me they may be almost giving away gas at the pump in the United States, but flying is still very pricey. The exotic and romantic nature of travel on planes has changed over my years of travel in remarkable ways. Planes are now buses with wings that assemble and take off from shopping malls. You still had best bring your snacks with you, but you don’t have to wave a plane down by the side of the road and usually the bathrooms work better than the grey-dogs and mega-buses do, but otherwise it’s what and what.

Going from country to country there are unfathomable barriers. Subcontracted, on-line application procedures for visas are different country to country, for example easy to Kenya, impossible to India. This trip was supposed to be a cheap stop in London for business in route to my annual trip to India where we had exciting opportunities in Bengaluru with partners to fashion video recruitment tools and were working to identify organizing opportunities with prospective French trade union federations, but instead after two mysterious and inexplicable visa application rejections from India, that part of the trip was scuttled forcing the by station stop to swallow the cost of the fare.

I read a piece recently that argued that tech might increasingly replace travel. In the age of the internet, the meetings via conference call, video presentations, and other devices which put you “in the room” almost, many businesses are asking why take the time, trouble, and expense to carry the same weight.

God knows it’s tempting, but is it really the same? Is the same information and exchange really available in such meetings or through endless research on websites and YouTube? The author introduced a counterpoint. He argued that there might be such a thing as “encounter” knowledge. Intelligence only gained by being on the ground, seeing with your own eyes, experiencing the random events, and visiting with the people in unscripted and natural settings.

Helping make an organizing plan for a union of domestic workers in Morocco, I felt crippled by not being able to be on the ground where I could test theory to reality. Sitting in a worker center in Los Angeles, I could see from there to the future in a way that wouldn’t have been available from armchair or screen.

It’s a relief to be allowed to believe that dragging my wagon on and off a plane, moving from couch to subway to meeting to train to meeting to plane is not just old school, but continues to be a way to gain deeper and superior knowledge, not just a force of habit.

The Dilution of Class Privilege on Mardi Gras

s.mgpastpresent.2New Orleans    Mardi Gras season is rough for year round residents. It’s not the going to parades but navigating the parade routes so that regular work and life maintains its semi-normal routine. It’s also stomaching the symbols.

Mardi Gras marks the beginning of Lent on the Christian calendar with Easter forty days away. Historically, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a guilty pleasure rife with class and racial entitlement. And, like so many rock-ribbed Southern traditions, the traditions of the upper class continue unabated. The daily newspapers continue to parade front page pictures on the Sunday before Mardi Gras of an elderly white man anointed as the King of the Rex parade, the premier old line outfit, and a young, white woman debutante as the Queen of Rex. This year’s queen looked twelve in her picture. She is no doubt an accomplished young woman who is now attending Yale and speaks Mandarin, but has never gone to school and hardly ever lived in New Orleans, as distant from her disloyal subjects as the planet Mars. The uptown island of wealth and privilege in New Orleans continues to float aimlessly in a sea that is 60% African-American and one of the most crime ridden and poorest cities in the United States. There’s something distinctly unappealing about watching self-proclaimed royalty throwing trinkets to the out stretched arms of the masses, but maybe that’s just me, because it is certainly deeply rooted in the New Orleans culture.

There’s pushback though. The Endymion parade celebrated its 50th Mardi Gras and along with other so-called super-krewes have left Rex in the dirt as the most popular parades. Endymion was a middle and working class parade interloper now claiming thousands of members, open to pretty much anyone willing to come up with a couple of grand. Not for everyone certainly, but compared to the high society swells, a democratic revolution. Such parades chose their royalty from the ranks of local and other celebrities focusing on the crowds and popularity, maybe even the fun of it all, rather than the pomp and prestige.

The post-Katrina surge of the young and the hips detached from any tradition, but looking for a good time, has also leavened some of the more troubling pieces of the Mardi Gras tradition and added a somewhat more democratic tinge to the experience. The African-American Indian “tribes” and costumes were neighborhood based and outside of the main culture, and now newcomers have brought some of the same topsy-turvy to tradition. There are walking parades, makeshift floats or none at all, and costumes of all description often to musical accompaniment. There are parades for dogs and neighborhood parades of floats the size of a shoebox. Some are bawdy and racy, while others are political and satirical. Many are unannounced without routes or routines and therefore all of the more exciting. When you hear the music, you can run to your front stoop and with some joy and surprise catch a glimpse of the passing parade.

Gradually the people are stealing up on the big whoops and making Mardi Gras their own as the natives and the newcomers make it more fun and celebratory, rather than a painful parody of the city’s racial and class divide.

Stupid to Slam Young Women

tumblr_nuivyqRpOD1uvablzo1_1280New Orleans    When real people get involved, predictions become worthless.

Take the Super Bowl as a good example. Many would have thought you had to be a sentimentalist or a hometown fan to really and truly believe that Denver with an injured, semi-geriatric quarterback and a team hardly able to score a touchdown in the red zone could beat the exuberant, almost undefeated Carolina Panthers led by an MVP QB who was larger at 6’5” 245 pounds than any player on the Green Bay team that won the first Super Bowl 50 years ago. The Manning family goes back to Drew, Mississippi and my mother’s roots and the Manning boys were raised in New Orleans, and I lived long stretches around Colorado, mainly on the western slope where my brother was also born, and in Denver for months at a time, summer after summer, so I was more Bronco than Panther and a sucker for a storybook finish, even as I understood that the Panthers and their star might be the future and a thorn in the side of the beloved New Orleans Saints.

In Iowa only 14% of the voters between 17 and 29 years old caucused for Hillary Clinton, while 84% went for Bernie Sanders. Like it or not, sports and politics fans, that means something. For all of the deserved criticism of football these days, there is never any confusion about winning and losing and whether the problems are on the field and not the stands. It’s the team, not the fans who shoulder the weight.

Like it or not, the same is true in politics. When asked many, many months ago by a reporter from The Nation to offer an opinion on how progressives saw Hillary Clinton, I felt lucky when the article didn’t mention my expressed concern on her candidacy: why weren’t women united and rallying as the bedrock of her base? Now more than six months later, the problems, if anything, are even worse and more worrisome.

An iron rule of organization is never blame the members. The same holds true in politics.What could anyone have been thinking to now encourage other women, almost surrogates to the campaign, to blame women, especially young women, for not supporting Clinton and instead being more excited about Sanders campaign? Is scolding and shaming supposed to change voters’ preferences and somehow mysteriously and miraculously move them to greater participation and devotion to Hillary? Hardly!

And, Gloria Steinem, longtime feminist speaker, writer, and activist, what the heck? For her to say on HBO that young women were essentially moving to Sanders not with their heads but their hormones because “that’s where the young boys are,” was belittling and, frankly, sexist. In the firestorm she has now ignited with this stupid and insulting comment, she has hurt not only Clinton, but women and the cause. In a retreat release, she now claims she misspoke and didn’t mean it and does believe that young women care about politics and more are feminists than ever before. Yeah, right, but for one minute does anyone believe that this was a slip of her tongue and that Gloria Steinem of all people didn’t perfectly plan that remark if the opportunity presented? Steinem is a lifetime veteran of the public forum and the fierce behind-the-scenes battles dating back to the National Student Association CIA Cold War days and certainly the constant debates of the feminist movement through the decades. She knew what she wanted to say, she said it to stir the waters and try to put a finger in the dike of young women’s slipping support for Clinton, and she said it as a decree from the pinnacle of the women’s movement that she firmly occupies and protects.

If Clinton and her team want to win, they can’t blame the voters. She has to convince and inspire them, not shame and scold. She has to be the vessel of hope for change and the future, not the finger waving teacher, coach, or parent, saying “get real,” settle for less, and be happy with what you have. Clinton has dreams, but she – and her team – have to make the dreams about others, not themselves, if they want to convince voters.

You win on the field based on how you and your team play, not by badmouthing the fans. Same for voters.