Is there a National Tenants’ Union in Britain’s Future?

Ideas and Issues
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shared housing in London

New Orleans    It was impossible to go anywhere in the United Kingdom without hearing of the woes of tenants and the escalating housing crisis that has gripped young families, workers, and pretty much anyone but the big whoops, particularly outside of the north of England. 

Stories abounded.  Rents being paid for pantries and garden sheds.  Dozens of young people in London not simply overcrowded but living in shifts and sharing beds if one works at night and the other during the day.  Rents routinely taking up to half of someone’s paycheck.  Not that I can’t hear and read similar stories in New York City and San Francisco and other overheated housing markets especially given the stagnation in wages.

Everywhere ACORN is organizing in the United Kingdom there are lots of issues coming from the local groups as they are being formed, but invariably the desperate and tenuous situation for tenants is either at or near the top.  “No fault” evictions leading to displacement, little security of tenure, failure to make repairs, mold, and the list seems to go on and on. 

ACORN’s ethical charter campaign success in Bristol and the living rent campaign in Scotland all have attracted attention, support with efforts rising in other ACORN cities in the UK and by other groups.  Talking with Betsy Dilmer, the director of Generation Rent, who has been campaigning around tenant issues for several years, before catching the Underground for the airport, her travels around the country have convinced her that there is a lot of opportunity for a tenants’ movement to build now, if the alliances and resources could be cobbled together.

Those obstacles are huge in themselves, but there are two others that though they are less concrete would also be mountains to climb towards success:  achieving a consensus on what would define victory for a tenants’ movement and embedding a broad sense of entitlement in tenants’ rights sufficient to propel the fight.  Given the aggressive moves by the newly elected Conservative government, it would be a grand fight to wage.  It’s not hard to see concessions that might be won with a mass-base and aggressive tactics along the lines emerging in Scotland, but moving that base without a deeper commitment to rights-based activity might be harder.

The scarcity of decent, affordable housing is so acute that even those who know they have the right to a six-month lease are unwilling to demand it, knowing there is a line of other wannabe tenants standing behind them if they seem to be anything other than model tenants.  I listened to numerous folks talking over a cup of tea or a pint about their interview “strategies” to find flats in such a tight market.  There is no balance in the market now, and “no fault” evictions would allow landlords to easily rid themselves of activists making needling demands for repairs and minimum standards of habitability. 

In organizing welfare recipients in the National Welfare Rights Organization, we first had to have people accept that they had rights and could be protected from retaliation.  The National Tenants’ Organization was organizing at the same time under a patchwork of local and state regulations for private tenants with only protections where people were in federally subsidized housing.  NTO despite some promising campaigns and popular support was never able to get the kind of traction it needed and the legacy in the United States is the continued whip hand held by landlords.

Nothing in this work is easy, but a national tenants’ organization or union in the United Kingdom would rank among the more difficult organizing challenges available there these days.