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.

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Emerging Tenants’ Charter

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This is ACORN France, which has nothing to do with this blog, but we welcome them to the ACORN Family

London     The ACORN United Kingdom organizing staff did me a favor and moved the second meeting to a university in far western London about a 40-minute bus ride from Heathrow, since I was finally heading to the ACORN Canada Year End / Year Begin Meeting, and then home.  ACORN Scotland couldn’t make it because of the giant rent control and security of tenure action and all of the last minute details, but where we had boots hard set on the ground in Bristol, Newcastle, and London it was a mini-UK YE/YB in its own right.

In such a short time,  the reports going around the room made it clear we were making huge progress. There were good solid reports on street-level issues in the new neighborhood groups around street crossings, traffic signals, and rubbish collection, but perhaps the most significant breakthroughs continued to be in the escalating campaigns around the broad range of tenants’ issues that are exploding in the cities where we are organizing in the UK.

Besides the Living Rent effort, the campaign originally begun with the founding of ACORN in Easton in Bristol to win improvements of conditions of private tenants and security of tenure form letting agencies has attracted wide support and expanded across the whole range of tenant issues and services. At one level organizers reported they have been surprised to get caught in a servicing and mediation role between some landlords and tenants with some leasing agencies, surprisingly, referring disputes to ACORN to mediate and resolve. Nick Ballard, the organizer at the point in the campaign, noted importantly that no tenant whom we have met in that capacity or to handle issues with their landlords have not joined ACORN, which was spot on! He also said that some tenants are reporting that just saying they are with ACORN and showing the button is winning them some fights.

The campaign has expanded to create a Tenants’ Charter of Rights in Bristol including longer leases, inspections, reasonable rents and other issues. Groups are not only joining us in supporting this newly emerging charter in Bristol but some city councilors are also coming on board. Winning compliance with the demands unfortunately is going to be a slog from target to target since the Council has no authority with all the powers in such matters residing in Westminster with the national government. We will be forced to win voluntary compliance, but we’re on our way.

Meeting earlier in the week with Professor Jane Wills who directs a masters’ program at Queen Mary University in community organization as part of their geography department, she speculated that perhaps the biggest contribution ACORN might be able to make in the UK was in organizing tenants and estates. She may be right. Furthermore, we may be already doing so from all of the reports at the organizers’ meeting and listening to their plans for the coming year.

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