Fighting for a living rent

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Neil Gray, Joey Simons and Bechaela Walker summarise the origins, achievements and ambitions of the Living Rent tenants’ union

As Friedrich Engels made clear, housing crises are neither a temporary inconvenience nor a partial failure of the market but a systemic and perennial feature of capitalist relations. Since housing has become such a central pillar of national economies, however, the scope of housing crises and their political implications have changed markedly. From the early 1980s, right-to-buy, housing stock-transfer and widespread demolition programmes have decimated public housing, while Housing Association provision has been heavily depleted and marketised via diminished government funding and a subsequent reliance on private finance. The private rented sector, the least regulated and so currently the worst of all tenures, has increased from 5% to 15% of total housing stock in Scotland in the last decade and rents have spiralled inexorably.

The pressing nature of the housing question is all too evident. Yet, until recently, housing movements have been lacking in Scotland since the major anti-stock transfer campaigns of the late 2000s. The ‘bedroom tax’ campaign of 2013-14 is one notable exception, but it did not develop the tenants’ movement. This state of affairs was given a welcome jolt when Edinburgh Private Tenants’ Action Group (EPTAG) started picketing letting agencies to defend private tenants’ rights in 2011. After helping to abolish illegal letting agency fees in Scotland in 2012, EPTAG formed Living Rent in 2014 with activists from the National Union of Students and Acorn Scotland in order to campaign around the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016. This campaign helped establish rent controls through new Rent Pressure Zone (RPZ) legislation, and more tenure security through the scrapping of some of the pernicious ‘no-fault’ grounds for eviction.

Such legislation remains less than ideal, and in the case of RPZs, unworkable in practice, but the campaigning started the necessary work of tenant organising in the private rented sector and put rent control back on the agenda for the first time since its repeal in 1989. Crucially, Living Rent formed into a tenants’ union in 2016, aiming to foster solidaristic mass movements around private and social housing across Scotland.

Since 2016, it has expanded significantly. A key to this growth has been member defence around winnable campaigns, jointly securing repairs, deposits, fees and rent reductions for individual members, and training tenants to win their own cases, lead negotiations, mobilise friends and neighbours, and pass this experience on to others. These victories demonstrate in practice the effectiveness of the union, not as a service, but as a fighting body that moves people to action and empowers them to fight their own battles. The union’s recent campaigns, summarised here, have sought to generalise modes of political organising against a profit-driven housing sector, and turn defensive actions into offensive ones. Logo

In the summer of 2018, Living Rent helped mobilise thousands of people across Glasgow against Serco’s planned mass eviction of so-called ‘failed’ asylum seekers. Innovative actions included forming anti-eviction teams prepared to prevent stealth lock changes, and the securing of non-collaboration agreements from registered social landlord and letting agents. Crucially, the campaign began a new phase of solidarity organising with migrants and refugees in the working-class communities where Serco properties are concentrated.

Living Rent’s Seize the Fees initiative – notably built on the legislation EPTAG helped to force in 2012, and the extensive research and direct action of new members – has recovered thousands of pounds’ worth of illegal letting agency fees for tenants. The campaign exposes the absence of enforcement in the charging of these premiums, thus, demonstrating the limits of legal intervention without the presence of strong tenant organisation. Through the campaign, the Scottish Association of Landlords has been forced to negotiate directly with the union, and a historic agreement has been signed between Living Rent and an established Glasgow letting agent, ensuring retroactive payment of any illegal letting fees.

Further campaigns for a #WinterBreak on evictions in Scotland and for revised and meaningful rent control demonstrate Living Rent’s capacity and willingness to fight for legislative change on a national level. Combining original research, policy proposals, public petitioning and demonstrations, Living Rent has forced recognition of these issues by all the major political parties. Instead of basking in reflected glory, the union continues to expose the emptiness of current homelessness and rent-control legislation, while proposing improved solutions based on the needs of tenants rather than landlords, developers and rentier capitalists.

Living Rent has begun to fill the vacuum of housing movement activism in Scotland, but its ambitions are large and there is more to be done. The group is constantly seeking to expand its membership base, has initiated a new branch in Aberdeen, and has just launched its first local neighbourhood branches in Glasgow. The group emerged primarily from private tenants’ action, but public housing was always part of the agenda, and discussions are developing around a clear policy agenda on this vital, yet largely dormant, question.

What is crucial for Living Rent is that any such campaigns do not become abstract and alienating for members, but are built organically through member defence, direct action, community mobilisation, collective research and the wider development of political and cultural consciousness around housing. The systemic housing transformation that Living Rent is organising for requires mass mobilisation, from the ground up, and the union calls for new members, representing different demographics in Scotland, to join it in collective struggle as it goes from strength to strength.

Neil Gray is a writer, researcher and the editor of ‘Rent and its Discontents: A Century of Housing Struggle’ (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018). Joey Simons is a writer and co-ordinator for the Glasgow Living Rent branch events team. Bechaela Walker is a writer, Living Rent Member and co-ordinator for A History of Silence, a research project helping people uncover works by writers silenced due to their race, gender and class.

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