In a country where over 200,000 dwellings are long-term vacant and where, on average, houses now cost seven times people’s income, some of the victims of Britain’s housing crisis have been mobilising for a decent, more affordable place to live.
“We are here every week, offering encouragement and support, and teaching people how to fight back,’’ activist Jasmin Stone tells Equal Times from a street stall in Stratford, in the east London borough of Newham, where many people failed to benefit from the multi-million pound redevelopment scheme undertaken in the area for the 2012 London Olympics.
“We say: ‘Have demonstrations, occupy the council office, we will support you. Speak to your local elected people, councillors, MPs...and don’t plead with them. Don’t ask them for advice. Put pressure on them to do the work they are supposed to be doing,’” she says.
And the pressure is working, Stone says: “We meet people every week who have been told there is no housing for years on end, and once they have started resisting and fighting back, we often see people all of a sudden rehoused. The council finds them something they have always been told isn’t there.”
This is what happened to Stone three years ago, when she first became a housing activist. She was 19 years old, and along with 28 other young single mothers, she received an eviction notice from a hostel in Stratford called Focus E15.
The council offered to rehouse the women hundreds of miles from London, where they had no family or support networks. But after a high-profile campaign the ‘Focus E15 mothers’ were all rehoused within the local borough of Newham.
A complex crisis
The housing crisis in London is everywhere. It is in the building sites for luxury flats, like those the Focus E15 hostel was cleared to make way for. It is on the streets, where the number of rough sleepers has more than doubled in five years. And it affects the lives of London’s tenants who on average spend two-thirds of their income on rent, up from just under half six years ago.
Britain’s Conservative government passed a new Housing and Planning Act earlier this year. Supporters say it will boost homeownership and stimulate an increase in housebuilding. But critics, such as Unite the Union – the UK and Ireland’s largest trade union – see it as an attack that will “destroy social housing for good.”
Social housing, provided by councils, used to be the main form of affordable housing in the UK. But with a sustained reduction in council homes, housing associations now manage most so-called ‘affordable’ homes.
The previous government reduced the affordable housing budget of housing associations by 60 per cent and allowed them to make up for the lost income by charging ‘affordable rent’. Defined as 80 per cent of market rent, in London this can still mean as much as £2,400 (US$2680) a month, which is in “no way affordable for working-class people,” according to Stone.
Unite say the new act will force local councils to sell off social homes without replacing them with new ones. It would also allow people to sell the ‘starter homes’ they purchased at a taxpayer-funded discount, at market rates, after only five years.
Meanwhile, families earning £30,000 (US$33,600) a year (£40,000, or US$44,800, in London) will be forced to pay full market rent, even though their earnings amount to no more than a couple both on the minimum wage.
Unite’s solution, as laid out in its A Home Is A Human Right campaign, is to build a million new homes to “create more affordable housing”. It also wants to see “the regulation of landlords with the emphasis on rent controls, which work in Germany and Sweden”.
There are various reasons for the astronomical rise in the cost of housing in the UK: a huge decline in the number of social homes built since the 1980s and an ever-increasing population means the private sector has been unable to meet the demand for housing. As a result, housing prices in England tripled between 1997 and 2007.
According to the homelessness charity Shelter, other factors behind the price increases include a long period of economic growth, a rise in people buying second homes and low interest rates.
Those lower rates led to greater availability of mortgage lending and more relaxed lending criteria. This also included new forms of lending, such as interest-only and 50-year mortgages, and since 1996, the introduction of a ‘buy-to-let’ mortgage.
As a result, “the proportion of privately rented dwellings has seen a steady increase as the proportion of local authority- social rented and owner occupied dwellings has seen a corresponding decrease,” says Shelter.
There are now nine million private renters, and according to Shelter, one-in-three privately rented homes fail to meet minimum standards of decent housing.
Even worse in London
The crisis is especially dire in London, where the capital’s status as a global hub has resulted in the ‘buy-to-leave’ phenomena. As a result, many homes are purchased by foreign residents who rarely live in their UK properties.
Between 2010 and 2014, a fifth of all property sales in one of the city’s prime boroughs, Kensington and Chelsea, were by foreign buyers – for new properties, this figure was 75 per cent. The estate agent Savills estimated for the Guardian last year that two-thirds of foreign buyers are investors.
The Focus E15 group – which now includes dozens of people and not just single mothers – believes in taking direct action to protest the housing crisis.
Stone tells Equal Times about an occupation of an empty council home that took place at a housing estate two years ago. The homes had stood empty for years, allegedly because of asbestos, but during the Olympics they had been used to host journalists, which outraged residents.
“The homes were absolutely beautiful. They were all two-bedroom, two of them had disability access and they were a lot better than any of the houses I have seen the council rehouse people in,” Stone says.
Newham Council took the occupiers to court, but then offered to open 40 of the homes if the group ended the occupation.
“We obviously jumped on that opportunity,” she says. “To this day we know that 28 of the homes have been opened, which is an amazing victory, however, they are on short-term private let contracts.”
A key part of the success, she says, was months of organising on the estate to ensure residents would feel comfortable with the occupation and support it.
Reviving the rent strike
Another local victory took place this summer in university accommodation in central London.
After a five-month rent strike, students of University College London (UCL) won a rent freeze for the academic year 2016/17 as well as £350,000 (US$391,800) to fund accommodation bursaries for students most in need.
Although student accommodation in London is expensive across the board, UCL halls of residence are amongst the priciest, with weekly rents reaching as much as £258.90 (US$289).
The university’s housing campaigners estimate accommodation costs have risen by 56 per cent since 2009, with the university making a huge profit of up to 40 per cent.
UCL student and rent strike organiser David Dahlborn says key to the success was strength in numbers.
“Our organising consisted of a lot of doorstepping, going around the housing blocks and talking about rent, proposing that if enough students withheld rent, the university could not evict everyone,” he tells Equal Times.
“We were only going to do it if there was no significant risk of anyone getting victimised. We made solidarity explicit.”
Many UCL students pay rent in termly installments, and when the January 2016 payment deadline came, 150 of the 5,000 students in halls of residence missed it.
As the strike went on, students in other halls could see there were no major repercussions – the university made “a few hollow attempts to bully people by email,” Dahlborn explains – and pledged to join the strike.
When it was time to pay the next installment in May, the strike had grown to 800 UCL students as well as hundreds at other universities across London.
“If you strike monthly or weekly, it makes it easier,” Dahlborn reflects. But the organisers also knew that if London’s first rent strike in a generation took place at a university, they would have to convince people that the same tactic could work for more individualised private sector tenants.
Dahlborn provides examples both from history – such as the rent strike in St Pancras, London, in the 1960s – and in other countries.
“It is not a coincidence that big cities in the US that have rent control also have strong tenants’ unions and rent strikes,” he says.
The new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, recently proposed a London Living Rent scheme where rent would be based on a third of the average local income. This is the first attempt to curb the crisis through regulation.
But for both Jasmin Stone and David Dahlborn, that is not enough. “We demand decent secure housing for all, which for us means more council housing,” says Stone.
“From my view,” says Dahlborn, “the solution has to come from the bottom-up. Once you start winning, the movement will grow. I am hopeful that people will look at the UCL rent strike and say, ‘If they can do it, so can we.’”