Renters put down roots

At the mercy of landlords, private renters often have to endure dreadful housing conditions and soaring rents – with the threat of eviction. But tenants union Acorn knows how to turn the tables

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It’s a bustling Saturday on Market Street – Manchester’s main shopping thoroughfare – and activists enter a NatWest, brandishing a list of demands. Wielding banners emblazoned with “Homes not assets” and chanting “The tenants united will never be defeated!”, they sit down and occupy the bank as the weekend rush of customers look on in confusion.

The red T-shirt-wearing group behind this peaceful, good-spirited demonstration is Acorn, one of a burgeoning number of unions for private tenants. For years, renters have argued that landlords hold all the cards. Many are now coalescing and using direct action to reshuffle the pack.

Rather than being nonplussed by the action, many of the bank’s customers seem supportive

Today’s unfolding action forms part of wider day of protest by renter groups in seven cities against a clause in NatWest’s buy-to-let mortgage agreements with landlords, which forbids renting to tenants claiming welfare. It was sparked by a recent case where the bank told a landlady she must evict her current tenant – a vulnerable older woman claiming housing benefit despite her never missing a month’s rent payment – or move her mortgage to another provider.

A rallying cry of “Say yes, yes to DSS!” reverberates around the room. “It’s an outrageous, discriminatory policy which they have to end,” says Angus Satow, who organised Acorn’s Manchester protest. “There are four million people living on housing benefit, of whom 1.6 million are in the private renting sector. That’s pensioners, single mothers, the disabled. This policy treats them as subhuman and unworthy of a most basic human right: housing.”

Putting a face to the statistic is Felix*, an Acorn member affected by NatWest’s policy. She’s a wheelchair user who was diagnosed with a brain tumour last year. A further undiagnosed condition causes her constant pain and limits her movement and mobility. She has been hospitalised for her bipolar disorder. She is unable to work and relies on benefits, “without which disabled people wouldn’t have stood much chance of leaving institutions”, she says.

For 10 months, she has been trying to move from her “inaccessible” and “cramped” Bury accommodation – where her wheelchair only fits in one room of her house – only to come up against a “No DSS” firewall from estate agents. The irony is, aged 25, she has never claimed “DSS” – as the Department of Social Security was replaced by the Department for Work and Pensions 17 years ago.

“It’s degrading and humiliating,” she says. “It’s taken a toll on my mental health. It grinds you down. It makes you feel like you’re not a worthy citizen. You’re not as valuable as the rest of society. If I get evicted from where I live, I won’t be able to get a house. I’ll be screwed.”

Previous successful protests by Acorn resulted in TSB abolishing a similar “no DSS” clause, and Santander dropping a stipulation requiring landlords to raise rents by “as much as can be reasonably achieved”. Acorn is targeting banks one by one. NatWest, which is now “reviewing” its policy, was simply next on the hitlist.

Rather than being nonplussed by the action, many of the bank’s regular customers seem supportive and intrigued. One man even gives his contact details to an Acorn member in the hope they might help him secure long-overdue repairs from his errant landlord.

He might end up as the latest recruit to Acorn’s 1,000-strong army of disgruntled renters. Spread around branches in Bristol, Birmingham, Sheffield, Manchester, Brighton, Newcastle and South Belfast (with plans to establish in Leeds and Wales underway), members can be swiftly assembled into action. With less than 24 hours’ notice, members in Bristol gathered outside the house of a mother who had fallen into rent arrears as a result of the bedroom tax, forming a human chain to block the bailiffs who had been sent to evict her.

Much of their work involves stopping evictions and forcing repairs to be made and deposits returned – and they are not averse to picketing landlords’ houses or letting agents to publicly shame them into meeting their demands. In Newcastle, Acorn members have even trawled Craigslist to set up stings to expose predatory “sex for rent” landlords who feel the power imbalance is so weighted in their favour they can offer homes in exchange for so-called benefits.

How did we reach a point where renters are so angry and feel so disenfranchised as to be spurred into collective action? A record number of people are renting in the private sector, resigned to a life of permeant insecurity. Since 2011, rents have risen faster than people’s wages – and tenants feel increasingly like cash cows. Because of standard short-term tenancies, they can face rent rises or be forced to move every six or 12 months, shelling out for spurious agency fees with each relocation. That peripatetic existence affects credit ratings, making it even harder to find a place. Add in the looming threat of no-fault evictions, which allow landords to end tenancies for no reason  – one of the biggest causes of homelessness in Britain – and it’s little wonder that Acorn’s ranks are swelling.

Crouched on the floor of the bank making her voice heard is Emma Campbell, who faces eviction in two months. “I joined Acorn because I believe tenants deserve to be treated with respect and have rights,” says the 26 year old.

After her health tailspinned, she ended up on housing benefit. “I’m from a relatively privileged background. I never thought it would happen to me,” she adds.

When she first rented her house, she was employed but now she’s facing a no-fault eviction because the property is being sold. She has to disclose she’s on benefits to future landlords, limiting her pool of choice.

“There’s only two agencies in Manchester that rent to people on benefits and they have a very poor reputation for not carrying out repairs, people not getting their deposits back, and revenge evictions – people being evicted for asking for repairs to be completed,” she says. “They can get someone else in because they know people are desperate and don’t have a choice. It’s that or being out in the street or in a hostel.”

Living in anticipation of the rug constantly being pulled out from under them, tenants are cowed by fear. “People are scared,” says Campbell. “They’re scared of asking for repairs to be completed. They’re scared of making any demands of their landlord – yet their landlord can make as many demands as they like of you. They can flout the law.

“I’ve had landlords illegally letting themselves into the property, being verbally abusive and intimidating me when I’ve asked for repairs. There’s laws to protect landlords and there’s not really any solid laws to protect tenants. It’s a very unfair system and we’re saying enough is enough.”

When the first UK Acorn branch launched in Bristol in 2014, its remit was as a community union yet it soon found housing and tenants took up 97 per cent of its bandwidth, according to founder Nick Ballard. The dilapidated quality of housing and unhealthy conditions are regular member complaints.

“We’ve seen members with severe damp and leaking problems where floorboards have collapsed,” says Ballard. “The son of one of our members fell through the floorboards.

“We’ve had members living in multi-occupancy five-floor houses where rooms were closed off because internal ceilings had collapsed. No gas inspections had been carried out for years on end. There was no internal plumbing. There was a shower built on the third floor with nowhere for the water to go.”

It’s a scenario dispiritingly familiar to Woods. “Damp is a massive issue,” she sighs. “Just really poor housing conditions and the council are completely overrun with cases and don’t have the capacity to send out people from environmental health to impose things. People have started coming to us instead because we’re able to support them in winning repairs.”

Landlords may quail at the spectacle of ritual shaming. “To them, we’re public enemy number one,” admits Ballard. But as he notes: “People come to us out of desperation. They’ve usually exhausted all other options. Direct action is their only option.”

“People come to us out of desperation. They’ve usually exhausted other options.”

Such was the case for Joe Hulme, who endured four years of shoddy conditions in a tower block in Moss Side, Manchester before turning to Acorn. The front security door was broken, which meant endless break-ins. Drugs were smoked and dealt in corridors. Rough sleepers were urinating and defecating in the communal areas. “No one felt safe,” he says.

While the Birmingham division of Acorn picketed the Midlands-based company responsible for repairs, Manchester galvanised around 50 members to descend on the letting agent demanding that work be carried
out within two weeks.

“The benefit of working with Acorn is that they’ve got a clear plan of action and are very quick at building momentum and getting people together,” says Hulme. “There’s now a definite sense of confidence that we can hold our companies to account.

“We had four years of slummy conditions. In barely one month of being unionised, we’ve gone from being told ‘live somewhere else if it bothers you so much’ to sitting in my front room making plans together with the building managers. It works.”

In Bristol, Sheffield and Newcastle, Acorn have won the introduction of landlord licencing schemes: vital, they say, when 63 per cent of landlords admit to having no experience in the industry.

The growth of tenants unions, says Woods, is also due to old-fashioned canvassing: knocking on doors and asking renters if they have any issues. In Manchester, they host regular know your rights sessions to clue up student renters. The age demographic is currently skewed towards millennials and Generation Z.

“Something trade unions have traditionally struggled with is getting young people involved. I think Acorn has achieved that, because it’s young people facing these issues the most,” she adds, speaking from experience. Aged 23, she is part of a generation of which one in three will never own a home.

Back at the Market Street NatWest, protesters here range from school teachers and students to Citizens Advice workers and those who volunteer in food banks and have witnessed the sharp end of the housing crisis. Yet all are tired of feeling like they’re living in a landlord’s piggybank rather than a home.

Like many here, Tom* had never been involved in activism. After his deposit was illegally kept for six months as a student, “I got annoyed and typed ‘tenants union’ into Google. Acorn was the second result that came up”. Danny* joined a month ago following maintenance problems with his landlady. “Last winter, for a month and a half, we didn’t have a shower or bath that worked. We knew it was wholly illegal, but to pursue it in court seemed like a Herculean effort and cost.”

Acorn believes the 12 million renters in the UK could be harnessed into a powerful electoral force. “We’re in the process of shifting the balance of power,” says Ballard. “We registered about 4,500 renter voters in a registration drive during the last general election – people who are precariously housed and homeless, people who are normally denied a voice in the democratic process.”

If tenants’ rights have been ignored by successive governments, either as a result of lobbying from powerful landlord interest groups or the fact one in five MPs are landlords themselves, then there are encouraging signs that political parties are waking up to a potential sleeping giant.

Labour has pledged to plough £20 million into setting up renters unions. “Private renters have borne the brunt of the housing crisis in recent years,” Labour’s shadow housing secretary, John Healey MP, tells Big Issue North. “Renters unions can help by putting power in the hands of tenants. That’s why the next Labour government will fund the set-up costs of these unions across the county to support renters to defend their rights and make the housing market fairer.

“We’ll give renters the new rights they need: to control rental costs, improve conditions, and increase security and the power to defend these rights collectively.”

Until then, the dedicated volunteers here feel the message for rogue landlords is clear. In the words of Woods: “They can’t escape the long arm of Acorn.”

“When you’re in a situation like mine, you feel isolated and powerless,” adds Felix. “But Acorn have showed me I’m not alone – and I do have rights.”

*Surnames have been withheld 

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