Don’t let it be

How Britain’s housing crisis sparked a new era of community activism with a strong track record

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Fulwood, Sheffield is a peaceful suburban enclave, replete with half-a-million-pound homes, large gated driveways and an abundance of trees. It is the last place you would expect to see a throng of protesters, never mind a doorstep altercation culminating in the arrival of five police cars.

People are encouraged to stand up for one another rather than rely on the guidance of an authority figure

But this is exactly what happened after 18 tenants living in the same building in Sheffield got in touch with their local Acorn tenants’ union. They reported they had been hit with rent hikes in the middle of the coronavirus lockdown, when many people were facing wage cuts or even losing jobs altogether. One tenant who tried to challenge the increase was reportedly served with an eviction notice as “revenge” for speaking out. To top it off, the tenants claimed the landlord was refusing to address “vital maintenance issues” within the property, and bullying anyone who dared to complain.

Acorn’s member defence team sprang into action. Together with the tenants, they donned their signature red T-shirts and staged a demonstration outside the landlord’s Fulwood home, waving signs that read “fix your property” and  “lockdown rent increase? Greed!” They would not be leaving, they explained, until he agreed to scrap the rent hike, sort out the repairs and stop bullying tenants. The landlord called the police.

Frustratingly, the activists left empty-handed that day. But for Acorn, this was not considered a failure. Images from the protest were splashed over social media to garner further support. The story was picked up by several journalists. Acorn has promised further action to ramp up the pressure. Experience has shown Acorn organisers that, more often than not, sustained direct action gets results. In late July, Sheffield organisers reported that, thanks to a series of protests, one household’s stolen deposits had been returned to them in full.

The prevalence of community action groups has surged in recent years, and Acorn is leading the charge. The name stands for Association of Community Organisations for Reform Now, and it originated in the US in 1970. In just six years, its UK incarnation has established 11 branches and counting across the country, having seen a “glut of applications” in the wake of the 2019 general election.

The organisation is democratically run, member-funded and based on a philosophy of mutual aid, meaning people are encouraged to stand up for one another rather than rely on the guidance of an authority figure. And while the group is non-partisan, political anger from those who feel left behind by austerity cutbacks has fed into Acorn’s support base. As Sheffield branch leader Stuart McMillan puts it, against a backdrop of sharp funding cuts and deteriorating public services, “looking after each other is a political act”.

Acorn’s remit isn’t limited to housing issues either. When the global pandemic hit and the nation went into lockdown, Acorn was out of the blocks before local authorities had tied their shoelaces. In nine English cities, from Brighton to Newcastle, they assembled teams of volunteers to leaflet thousands of homes, adhering to strict hygiene and social distancing protocols. The leaflets contained helplines for vulnerable people to call in case they needed medication, shopping or other essentials delivered to them. For those shielding without family or a local support network to call upon, Acorn volunteers provided a lifeline.

Of course, not everyone is enamoured of this new breed of community activist. On Twitter, one user remarks that Acorn’s member defence tactics are “intimidatory”, and some in pro-landlord circles have dubbed the group “rent-a-mob”. To the uninitiated, methods of protest usually reserved for large corporations and governments can look heavy-handed when directed at a lone rogue landlord.

But what outside observers don’t always realise is that, for tenants battling abusive landlord behaviour, complaining via the “proper channels” frequently leads nowhere. For example, legislation to prevent “revenge evictions”, even if you can successfully prove your circumstances meet the criteria, only invalidates eviction notices for six months.

In the event of an unprotected tenancy deposit not being repaid, you can claim up to three times the deposit amount in compensation via the courts. But unless you’re prepared to take the risk of representing yourself in court, you have to qualify for legal aid or else crowdfund the sum needed to secure a lawyer. Even then, it may take months to get the outcome you need.

The glacial pace of official help allows rogue landlords to escape scrutiny. This sense of powerlessness is typically what drives tenants to join a community action group like Acorn. As the organisation’s membership grows, so does its capacity to take on bigger, more complex adversaries.

I first spoke to Acorn in 2018 as part of the research for my book, Generation Rent. Back then, Sheffield-based organiser Jo Hiley told me that, one day, she hoped Acorn might be strong enough to take on a case like her dad’s. Little did she know that this hope would become a reality just two years later.

John Hiley bought his ex-council flat in Nottingham outright for £55,000 in 2014. In July 2017, he received a letter informing him of impending renovation works that were due to be carried out on his property. The scheme was exalted by Nottingham City Council as an ambitious bid to tackle “fuel poverty” and “make Nottingham homes… more energy-efficient”.

The problem was the cost. John would be liable to hand over between £13,000 and £19,000 for the privilege of having these “improvements” foisted upon him. Even worse, the deadline for objecting to the works had already passed. John was supposed to have received a letter in March 2017, informing him of a 90-day window in which he could raise any concerns. The letter had never arrived, although landlord Nottingham City Homes (NCH) disputes this, stating that “our records show that we sent the correspondence in March, July and September 2017 to addresses as instructed by Mr Hiley and as defined by the Land Registry”.

The works began in July 2017. Powerless to stop them from proceeding, John embarked on a campaign to get the exorbitant fee removed. Initially, he and fellow residents formed a committee and made some headway. They managed to get the bill reduced to £10,000 under an obscure piece of legislation known as Florrie’s Law.

But since then, NCH, an arms’ length management organisation to which council homes were transferred, has dug its heels in, offering only payment options and refusing to waive or reduce the bill any further. Rather than back down, John reached out to Nottingham’s newly-formed Acorn branch.

Acorn volunteers had to get to grips with the complexities of leasehold law. It may seem odd that an owner-occupier can still have a landlord. Most homeowners in England and Wales are freeholders, entitled to occupy their homes indefinitely. But John has a tenure called leasehold – effectively a long-term tenancy agreement.

It is a little-known fact that Right to Buy flats are typically sold with 125-year leases. Once the lease term is up, ownership reverts to the freeholder or landlord. In the meantime, leaseholders must pay ground rent and service charges for the upkeep and maintenance of common areas. They are also liable to pick up the tab for any major works carried out in the building, subject to a legally prescribed consultation process.

I spoke to Luca Cornish-Jenkins, an experienced community organiser working on John’s case. One of the major differences when taking on a local authority, he told me, was the bureaucratic labyrinth you encounter. You can be passed from one department to another and back again, fobbed off with another email address to try, or made to fill in forms or follow the same processes repeatedly.

To push back against this treatment, the Acorn volunteers organised what they called a communications blockade, where a co-ordinated group takes it in turns to bombard various people at the council with phone calls throughout the day. “Essentially, it’s to show our strength and how many people are behind this,” Cornish-Jenkins explains.

The point is to be “annoying enough” to attract the attention of senior decision-makers. It is not, Luca stresses, about antagonising staff, who could often be sympathetic. “I have had some really nice conversations with staff, who after hearing about the case were actually quite shocked about how long it had been going on for,” he says.

The comms blockade was only one component. The volunteers managed to win the backing of Nottingham City Council’s former leader, Jon Collins, and have gathered over 120 signatures, including those from councillors in different Nottingham boroughs, for an open letter to NCH’s chief executive Nick Murphy.

They also went door-knocking around John’s block to win the support of neighbours, many of whom are council tenants, and give them the opportunity to air any grievances of their own. This led to a demonstration outside the block, which was shared on social media. The story has been covered in local and national media outlets, and John’s MP Nadia Whittome is now supporting the case.

A continuing obstacle for the Nottingham activists is the battle for the moral high ground. John’s status as a leaseholder, meaning he is a homeowner, appears to be driving NCH’s lack of sympathy towards John. As John’s daughter Jo tells me: “They keep telling us, oh, but these renovations are adding value to John’s home, or this is going to make his home more energy efficient… But they fundamentally don’t get that this is going to ruin my dad financially. They think ‘homeowner’ means ‘affluent’, but my dad works in Asda on the minimum wage… he can’t even afford to join the scheme to make his energy bills cheaper.”

John’s home is his only asset, and £10,000 represents around a fifth of its value. “Even if the bill is paid for via a charge on the property [meaning it would only be payable upon the sale of the flat], it’ll still make a huge difference to my step-mum Zizi’s financial security.” Jo says. Worth highlighting too is that, with only 87 years remaining on the lease, John’s flat is unlikely to rise in value any further, as mortgage providers don’t tend to lend against leasehold homes with lease terms of 80 years or less.

John’s story demonstrates the importance of community action groups in tackling the complexities of today’s housing crisis. By keeping their remit broad and simple — namely, helping the powerless stand up to more powerful authority figures — Acorn avoids the ideological blind spots that might cause them to see a leaseholder as less worthy of help than a council tenant or a private renter. Hence why building bridges between John and his socially renting neighbours is such a vital part of its campaign.

By standing together as a community, groups like Acorn show how it is possible to break down traditional divides between housing tenures, class backgrounds and party politics. McMillan puts it simply: “Essentially, we believe we’re stronger together than we are individually. And if we keep fighting, we can win.”

For Acorn Nottingham, the fight continues.

Generation Rent: Why You Can’t Buy A Home (Or Even Rent A Good One) by Chloe Timperley is published by Canbury Press, £9.99

Landlord’s say

When contacted for comment, NCN issued the following statement: “Byron Court has benefitted from full refurbishment and green investment including solar panels and high levels of insulation, which has increased the value of the flats. As well as residents already seeing a significant reduction in utilities bills, each flat has benefitted from £37,000 worth of improvements but we have capped the cost to each leaseholder at £10,000.

“Resident leaseholders have a wide choice of repayment options to ensure they do not suffer financial hardship. This includes the offer of a title charge on the property (meaning they don’t have to repay the costs until the property is sold in the future).

“We advise and support all leaseholders with the options available; we don’t want anyone to have a repayment option which is not genuinely affordable to them.”

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