The housing market in the UK is broken, marked by extortionate rents, precarity and poor housing conditions. Much of the issue is systemic and requires long-term solutions, particularly in response to a general low supply of homes. However, other factors at play include people returning to cities for work, more landlords selling properties, and increased taxes and restrictions that landlords pass on to tenants.
While fixing these problems will take time, in the short term there are things renters can do to protect themselves and each other from exploitation. Here’s why it’s time to join a tenant’s union to reclaim your power.
The problems with the housing market
It’s typical for young renters to move homes as often as once a year, and that’s if they’re able to find one at all. No-fault evictions have soared by 41 per cent, and last week a former head of the civil service warned the government that, if they don’t reintroduce the pandemic-era eviction ban, the UK faces a “catastrophic” homelessness crisis. Given how prevalent homelessness already is, it’s difficult to imagine what that would even look like.
In March 2022 it was reported that the average UK rent had jumped by 8.6% in a year, figures from Rightmove found that market rents across the UK increased by nearly 12% between the second quarter of 2021 and the same period in 2022 (equating to an average of an extra £119 per month), and figures from Chestertons found the number of homes available to rent in London fell by 38% in the year to July 2022. While rent controls were in place in the UK for most of the 20th century, they were removed in 1989 under Thatcher.
Meanwhile, SpareRoom figures found that since 2011 it has seen a 239% rise in 55- to 64-year-olds looking for houseshares, and homelessness charity Shelter has seen inquiries about emergency support rise by 177% since the start of the year. In November 2021 it was also reported that no-fault evictions had increased toward pre-pandemic levels. And, even when evictions are ‘above board’, the housing market is so precarious that it’s taking a serious psychological and physical toll on renters, as supply fails to meet demand.
The trade organisation Propertymark found that availability has halved since 2019, due in large part to a mass exodus of private landlords. An unusually high number have sold up in response to factors including high house prices, legislative reforms to protect tenants and improve conditions (disincentivising rogue operators), and what has been termed “the great re-evaluation”, with many people rethinking their lives after the pandemic. Lucrative holiday lets are also reducing the availability of property for long-term rent.
The result is more people jostling for fewer rooms – even in places where supply has previously satisfied demand.
In these conditions, landlords exercise exorbitant powers; able to dictate unreasonable terms such as asking for up to 12 months of rent paid in advance, asking for detailed financial records included with applications, and leaving renters worried they’ll be refused on the basis of factors gender identity, sexual orientation or ethnicity.
Additionally, the crisis is leading landlords to feel confident trying to increase rents mid-lease, knowing that if their tenants refuse others are likely to pay. A Generation Rent survey of private renters found that 45% had been approached about a rent increase in the past year.
In the long term, a housing crisis can only be solved by building more homes to meet the need.
At one point, in the late 1970s, almost half of the British population lived in council housing, something which was not intended only for the most marginalised in society. We need to expand the stock of social housing and make this an option for anyone who wants it. Introducing longer-term tenancies and rent controls, which are the norm in many European countries, would also afford us more stability
In the short term, without some form of collective bargaining landlords will continue to hold extortionate power over tenants. Even if they seem nice, they are landlords who take profit from an asset. Their primary goal isn’t to care for tenants and provide security. In a landscape with extreme demand and minimal supply, unscrupulous landlords can get away with the worst behaviour, knowing there will always be new people to replace those who complain. It’s time to change this dynamic.
What is a tenant’s union?
We organize because we seek to transform people’s fear and isolation into dignity and solidarity both in your home, community and on a statewide level. Organizing isn’t just sending out an email or creating a social media page, although those will likely be steps that you take. Organizing is building real face-to-face relationships between you and your neighbors over time. The organization of tenant unions are the building blocks to our translocal, statewide, and international movement.
Most of us have heard of trade unions and their importance. Tenant’s unions (also known as renter’s unions), however, are still relatively unknown.
Tenant’s unions are comprised of, and led by, renters to fight for collective rights and safety. They can be based in a building, neighbourhood, or city to ensure housing rights and standards, and operate on membership models like trade unions. Building-based unions may all have the same landlord, while neighbourhood and city-based unions are networks of various renters who stand in solidarity with each other to tackle a range of issues. Regardless of form, these unions always help renters push back on unfair practices and campaign for better living conditions.
What do tenant’s unions do?
A tenant’s union can help people with their individual issues such as landlord harassment and poor behaviour like illegal fee charging, preventing illegal evictions, deposit disputes, and ensuring repair work is done.
Tenant’s unions simply use the same logic as trade unions: there’s more strength in collective action. While a landlord may hold power over an individual renter, the backing of a union means the renter isn’t alone, and can’t easily be exploited.
Across Scotland, Living Rent has organised thousands of tenants to reclaim illegal fees, resist eviction and take legal actions against landlords — as well as successfully campaigning for the Scottish government to adopt rent controls in future. Renters’ unions in London and Manchester have lobbied their respective mayors for protections for renters alongside their everyday organising. And away from major cities, the tenants’ union movement has grown in rural areas and on coasts, where renters are being increasingly pushed out by Airbnbs and WFH pandemic expats arriving en masse from big cities.
More broadly, they also operate as a way for members to campaign collectively on housing policy, bad conditions, and issues that exacerbate the housing crisis. While city-based unions push back on poor living conditions, rural unions work to change root causes that affect those specific areas. In places such as Cornwall and Wales, this looks like the rise of Airbnbs, holiday-lets and second homes that sit empty for most of the year, while local residents struggle to find or afford housing.
Joining a tenant’s union
One of the main tenant’s unions in the UK is ACORN; a community union of working-class people including tenants, workers and residents. ACORN works to mobilise low and middle-income working class communities to secure the essentials of a dignified and comfortable life through network building, direct action, education, solidarity building and working collectively. They also work in international solidarity with sister organisations to coordinate struggles for freedom, build ties of support and unify workers across the globe.
Some of the successes they’ve achieved include the banning of letting agent fees in England and, after campaigning with other unions and groups, the commitment to ending ‘no fault’ evictions in England and Wales. Some of the areas they currently work on include:
- Renters reform bill: campaigning with others in the Renters Reform Coalition, to make the upcoming Renters Reform Bill as transformative and positive for renters as possible, including producing a blueprint full of policies that are practical, winnable and will make a big difference to renters’ lives. (this Bill is expected to be voted on before the end of the year).
- Short Term Lets: in early 2022 ACORN adopted the a 12 point policy platform, calling decision makers to act to halt and reverse the destruction holiday lets wreak on communities and the housing sector.
- Renters Manifesto: a national manifesto written by multiple renters organisations calling on all parties to fix the housing crisis. It covers six key themes: Security, Affordability, Justice, Conditions, Discrimination, and Housing for People Not Profit.
Those in large cities can also find specific resources from places such as Greater Manchester Tenants Union and London Renters Union. In particular, London Renter’s Union has gained prominence in recent years, as they focus on community, solidarity and campaigning, to build grassroots power. Londoners pay the highest rents in Europe while often residing in unfit or unsafe housing; London Renter’s Unions have fought back through collective action against landlords and estate agents to win lower rents, longer tenancies and better housing. They’re also actively focused on creating community that recognises and challenges oppression and exploitation in all its forms.
Starting a tenant’s union
Tenant’s unions generally begin by organising around shared values. Unions believe in housing as a human right, not a wealth-building asset, and organise for policies based on the actual renter experience. Many also acknowledge and understand that the most marginalised in society are the most affected including those who are BIPOC, low-income, disabled and LGBTQ+. The most harmed by the housing crisis don’t live single-issue lives, so unions often seek to align with others in coalition to fight structural oppression and build power.
If you’re in an area of the UK that’s not currently represented, you can contact ACORN to start one. If you’re further afield and there isn’t a tenant’s union in your area, some advice for getting started:
- Put together a core team: this can be a handful of renters who are ready to organise together. Identify the problems, what you want to do together, and what forms of collective action you want to take.
- Connect with the local community: knock on doors, speak at local events, run a stall, talk to your neighbours, and distribute flyers. Find out what the wider concerns are in the community, and spend more time listening than talking to build firm relationships.
- Hold your first meeting: for a detailed breakdown of what to consider, check out the guide from Tenants Together. From here, decide on a plan of action moving forward as you work to fight back.
Remember, as with many crises going on across the world, there are more of us than there are of them. We are stronger when we work together, and this doesn’t have to be confined to the workplace. Get organising, get involved, and let’s protect each other.