Fighting rent exploitation and empowering tenants through Bristol’s community union
The housing crisis so blighting Britain is one the biggest social justice problems we face. Bristol has been one of the cities most acutely affected outside of London. Short sighted housing policy (particularly Right to Buy, which has reduced Bristol’s nearly 50,000 council homes of the 1970s to less than 30,000 today) and a lack of investment have left affordable homes in short supply.
Between 2011 and 2014 annual rents in Bristol increased by £1272, while wages fell by £1730 in real terms (in that same time landlords in Bristol made 2857 repossession orders). Average rents reportedly rose another 18% last year.
These extreme rents are pricing people and entire communities out of areas of our city, and has contributed to a massive explosion in homelessness. Many of the homes we do have are of extremely poor quality. Over 1/3 have unacceptable levels of damp and mould, and our housing stock is the least insulated in Europe – nationally leading to over 20,000 deaths a year and wasting huge amounts of energy (and massively contributing to fuel poverty).
As well as paying increasingly exorbitant rents for damp and cold homes, tenants face rip off letting fees and insecure tenancies with contracts often lasting only 6 months or a year. This forces renters (increasingly families with children who need to go to school) to keep moving and paying hundreds of pounds for the privilege via letting fees.
In early 2014, ACORN the community union started organising in East Bristol. Holding stalls and knocking on hundreds of doors our first organisers started to spread the word about building a community union to protect our interests in our neighbourhoods. In May 2014, over 100 Easton residents came together to found ACORN UK’s first branch, voting to focus on housing and committing us to fighting to end evictions, rip-off tenancy fees, and unhealthy housing. Since then we’ve mobilised over 13,000 people in our campaigns, where we’ve tackled slum-landlords, won tens of thousands of pounds in repairs and rent reductions, and moved local politicians, the City Council, landlords, letting agents, charities and student organisations to back our Ethical Lettings charter to regulate renting in the city.
Our campaigns are led by our members, and embedded in the tradition of solidarity. When one of our members has a problem with their landlord or letting agent, we do whatever we can to support them. Be it advice on the law and their rights, support and company to see a landlord or agent, lobbying local authorities, petitioning, and (most effectively) taking direct action.
We’ve held pickets and demonstrations outside some of the worst slum landlords (who were forcing our members to live in unsanitary poorly maintained homes that were damaging to their health), and time and again got results. Many of these landlords are also local business owners and you don’t need to stand outside their premises for long, telling (and showing with pictures) their customers about the terrible conditions they’re making tenants live in, before said landlord gives in and agrees to make the repairs.
We’ve also demonstrated against the unscrupulous practices of particular letting agents. For example, in an attempt to further profiteer off of the housing crisis C J Hole in Southville sent out a letter to local landlords, asking them ‘are you getting enough rent?’ saying ‘with rents increasing every week in Bristol, it is highly likely your property is due a rent increase’ and encourages landlords to sign up with C J Hole to raise their rent. Attempts to aggressively raise the rent by estate agents like C J Hole contributes to the spiralling cost of housing, the gentrification of our communities and the social misery of Bristol renters.
We teamed up with 38 Degrees to build a petition against C J Hole’s terrible practice that got over 11,000 signatures, we marched down to their premises to hand it in, and held a lively demonstration outside attended by hundreds of people. This action dominated the local press (and even making it onto the BBC), and helped make housing a big local issue in last years election.
We’ve just started expanding into South Bristol (as well as into cities across the UK), and as part of setting up a new branch we’ve been ringing round local estate agents to get the low down on their policies. Within the first week of running this campaign one of our members was told by Bedminster Taylor’s estate agents that they didn’t accept people on benefits because ‘Landlords don’t want people on the dole with their pitbulls when they could be getting doctors and lawyers’. Another member posing as an estate agent was advised not to rent to ‘those people’ (people on benefits) as they would ruin her house.
The stereotype contained in what their estate agent said on its own is disgusting. But the bigger problem is the fairly widespread discrimination against benefit claimants by estate agents and landlords. Where do they expect people to live? We’re going to campaigning to raise awareness to these disturbing and discriminatory practices, and against the exploitative unethical letting in general that characterises much of Bristol’s rental sector. You can do one small thing to help us by signing the petition against Taylor’s below. Everyone has the right to a home, regardless of what profit hungry estate agent’s like Bedminster Taylor’s thinks.
By bringing local residents together, and empowering them to take the direct action they need ACORN has made a difference to hundreds of individual people in Bristol, and is continually putting housing back on the agenda. The housing crisis won’t be solved by the politicians who have created it and who profit off it. Its only by tenants coming together in unions like ACORN and standing up for themselves that we have any chance.
As Nick Ballard, our lead organiser, says:
As an organisation from and of the communities we work in, our campaigns reflect the realities and priorities of those communities – communities of interest and geography. What began as a local response to exploitative rental conditions in a particular Bristol neighbourhood quickly spread across the city and we are now working on a national scale. Our housing crisis is national in scope and a grassroots response from those directly affected is a crucial part of the solution. Whether the problem is access to services, dignified housing or a living wage the answer necessarily lies in daily engagement in our communities; building power, confidence, resilience and crucially, the sense that we are entitled to a decent life. Action from the base is the lifeblood of any democracy. In the words of the original ACORN slogan: the people shall rule.