The last 10 years has seen rapid growth of tenants' movements across Britain and Ireland. Over this decade, housing policy has been failing the vast majority of people, but particularly those with the lowest incomes.
There has been an explosion in homelessness in most urban centres, and tenants and mortgage-holders are paying more for their shelter than ever before. Rising house prices and falling rates of home-ownership have been paired with a social housing sector emaciated by right-to-buy and low levels of affordable house-building. Local authorities subject to austerity policies have struggled to meet demand for their services, and in place of supporting those who face housing problems, have generated a swathe of gatekeeping policies to enable them to turn homeless applicants away.
This has left people sleeping rough on the streets and in overcrowded, unsanitary and inadequate accommodation. The crisis has been felt unevenly, with young, working-class and racialised people facing the most dispossession and insecurity - though, increasingly, even those who pay a mortgage on their home are struggling as the Bank of England's base rate increases. The only outright winners have been private landlords, big and small, who are now in possession of assets that can be sweated for a rising passive income in exchange for very little work, and sold for a profit whenever they wish to cash out.
It's in this context that tenants' unions have been blossoming across the British Isles, with tenants and homeless people coming together to challenge landlords, developers, policy-makers and politicians and to demand change in the housing sector. However, we need to be significantly stronger to make real headway against the power of landlords and their stooges in our respective governments.
Over the May bank holiday, the Community Action Tenants Union (CATU) hosted a weekend summer school as their contribution to an ongoing exchange between five tenants' unions - CATU, Greater Manchester Tenants Union (GMTU), Acorn, Living Rent and London Renters Union (LRU). Between them, these unions have tens of thousands of members, most of them renters across the private and social housing sectors. The weekend was part-funded by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, enabling over 70 attendees to get to Dublin for a brilliant four days of cross-pollination. Attendees of the first two days of sessions were largely under 40 and mostly private renters, though there were many social renters and people of different ages, (two members of GMTU Moss Side branch being 60 and 75) and backgrounds amongst us, including at least one person living in temporary accommodation.
On the first night, we heard two speakers. First up, there was Scottish housing researcher and Living Rent member Neil Gray, who has edited a collection of essays, Rent and its Discontents. He spoke on how public housing has been transformed in Britain and Ireland, discussing how right-to-buy policies and social housing stock transfer altered the shape of the housing market. There was a lively debate afterwards on the merits of enshrining housing rights in the Irish constitution. Generally, it was felt that rights on paper are worth winning, but that they mean very little without a powerful social movement to back them up - a standard position, but one that felt more convincing coming from a room of activists well-placed to understand the difficulty of enforcing rights against a landlord class and state intent on ignoring and overriding them.
Next, we heard from Melissa Garcia Lamarca on housing movements and property politics in Barcelona. Unfortunately, the Manchester contingent had to leave at this point to get some rest, having travelled for 8 hours to be there. Thankfully, CATU members had generously offered accommodation. For those GMTU members who were staying for the weekend, we were lodging in the picturesque fishing village of Howth, 40 minutes outside the city.
On the second day, London Renters Union, CATU and GMTU each ran workshops. GMTU began the day with a workshop on anti-racist organising led by GMTU's Ekua Bayunu. Ekua began with a warm-up exercise to get people comfortable in the space and with each other. Ekua placed herself in the centre of the room and read out a series of statements about housing conditions, security and community, to get attendees finding things in common and things where they differed. Participants then placed themselves either closer to Ekua if they agreed with the statement, or further away if they did not. Ekua then asked a random selection of people why they had put themselves in that place, drawing out people's experiences of housing. Finally, the participants were asked if they had a statement of their own to ask the group, thus handing power back to the group before the 'work' part of the session began.
Next, Ekua ran a quiz, educating audiences about the history of housing struggles and change in Manchester's Moss Side. Catherine then did a short presentation outlining the origins of the Moss Side branch, the first local GMTU branch to be set up. She told how as far back as 2013 a small, loosely formed group of neighbours in a section of Moss Side, dominated byrivate landlords and short term lets, began flagging up breaches of planning permission with the Manchester City Council and how this had led to nasty revenge tactics by one particular powerful landlord; he had organised a campaign of harassment against them. She described how becoming part of GMTU had empowered the residents and made them less vulnerable to these kinds of reprisals and enabled them to claim many successes in the fight against housing injustice over the last five years, including stopping social housing sell offs, eviction resistance, No to DHS Discrimination etc.
Ekua then discussed the work of GMTU's anti-racism committee, which works to address race and racism in the union, diversify GMTU's membership, and engage Black members in struggling for housing rights and in taking up leadership roles in the union. Ekua discussed how building an anti-racist union must be an ongoing process that requires considerable work, and can't be managed in a month: unions must find and go to pre-existing community spaces and organisations and work in partnership to build trust and develop networks. Ekua also pointed out that tenants' unions must also ensure that working for the union is properly remunerated to level the barriers to access faced by racialised (and other oppressed) groups. This is why GMTU pays for facilities time for its committee members and operates a Living Wage policy for all its staff, with a flat pay structure to prevent unhealthy hierarchies from emerging. Other GMTU members added to the presentation with an introduction to the Moss Side branch's work, how and why GMTU work with other community organisations and trade unions, and how legal advice and tenants' organising can complement one another.
We then heard from CATU. First, they encouraged us to think through the differences between advocacy, mobilising and community organising. What came through in the discussion was how all of our tenants' unions want to avoid falling into hierarchical 'servicing' models where we merely provide advice or write letters on tenants' behalf. Instead, we try to develop tactics and approaches that support people to take charge of their own lives and win things for themselves, with the collective support and solidarity of their union. Beyond that, we want to come together to push for greater power and voice for tenants in our respective contexts. For that, we all recognised we need to do more than mobilise (get people out to an action or a protest) - we need to organise: people need to be empowered to take an active role in decision-making and expanding our collective power, as well as leading in their communities to make change. This is more difficult, of course, than advocacy or mobilising, but it also leads to more sustainable and powerful movements.
CATU then introduced the three strands of their work: public housing campaigning, private sector evictions, and homelessness. We broke out into groups to discuss tactics for their campaigns - which, so as not to tip off any landlords reading this, we will omit.
Finally, we were shown a very moving video of Dublin's 2018 Take Back the City protests. Dublin faces a housing crisis on steroids, similar in nature to the crises in London or Manchester, but arguably on an even worse scale. Average rents in Dublin this February reached over €2,300 (£2,030) per month - that's compared to Manchester's average of £1,600 (€1,814) at a similar time, and London's £2,007 (€2,275). At one point, a couple of us from Manchester walked past a medium-sized tenement near the centre of Dublin that was on sale for €795,000, where the online advert estimated an 'investment' return of over €75,000 per year. CATU's workshop raised the issue of build-to-rent luxury flats - very like those being thrown up by developers around Manchester city centre - and gentrification forcing tenants further out of the city, socially cleansing areas of Dublin that were formerly working-class communities. CATU members reported very high numbers of illegal evictions, and laws that all but fail to protect tenants.
In the last session of the Saturday, three activists from LRU took the reins in a workshop on building sustainable movements. We discussed activist burnout and strategies for avoiding it. We were then asked to sit and consider what makes for lasting, sustainable movements, and what makes us feel good about organising. We were given post-it notes to write on and stick up, and within 5 minutes, we'd covered the walls in ideas, reminding ourselves how important it is that our work in activist groups feels good: not just winning campaigns and member solidarity cases, but meeting people, making new friends and neighbours, learning, standing up for ourselves and each other. Sustainable movements feel rewarding - but also give people manageable workloads, share the burden of hard tasks, offer care and support between members, and enable democratic decision-making and participation.
The weekend wouldn't have been complete without a little socialising. On Saturday evening, we got chatting, swapping contact details, learning from one another's experiences. CATU's Community Oral History Research Group also put on an exhibition about the 1973 Irish rent strike, complete with a sepia photograph of a woman throwing slops out of her window onto the heads of bailiffs and police officers walking below.
On Sunday, we were invited to a refugee solidarity meal organised by CATU, the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI) and Cooking for Freedom. It was held at the grounds of Dublin's anti-fascist football team Bohemian FC ('the Bohs'), where the walls are daubed with anti-racist murals. The room in which the meal was held was packed with at least 100 people, many of whom were asylum seekers going through Ireland's punitive Direct Provision system, which - similarly to UK asylum policies - segregates people seeking asylum away from the wider population, keeping them isolated and impoverished for years while decisions are made on their refugee status.The event was inspiring, as it linked communities facing immense government oppression with lawyers, community activists and people who have finally been given refugee status, building friendships and a sense of community over a pay-as-you-feel meal. It is certainly something that could (and should!) be replicated by tenants' unions across Britain where it hasn't been already.
The great thing about this weekend was that rather than simply reading about the multiple crises that face us - poverty porn we can easily find in local newspapers - we actually got to chat about how we fight for something better. Though it was disappointing to discover how international our problems are and how many of the same issues tenants face across borders, seeing the commonality in our struggles was unifying and reinvigorating, and left us brimming with ideas.
The next exchange will be held in Manchester, where GMTU will welcome other tenants' unions in June 2023.