London Renters and The Right to the City

This was published by The New Left Project a couple of months back. I’m reposting it here in case anyone missed it- I’m fairly proud of it and it serves, in a way, as a manifesto for what I want to be doing with this blog and explains its blog’s title. I also mean to expand on the sections on the interior, the right to leave traces and the right to dwell, and the way in which the capital used to gentrify is generated and deployed in the near future.

London Renters and the Right to the City

The New Economics Foundation’s recent report Distant Neighbours makes some grim predictions about Islington in the near future, claiming that “by 2020 a family need to earn more than £90,000 to afford market rents in Islington.” Alongside the very rich, the report suggests there will still be a group “on low incomes at the bottom living in social housing”. Even more worryingly, it is quite possible that the report, which also argues that mental health will worsen along with social isolation, may even be rather too sanguine about Islington’s near future, not least because it takes for granted the maintenance of social housing and a genuinely affordable level of social rent.

The grim projection of Islington in 2020 is not, of course, restricted to Islington, neither is it solely a prediction. The unaffordability and insecurity of private renting has already reached crisis levels. In Southwark, research conducted by Southwark Tenants has discovered that rents are increasing at rates substantially above inflation and 78% of those surveyed said that they had, on occasions (or more often) struggled to pay their rent.[i] Research conducted by Shelter in 2013 showed that 47% of private renters in London had less than £100 left a month after paying their rent and for other essentials. Large numbers of those surveyed in Southwark talked extensively about their fears of being priced out of the area, particularly Peckham and Elephant and Castle, or the more general insecurity of living in the private rented sector. People also talked of wanting to have children but being unable to given their housing expenses, conditions and insecurity. The government’s policies, beholden to the interests of landlords, property developers and owner occupiers, are not addressing this crisis and are in fact deepening it.

In “The Right to the City”, Henri Lefebvre insists “policy is not enough” to resolve the urban crises.[ii] He argues that a technocratic politics, taking the city with its structure and relations as a “pre-existent reality” necessarily sides with the capitalist forces that produce its disintegration. Against this paradigm, Lefebvre affirms the necessity of working class innovation and the indispensability of revolutionary initiative to bring solutions to urban problems.”[iii] In this essay I want to use the demand for a “right to the city” to explore the politics of private renters’ struggles in London. Such struggles inevitably assert this unconditional right to inhabit our city and, consequently, will a radically different London from the neoliberal city willed by policy makers, landlords and property developers.

The basis for the incommensurability of our London and their neoliberal city is twofold. Firstly, our city depends on a protection of the urban commons against their efforts to transform, appropriate and destroy it. Secondly, it is underpinned by the contradiction in how a home is experienced by private renters and how a property is experienced by a landlord. For us a home is “a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs”; [iv] for them, whether they own one or thousands of properties, our home is both something with exchange value that could be bought or sold and a means of generating profit through rent.

Although being a private tenant does not describe a work relationship private tenants are profoundly proletarianised and a ‘right to the city’ perspective can make this apparent. Unlike owner occupiers, who own property, and council tenants who still (just about) have access to a welfare state commons, private tenants have, in Marx’s terms, been “robbed of…all the guarantees of existence”; our belonging in the city is precarious and conditional on the whim of a landlord.[v] Furthermore, the number of private renters is expanding through the destruction of council housing in the interests of capital. In Southwark, for example, the Heygate Estate is being cleared and the land, more or less, given away to a private developer.[vi] This is a process of  “primitive accumulation” or, as David Harvey has it, “accumulation by dispossession”,[vii] and is a constant in capitalism. We can add to this the government’s criminalisation of squatting, destroying another “guarantee of existence”, the commons of use of empty buildings.

Most obviously for theorising the struggles of private renters, Harvey treats rent, particularly rent increases through gentrification, as an instance of the appropriation of our cities, which we have produced and maintained. He writes,

The primary means by which [the commons] is appropriated in urban commons is, of course, through the extraction of land and property rents. A community group that struggles to maintain ethnic diversity in its neighbourhood and protect against gentrification may suddenly find its property prices (and taxes) rising as real estate agents market the “character” of their neighbourhood to the wealthy as multicultural, street-lively, and diverse. By the time the market has done its destructive work, not only have the original residents been dispossessed of that common which they had created (often forced out by rising rents and property taxes), but the common itself  becomes so debased as to be unrecognizable.[viii]

Harvey names, amongst others, South Baltimore, Williamsburg in New York, Christiana in Copenhagen and St. Pauli in Hamburg as instances of this debasement and appropriation of the urban commons. It would be easy to add Hackney, Brixton and Peckham to this list.

London Renters, Let Down and The Right to the City

London Renters are a coalition comprised of several local action groups: Advice4Renters (previously Brent Private Tenants’ Rights Group), Camden Federation of Private Tenants, Digs (Hackney Renters) Haringey Housing Action Group, Islington Private Tenants, Lambeth Renters, Southwark Tenants Tower Hamlets Private Renters and Waltham Forest Renters.

London Renters’ demands include the introduction of rent controls and secure (lifetime) tenancies and, with this, an end to retaliatory evictions. We call for an end to discrimination against Housing Benefit Claimants in the private rented sector and that housing is comfortable, safe and of an adequate size and that more council housing be made available .Rent controls would substantially ameliorate the capitalist character of housing, limiting dispossession through rent increases, (hence, even in their most moderate form are opposed to the shrillest degree by landlords and their sycophants) Secure tenancies would limit the precarity of tenants, and the end of retaliatory evictions, the fear of which often prevents tenants demanding repairs, would make it substantially easier to exercise what rights we have. More and more people are forced into the exploitative landlord-tenant relation through exorbitant house prices, the destruction of council house provision and the criminalising of squatting. So more council housing would allow tenants to exit this relation in a more socially just way than policies like Help to Buy, which enable a few well-off private renters to escape whilst further inflating the cost of housing to the benefit of landlords and property developers.

Both the London Renters coalition and the individual groups make use of a variety of strategies to enact our demands and to improve conditions of private renters. The choice of strategies often depends on the local situation, the receptiveness of the local council to demands from private renters and the differing expertise of members of the groups. As well as efforts to enact our demands groups also provide advice to private renters (Digs’s website is especially useful) and events to educate tenants in their rights and how to enforce them.

Let Down is a campaigning group born out of London Renters which has focused on more direct action. Campaigns have been run against letting agents fees- a particularly parasitic form of appropriation which are banned in Scotland, and we recently occupied a “luxury” flat in Stratford and held a house-warming party to protest against the government’s Build to Rent policy to protest against the government’s Build to Rent policy.[ix]

A Handbook for City Renters

As private renters we are aware, down to its effects on the interiors of our homes, that our right to inhabit not just our homes but also the communities which many of us have lived in for years is always dependent on the sufferance of a landlord and the state. This precarity has been further deepened by government policies such as the benefit cap, which are often directed at the most vulnerable and have forced private renters into impossible choices. Our vulnerability, our lack of an unconditional right to inhabit, is expressed most vividly in six-month tenancies, particularly in a situation in which rents are increasing far faster than wages, making planning for the future or the contented and secure enjoyment of a home close to impossible.

The links between urban experience, the interior and our precarious belonging both in the city and in our own homes, can be illuminated by some of Walter Benjamin’s consideration of “dwelling” in the 1930s, both in The Arcades Project and his commentaries on Brecht’s cycle of poems “The Handbook for City Dwellers”. In the background to Benjamin’s arguments is his claim that “to dwell is to leave traces.” [x] Benjamin opposes this, comfortable, confident bourgeois experience to Marx’s description of the renter:

the basement apartment of the poor man is a hostile dwelling, ‘an alien, restraining power, which gives itself up to him only insofar as he gives up to it his blood and sweat.’ Such a dwelling can never feel like home… Instead, the poor man finds himself in someone else’s home,.. someone who daily lies in wait for him and throws him out if he does not pay his rent.[xi]

In the Brecht commentaries, Benjamin focuses on “The Handbook for City Dwellers”, particularly the repeated injunction to the city dweller to “cover your tracks”, and the poem’s anomie, which expresses the always provisional character of urban existence for the renter. This vulnerability which sees the world of (the landlord’s) objects privileged over our lives, is,  presented with great clarity in Brecht’s third poem:

“House, stove and pot can stay

And you must vanish like smoke in the sky

Which nobody holds back.”[xii]

Something similar can be seen in private rented homes today: our white or beige walls express most clearly that the property must be adaptable for the landlord’s interest of renting it out again rather than the satisfaction of our need for interest, play or joy in our homes. We are often forbidden to decorate our homes and forbidden to leave traces.

This vulnerability impacts on the ability of private renters groups to organise and aspects of what Lefebvre describes as the “long political experience” necessary to transform urban socity, become impossible.[xiii] In Southwark, for example, two key members have, in the last six months, been forced out of the borough by rent increases.

The International Context: Inspiration from the Third World

That our vulnerability is caused by the capitalist character of housing unavoidably introduces an international dimension to the struggles of private renters in London. It is instructive to look at the relationship between the international generation and absorption of surplus and the class character of this process in the case of the redevelopment of Elephant and Castle, much of which has relied upon capital generated in Singapore and China’s most neoliberal cities such as Guangzhou The new properties in Elephant and Castle have largely been marketed in China (especially Guangzhou and Hong Kong) and Singapore, including the destruction of the Heygate.

The existence of cities always rests on the production of a surplus. This is true across history with even the earliest cities requiring an agricultural surplus to support city dwellers,who were not producing food. Harvey argues that urbanization “has always been…a class phenomenon of some sort, since surpluses have been extracted from somewhere and from somebody, while control over the use of the surplus typically lies in the hands of a few”.[xiv] This claim of Harvey’s is, in a sense, transhistorical; it applies to any class society with any degree of urbanization. Capitalism, however, adds and refines a crucial aspect, which is that it needs urbanization to absorb the surplus product it perpetually produces.”[xv]

The redevelopment of Elephant and Castle has taken place in a context in which in the weakness of the UK economy has left few opportunities for the absorption and generation of surplus outside of the property market. (Harvey, for example, grounds the housing bubbles in the United States, Spain, Ireland and the United Kingdom in the lack of other opportunities for the profitable deployment of capital in industry.)[xvi]. One side, of the class character of the Elephant and Castle development is the generation of surplus in Singapore and China’s more neoliberal cities.[xvii] At this pole, documented most movingly and rigorously in Hsiao-Hung Pai’s Scattered Sand we can see the horrifying working and housing conditions that underpin low wages for migrant workers.[xviii] The ability for Guangzhou capitalists to pay low wages has allowed a substantial profit to be generated, some of which, in turn have been reinvested in Elephant and Castle. At the other pole is the investment of this surplus in processes of gentrification, impacting hugely on our conditions as private renters, whether in Britain or elsewhere: it increases our rents, impoverishes us, forces us to endure poor conditions and drives us out of our areas.

This capitalist urbanism is international, but there is resistance to it,. One of the most notable instances of this resistance is Abahlali baseMjondolo, the South African shack dwellers’ movement who demand “the democratisation of urban planning and the realisation of our right to the city.” There is a great deal of inspiration we can draw from Abahlali baseMjondolo’s, in the bravery of their militancy, their ability to grasp their situation and their successes, including in  and their successes whether in resisting evictions, sometimes through direct action, sometimes by making use of the legal process, connecting thousands of shacks to electricity and opposing xenophobic violence. .

On the one hand it might seem presumptuous to link our struggles as private renters in London to those of militant groups subject to political assassinations and considerable state violence, truly heroically resisting processes of dispossession. What is more our specific demands are obviously different from Abahlali baseMjondolo’s. However, they are resisting the same capitalist processes to which we are subject (albeit with a more violent face in South Africa than in London) and on similar terms. They are as S’be Zikode says “struggling for a world in which human dignity comes before private profit and land, cities, wealth and power are shared equally” ,a struggle which must be won if South Africa’s cities are not to “become ATMs for the politicians and the rich”, This is a stark warning and could just as easily apply to London. The choice for London and for Durban – and for countless other cities – is between a city which has become a playground for the rich, from where the poor have been cleansed, and a radical space that affirms human dignity and everybody’s right to the city. The struggles of private renters in London are part of the struggle for such a city.

[i] Southwark Tenants surveyed 100 private renters in Southwark between October and December 2013.

[ii] Lefebvre, H. (1995) “The Right to the City”, in Writings on Cities (Oxford: Blackwell), p. 154.

[iii] Lefebvre, “The Right to the City”p. 156.

[iv] Marx, K. (1976) Capital, Volume 1, (London: Penguin), p. 125.

[v] Marx, Capital, Volume 1, p. 875.

[vi] See the exhaustive chronicling of this disgrace by Southwark Notes.

[vii] For “accumulation by dispossession” see Harvey, D. (2012) Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (London: Verso) and Harvey, D. (2003) The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press), especially p. 158, where Right to Buy is explicitly conceptualised as an instance of accumulation of dispossession. For the primitive accumulation as a constant in capitalism, see Caffentzis, G. (2013) In Letters of Blood and Fire: Work Machines and the Crisis of Capitalism (Oakland: PM Press).

[viii] Harvey, Rebel Cities, pp. 77-8.

[ix] Build to Rent provides subsidised finance (through loans or equity) to private developers for privately rented homes which will be let at market rents. Owen Hatherley has offered a useful critique of the policy (, which situates within the wider context of government housing policy and the transformation of the social demand to build more homes into something that serves the interests of big capital.

[x] Benjamin, The Arcades Project, (Cambridge MA., Harvard University Press) p. 9.

[xi] Marx, K. (1992) “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts”, in Early Writings (London: Penguin), p. 359. Quoted in Benjamin, W. (2002) The Arcades Project, , p. 223.

[xii] Quoted in Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, p. 61. details?

[xiii] Lefebvre, “The Right to the City”, p. 156.

[xiv] Harvey, Rebel Cities, p. 9.

[xv] Harvey, Rebel Cities, p. 9.

[xvi] Harvey, Rebel Cities, p. 44. Gopal Balakrishnan (2009), “Speculations on the Stationary State” in New Left Review 59, p. 10-11 similarly grounds real estate bubbles in the decline of the rate of profit of capital in the West since the 1970s.

[xvii] in some other Chinese cities there are alternatives to this model, most notably Chongqing, in which there has been substantial investment in affordable housing and transport infrastructure. See Harvey’s Rebel Cities, p. 64, 136. for more information

[xviii] Hsiao-Hung Pai (2013). Scattered Sand: The Story of China’s Rural Migrants, (London: Verso).

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