On Taking Action as Private Renters

This is a version of the talk I gave at the Radical Housing Network’s Housing Weekender on Sunday on a panel with activists from Defend Council Housing, Squatters Legal Network and Lambeth Housing Activists. It didn’t have the Lefebvre epigraph when I delivered it.

Action and action alone can bring this healthiness and this elementary equilibrium, this ability to grasp life in its varied aspects, without being deliberately gloomy or abstractly optimistic. Action alone can supersede the aesthetic or theoretical attitudes which allow people to see in the real only what they want to see: degradation, humiliation, stupidity, or conversely joy and greatness left, right and centre – either looking at life on the black side or through rose-tinted glasses. Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, Volume 1, p. 186.

I’m a member of what is now Southwark and Lewisham Tenants– we were just Southwark Tenants but as so many of our members have been forced out of Peckham to parts of Lewisham by rent increases we’ve decided to cover both boroughs. We are part of the London Renters coalition of private renters’ groups from all over London. Both Southwark and Lewisham Tenants and our sister groups in London Renters use a variety of tactics including lobbying councils, responding to government consultations, providing advice to tenants, organising tenants to fight their landlords and putting on Renters’ Rights nights in conjunction with local law centres, which may be one way of beginning to socialise legal knowledge to fill in, slightly, for legal aid cuts. However, I want to focus on the actions we have taken as this is where we can learn most from other housing groups and where the logic of the action and demands it expresses often makes organising across tenure necessary.

There are number of reasons why we need to be taking action as private renters, firstly, planning and carrying out actions is a useful way of building solidarity within our groups. When we occupied Strata along with Lambeth Renters, people who had never been involved in direct action before came away incredibly and keen to do something similar again. Part of building solidarity in this way also involves celebrating our victories, even if they’re small-scale victories, a small-scale victory may only be that the action went off successfully or that an eviction was delayed or that we got some positive press coverage. The situation around housing in London can often seem so hopeless that even the smallest victory needs to be celebrated.

Action, furthermore, is proactive it tests and goes beyond the limits of what we are told is realistic. Our responses to consultations, rigorous as they have been, have necessarily been defensive and limited to a narrow logic of what is possible. They also presume a consensual, non-antagonistic mode of politics where contradictory interests can all be reconciled by the (apparently) disinterested state. We responded to the recent DCLG consultation, opposing the part of which that suggested that evictions of private tenants be made even easier but it was our occupation of DCLG that allowed us to make more the radical set of demands. We demanded that Section 21, which allows for retaliatory evictions, be scrapped and that private tenants have genuine security of tenure. These demands, rather than the defensive demands of the replies to the consultation, are what allow links to be developed with housing groups form other tenures. Ultimately, the demand for security of tenure for private renters, necessarily links up with squatters’ demands for security and the repeal of the criminalization of squatting in residential buildings, it also links with the resistance of council tenants to moves to privatise their housing and introduce tenancies that are similar in their insecurity to PRS tenancies. In fact, Occupy DCLG was planned with squatter activists, although on the day most of them were resisting the eviction in Queen’s Park.

Our occupations of Stratford Halo and Strata also, necessarily, involved moving beyond issues which are exclusive to private renters. Our Stratford Action was supported by Action East End activists form the Carpenters Estate as, alongside highlighting unaffordability of private rents and demanding rent controls any reckoning with Stratford Halo requires addressing processes of gentrification and social cleansing including the demolition of social housing. As private renters we know that renting is inherently exploitative and for large numbers of people forced into it whether by lack of social housing or the criminalisation of squatting in residential buildings extremely unsuitable. We were inspired by Focus E15 Mothers borrowing our tactic (which we had borrowed from the French group Jeudi Noir) of occupying and holding a party to resist being forced into the private rented sector and demand decent secure housing for everyone. Similarly, Southwark Tenants and Lewisham Renters’ occupation of Strata necessarily opened up questions around gentrification and the destruction of council house provision. We are currently planning, in conjunction with other housing groups in Southwark and Lambeth further action around Heygate. As private renters we know building more “luxury”- and it’s worth noting what a mean version of luxury the small, depressing interiors of Stratford Halo and Strata offer compared to 1960s built council houses- private rented properties- is no solution to London’s housing crisis. 

We all know there is a housing crisis- and I don’t mean “we” as housing activists, but “we” as people living in London, even the Daily Mail has covered the unaffordability of London housing. However, the way in which the housing crisis is conceptualised by the media both mischaracterises the situation and promotes inertia. Much of the media focus is either on “young professionals” as part of “Generation Rent”, who ten years ago would have been able to afford somewhere “nice” in Clapham and five years ago would have been able to afford somewhere tolerable in Balham but now are forced into renting, or on the most dangerous and degrading overcrowding and squalor, neither of these situations are those of the majority of private renters in London and neither can egenerate militant organising- both have ready-made state-led charitable, emergency or bureaucratic solutions proposed for them. Militant demands- that is demands beyond what is currently held to be possible or reasonable- and action, including cross tenure action are absolutely necessary because only they can interrupt the fatalism around our various housing situations in London. Militancy and action both creates solidarity within our groups and across tenure whilst polarising those, like us, whether private renters, council tenants, squatters and even many home owners, for whom a home should satisfy the need for shelter and comfort, and those, landlords, property developers and capitalists who seek to profit from exploiting our need. Without interrupting the capitalist process determining housing in London, the current catastrophe can only get worse.   

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