Can’t Pay Won’t Pay

Bethany Holmes examines urgent housing reform and the efforts of the London Renters Union

‘Can’t Pay Won’t Pay’, a London Renters Union (LRU) campaign born out of the injustice coronavirus has exposed, is gaining wide support as more challenge the acceptance that renting in London has to be grim. The UK’s lack of rights for renters means properties tend to be sub-standard quality, with precarious contracts leaving tenants vulnerable and more prone to feeling isolated. In London the cost of private renting has increased almost 30 percent since 2008, significantly higher than wages, and renters can spend up to 70 percent of their income on rent. Decades of aggressive government policies have increased housing inequality, disproportionately affecting Black people and making them vulnerable to the pandemic’s harshest effects.

Since millions of council homes were first privatised in the 1980s, public bodies have abandoned large-scale construction projects and decision-making has been left to the market. Fast forward to today and up to 40 percent of properties purchased through Right to Buy have entered the private rental market, and a substantial amount of housing is entangled in buy-to-let. This has resulted in a shortage of homes and extortionate costs, meaning homeowning is increasingly unattainable, there are more than one million families on England’s social housing waiting list and gentrification is enacting social and racial cleansing. Concurrently, England’s rough sleeping figure has increased by 165 percent in the last decade – an arresting damnation of neoliberal austerity, high rents and low pay.

But, a growing number of organisations are attempting to radically reform this broken system. LRU focus on building power through strong, organised communities of tenants that can, for example, challenge council decisions and win. “Currently, landlords’ voices are heard through lobbying and organisations like the Residential Landlords Association.” Claire, an organiser and spokesperson for LRU, tells me. “Only when renters have a similar organisation will we get the changes we need to see.”

Stratford, 2018. Photography Peter Marshal

LRU formed in 2016: an amalgamation of localised groups aiming to create a member-led campaigning union to encompass the capital. Now close to a membership of 4,000 – comprised of private renters, social tenants and those living in temporary accommodation – it is becoming a recognised fighting force. Branches exist in Newham and Leytonstone, Hackney, and Lewisham, and three more will open in the next year. Each branch organises itself around the disputes members face: disrepair is one of the most persistent, as well as overcrowding, arrears, evictions and landlord violence – which, Claire informs me, has been “ramped up during the coronavirus crisis.”

LRU action has resulted in repairs, compensation, returned deposits and members being moved into more suitable accommodation. As the organisation grows, these successes are sure to increase. “When we fight and win locally, we’re incredibly powerful.” Claire notes. “It’s about building how many of us are doing local work until there’s a tipping point.”

Consequently, community development is integral. Sharing meals together and providing free childcare at meetings is equally important as heading to estate agents with members for support, or a branch turning out to resist an eviction – all acts of solidarity that help combat the transient, isolating nature of renting.

The UK’s housing system is a site of vicious structural racism; Black people are disproportionately affected by overcrowding, gentrification, homelessness and air pollution. The Grenfell Tower tragedy, in which ethnic minorities predominantly resided, represents the pinnacle of the lethal conditions and structural neglect that BAME people are subjected to. LRU is committed to upholding the struggles of Black people and other people of colour: its action has seen members moved back to their home boroughs after being displaced by councils, and campaigns led by people living in temporary accommodation – in which BAME people are more likely to live – builds agency for those racialised by the housing system. Abolishing the Home Office’s hostile environment policy is another crucial step towards racial justice, and LRU are organising for the end of Right to Rent legislation which requires landlords to check the immigration status of potential tenants. This makes it harder for Black and minority ethnic people to rent – and easier for them to be taken advantage of and placed into unsafe housing.

In recent months LRU organisers have had to adapt: holding meetings online and supporting members experiencing housing issues over the phone. But their aim is to find a way of guaranteeing justice for their members while cooperating with social distancing, in anticipation of the spike in evictions when the ban is lifted at the end of August. Currently, section 21 notices, also known as ‘no-fault evictions’, allow landlords to evict tenants with ease. Despite Theresa May’s government promising to end Section 21 in April 2019, after a coalition of organisations – including LRU, Acorn and Generation Rentcampaigned against it, the government have failed to act.

As well as a permanent eviction ban, the Can’t Pay Won’t Pay campaign calls for a rent suspension throughout the pandemic, rent controls and an end to the borders in housing demonstrated by Right to Rent and ‘No DSS’. These demands rebuke the notion that rent debt and evictions are individual problems: the government and councils should take responsibility for debt and treat the housing crisis as the structural problem it is. Given the crisis’ roots run so deep, LRU recognise the need for a package of long-term policies, including more social homes, longer tenancies and improved industry standards.

Stratford, 2019. Photography Neil Harvey

However, there remains barriers to the organisation’s growth: Londoners work long hours and the UK has a lack of childcare, both of which reduce ability to participate. There is also despondency to contend with, as Claire describes:

“Generally people feel defeated. Especially in the last decade: the far right are on the ascendance and it feels like mass developers are just going to sweep people out of cities. Counteracting people’s hopelessness is difficult, particularly when organising takes a long time. That’s why LRU focus on building strong relationships for the long term.”

Committing to the notion that collective change is possible – despite how difficult fighting for it seems – is what makes LRU so necessary, especially when considering the discrimination both coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement have urgently made visible. People are being radicalised by the present moment, and simultaneously have gained more time for activism and organising. This is a critical time to renters to unite and demand change in the housing system.