"M" lived in a small flat with his daughter, in Newham, east London. The flat was infested with rats and cockroaches, there was mould and damp in several rooms, and water leaked through the ceiling.
M had been trying to get his letting agent to do something about these issues for years – to no avail. He worked long shifts on a zero hours contract, and in this precarious position he felt powerless. Eventually, he had almost resigned himself to living in intolerable conditions, despite his fears for his daughter's health.
Then came a knock on the door. A couple of activists explained that they were setting up a group specifically to help people like him. M went to a branch meeting of the newly formed London Renters Union and explained his situation. The branch sprang into action. A letter was drafted, and a group of union members delivered it by hand to the letting agent.
The response was immediate. The next day, the agent sent someone to check the infestation, and the other issues were also quickly sorted.
Katya Nasim, a founding member of London Renters Union, reflects: "Sometimes it really can be as simple as a group of people showing up instead of just one. Landlords exploit the fact that renters feel isolated and powerless. The second people start working together, the change can be very dramatic." M himself is more emphatic: "I'd been through hell. I tried to get help from my doctors, councillors and my MP – they couldn't do anything. I didn't have money for a solicitor. You need a union to be successful – they'll fight for you."
Back in the 19th century, as the industrial revolution was picking up steam, industrialists and factory owners exploited the poverty and isolation of their workers to amass huge fortunes. Observing this, Karl Marx advised those workers to "seize the means of production". But the main method by which the working classes actually improved their situation was through forming labour unions, giving them the collective power to bargain for better pay and conditions.
Today, we live in an economy in which more people seem to get rich from owning property and charging rent than by actually making stuff. So it seems a very logical response that those paying that rent would form unions to improve their collective bargaining power. A modern Marx would likely be urging his readers to "seize the means of accommodation".
Katya Nasim continues, "After the crash in 2008, money poured into London as investors around the world speculated on UK property. That accelerated an existing process of treating property more as an investment to squeeze profit from, rather than a social necessity for people to live.
"At the same time, the 2010 coalition government implemented their austerity agenda, which denied money to local councils – who then started selling off estates to make up the shortfall. It's 'gentrification on steroids' – a perfect storm where, just as London property is becoming more expensive than ever, benefits and services are being savagely cut. So, now, Londoners pay the highest rents in Europe, but have zero rights.
"The renters union has grown of several other radical responses to that situation, like Focus E15, Sweets Way Resists, the Aylesbury campaign and Radical Housing Network. We just needed a way to scale those local initiatives up – and to work with organisations outside London, like Greater Manchester Housing Action, Living Rent in Scotland, Generation Rent and even a new tenants' union in Barcelona."
When I ask her about how the union is structured, and what its plans are, Katya becomes animated. "We're totally member-led – and focused on helping people case-by-case, but also on creating big systemic change. So, last week, a member was getting evicted. He'd been in this property for ten years and had paid rent the whole time. He'd then had medical issues, causing him to lose his job, but there was a delay in housing benefits, so he was behind on his rent."
"A call went out at 9PM. By 8AM the next morning we had 16 members surrounding the front and back doors. The bailiffs came, saw that we weren't going to let the eviction happen, and just drove off. That bought this person really precious time to sort his situation out, or he would have been on the street then and there.
"But, at the same time, we are organising a large-scale campaign with ACORN, Generation Rent and the New Economics Foundation to try and end Section 21 – which gives landlords the right to issue 'no fault' evictions. That would be a major transformational step for the entire housing market."
A skeptic might point out that the ultimate threat of any union is the withdrawal of labour – workers actually going on strike. But a mass rent strike across the UK seems unlikely.
Katya immediately counters: "Actually, there have been several successful rent strikes. Look at what happened at UCL last year – the students went on a five-month rent strike and won something like £1.5 million from the university. The second people come together, renters can start flexing muscles they didn't even know they had. Things can change fast."
A recent government report revealed that 51 percent of all UK wealth is tied up in land. No other G7 country comes close to this ratio. The idea that more of a country's wealth is held in land and property, rather than in what the people of that country make or do, is an indication of a sick society.
Words matter. Britain doesn't have a housing "problem" or a housing "issue" – it has a housing crisis. In the face of this crisis, perhaps a militant union for private tenants makes perfect sense? Renters of the UK unite – you have nothing to lose but your £1,500 per-calendar-month, decrepit shit-hole Zone 3 flats with toxic mould and rising damp!