Last night, a bunch of pissed-off renters gathered in an East London community hall to try to solve the problem of sky high rents. The number one tactic up for discussion? Simply not paying. The hundred or so people present talked about the possibility of a rent strike – a planned, coordinated mass refusal to hand over any cash to landlords that would represent the capital's most revolutionary act for years.
The meeting started with the chair asking everyone to pair off and discuss the question, What is your housing situation and what do you feel about it?, to which the entire room gave a knowing, weary guffaw. People were then asked to feed back what they had shared, and out came a catalogue of stories that would be shocking if they weren't so completely and depressingly familiar.
There was the guy who'd just been informed out of nowhere that their rent was about to rise by £600 in one go. There was the person who had a relatively sweet deal, but was fearing an upcoming meeting with the landlord that could change that. Someone else talked about staying in a live-in guardian scheme because paying to have fewer rights than a squatter is all they could afford. Another said they were leaving for Manchester within weeks because "the north is better".
That was greeted by another knowing laugh, emphasising how not-actually-funny the situation is for those who can't, won't or don't want to exile themselves from a city that's swallowing up the aspirational while it spits out the destitute.
The next question: Put your hands up if you spend more than a third of your income on rent? Nearly everyone raised their hands. The next: Would you go on a rent-strike if the support was in place? Again, the majority put their hands up.
The idea is an escalation of the battle to live in London. In recent housing struggles, we've seen the Focus E15 Mothers occupy an estate because Newham council wouldn't meet their housing needs, while the residents of the New Era estate protested not to be priced out of their homes. But this shifts the terms of the conflict; it's less of a last-ditch attempt to stay housed, more an assertion of the right not to be fleeced. One person suggested that there isn't enough genuine, grinding poverty in London for such a strike to take off, to which one response was, "I'm not poor but I want my rent to be less." Another response stated that, yes: of course there is a lot of grinding poverty in London.
For inspiration, the attendees looked to past rent strikes at home and abroad, such as the PAH anti-eviction movement in Spain, a member of whom just became the mayor of Barcelona. Meanwhile, David Dahlborn, Housing Officer of UCL Union, spoke about the rent strikes currently in progress at his university, held to protest against disruptive construction work. The strikers have been threatened with academic sanctions by the university for their non-payment. The Radical Housing Network has pledged to disrupt an open day for prospective new fee-paying students in July if the uni doesn't cave.
"Rent strikes are not something that belongs to a hundred years ago, or the 1970s. It still works. It still works and they're going on right now", declared Dahlborn, to wild applause.
You wonder if the conditions of the UCL strike could be replicated. What if your landlord isn't afraid a university that is scared of bad PR about it threatening to make students homeless? What if your landlord don't have any "open days" to disrupt? Does the plan work in the same way, or at all, if your landlord is a personable retiree with one desirably located flat, rather than a public body with hundreds of angry renters?
When VICE asked Chris Norris, head of Policy at the National Landlords Association, he warned that, "In the long term, the people who will suffer from a rent strike, whether singularly or as part of a group, will be the tenants who face court action, impaired credit and ultimately the loss of their home."
Clearly, the stakes are high. One attendee asked what support would be offered to people who strike, lose and "ain't got shit". There was no easy answer, just warnings that a rent strike is something you can't rush into. Would those people who put their hand up to say they would join a rent strike really go through with it if it meant risking their homes? Will that network of support realistically be created? And how can the idea take hold outside of a small room of activists in East London?
With questions like that left hanging in the air, there seemed to be an acknowledgment that this was merely the beginning of a conversation. It's too early to tell if public support for a rent strike could really gather momentum. But the fact that not paying rent sounds like the realisation of thousands of pint-dream pub chats, you'd imagine it at least holds some wider appeal.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that David Dahlborn is Housing Officer of UCL. He is in fact Housing Officer of UCL Union. This has been corrected.
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