News

London: It's Time for a Rent Strike

When you can't afford rent, try not paying it.

by Ben Beach
16 June 2015, 2:30pm

The smashed window of a Foxtons estate agent in April (photo by Chris Bethell)

There are two types of vehicles that strike a particular fear into the heart of London's neighbourhoods: police vans and Foxtons Minis. Synonymous with gentrification, the Foxtons car represents the vanguard of the housing crisis, expanding sky-high rents into fresh territory; "discovering" an area before returning to the ubiquitous plasticky offices and their smarmy drinks fridges to market another slice of the city at exorbitant prices.

In an age when you can't trust what politicians tell you, the fortunes of Foxtons' share price offers an unintentionally honest barometer of current housing policy. Just hours after the Conservative election victory, Foxtons' share price had surged by 13 percent. It seems reasonable to assume the housing crisis will soon follow the Labour Party in reaching "Defcon Fucked".

When so many of us are already anxiously asking the question, "Where are we going to live?", the triumphant rally of Foxtons makes clear which side of the property market will benefit from the present administration. With inheritance instead of wages once again the real decider of lifetime wealth, it's probably not going be you. International real estate consultants Cluttons are predicting rent hikes of nearly 20 percent in the next five years – with a 25 percent increase in renters forecasted for the same period. With prices already unaffordable for so many, just how socially damaging this outcome will be is already apparent. We quite literally cannot afford to let these forecasts become reality.

The origins of the present housing crisis are as varied as they are complex. David Harvey suggests they can be traced back directly to the recessions of the 1970s and the neo-liberal economic restructuring that happened afterwards.

As manufacturing industries collapsed across Western economies, traditional investment opportunities disappeared, leaving phenomenal amounts of money all dressed up with nowhere to go. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher's monumental privatisation of state-owned land and housing stocks, coupled with the removal of currency controls, saw this surplus capital flood into urban property markets. Instead of providing homes for everyone, the function of Britain's housing switched, and it became an international investment opportunity promoted by successive governments, promising little risk and lavish returns.

The soaring inflation of property that resulted has become the basis for increasingly abstract financial jiggery-pokery; spawning secondary and tertiary markets in complex debt products, securitised on our homes and neighbourhoods. With these markets worth trillions of pounds, financial institutions are so tied up in them that any collapse in property prices risks triggering another 2008-style economic crash.

Put simply: the maintenance of the current financial system depends upon you having to pay eye-watering rent for an eyesore of a house.

A housing campaigner in Clapham, South London (Photo by Chris Bethell)

Away from the spreadsheets, the story of Hoxton's New Era Estate provides a potent illustration of what the financialisation of our homes looks like in reality. Built in the 1930s by a charity intent on providing decent housing for all, New Era is home to 93 families living on an island of controlled rent amidst a sea of gentrification – making it a perfect target for investment. In 2014, notorious New York investment firm Westbrook Partners spotted the opportunity for some quick cash and bought the estate, planning to refurbish the flats and triple the rents from £800 to £2,400 a month. Unable to afford the astronomical increases, the tenants were handed eviction notices weeks before Christmas.

It's difficult to imagine the full intensity of the stress and desperation that must take hold when you are a single parent, a carer for a stroke patient, a pensioner or a young family, suddenly informed that you are to be violently forced from your home, your support networks and your life. But it's not difficult to understand why under the present government, cases like the New Era one are becoming the norm: Westbrook's initial partner on the deal was Richard Benyon – a Tory MP.

In the run up to the general election the Conservative party received huge donations from scores of property moguls: Lord Fink – a director of a real estate investment company – has personally contributed more than £3.1 million, while a developer named David Rowland has contributed £3.4 million. Elite donors such as these are invited to partake in the "Conservative Property Forum", a little known dining club with access to senior politicians. Presumably, for £3 million, they talk about something a little more substantial than the weather.

Little wonder then, that for all the talk of free market economics, state intervention in the housing market has seldom been higher. It has never been more apparent who really benefits from this. Between 2010 and 2014 alone, the social housebuilding budget was slashed from £2.3 billion to £1.1 billion, yet the government spent over £115 billion on subsidising the profits of private landlords through tax breaks, build-to-let schemes and housing benefit. The scale of government subsidy to the housing market is so vast that the entire country's monetary policy is geared towards it: the Bank of England's £375 billion quantitive easing programme is specifically designed to keep interest rates low enough to avoid any slowdown.

The current housing minister – alongside one in four MPs – is himself a landlord, working for a party significantly funded by landlords. Thinking that the government is going to directly undermine its own economic interests by lowering rents is farcical. If we want to see any meaningful action, we are going to have to do it ourselves.

While the contemporary housing crisis is particular to the present, Britain has faced periods of intense housing struggle before. In 1915, tenants across Glasgow found themselves facing astronomical rent hikes for their slum accommodation. The response was swift: housewives across the city bound together to declare a rent strike – they simply refused to pay their rent.

As landlords instructed bailiffs to evict the strikers, housewives spied on their movements across the city, operating en masse to prevent evictions taking place. If an eviction was successful, the strikers would immediately reopen the house, reinstating the family and their furniture and getting into fist fights with any policeman who attempted to intervene. As support for the strike swelled, soldiers were confined to their barracks out of fears they would defect. The result was that rent controls were introduced across the city.

Far from being an isolated incident, the success of the Glasgow rent strike saw the tactic added to a common repertoire of dissent in times of housing stress. Colin Ward, a noted housing commentator, believed that a society based on profit will never provide housing that working people can afford – precisely because that doesn't generate profit . The answer, he claimed, was to take immediate action to force the hand of the state. He puts the widespread social housing construction that happened after the Second World War in part down to a massive, countrywide rent strike that happened in 1938.

The effectiveness of rent strikes in reducing inordinate housing costs makes them a tactic that increasingly cannot be ignored. The Sheiks and oligarchs who are putting their loot in British housing markets are doing so because of a favourable political climate that creates a stable environment for investment at a time of international uncertainty. Anything that undermines this sense of stability – even the simple threat of rent strikes – will likely have far-reaching consequences.

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The notion of rent strikes is becoming increasingly plausible, in no small part because they're already happening. Sick of conditions described as "unbearable", hundreds of students at four Central London halls of residents have withheld rent over grievances ranging from appalling facilities, cockroaches and rodent infestation to incessant noise from building works .

While two of the halls comprised largely of SOAS students ended their strike having successfully won compensation from their landlords, UCL management have resorted to threats of evictions and exclusion from the university. But it is increasingly likely this will backfire, with groups including the Radical Housing Network pledging to shut down UCL's all-important open day to prospective students on the 3rd of July unless the strikers' demands are met.

The success of the protesters at the New Era Estate shows that these struggles can be won. As Lindsey Garrett, a resident and single parent, stated at the beginning of the campaign, "When you're a mother, if you're backed into a corner you have no choice but to fight your way out." The residents did just that, publicly forcing Westbrook to sell the estate to a social housing provider – who immediately froze the rents.

Leaflets arguing for a rent strike at a recent London demonstration (Photo by Chris Bethell)

In Spain, the PAH movement sought to bring an end to the housing crisis afflicting the country through resisting evictions, shutting down banks and re-occupying empty homes. Since the beginnings of the movement several years ago, the grassroots campaign has gone from strength to strength: one of its key activists has just been elected mayor of Barcelona on a platform on halting evictions.

This could happen in London, too. Lindsey Garrett has stated her intention to run for mayor in 2016 on a housing platform. If a large-scale street movement uses rent strikes to win against landlords, it is not inconceivable that she could win office and back up the street mobilisations with decent policy.

At a time when the situation is already intolerable, it is clear that the only action from a government of landlords will be to accelerate the housing crisis rather than solve it. But as the nascent social movement that has developed over the last five years begins to display a more mature range of strategies, the housing crisis could soon be over.

If we want to build a democratic movement sufficient to the task, we need to start a conversation in earnest. Today it is announced that the rents now average £1,500 a month in London and have increased by 12.5 percent nationally – there is little time to waste.

@BenSeaside

Ben Beach is a member of the Radical Housing Network

More about the housing crisis:

Will the Tory Right to Buy Policy Lead to Riots in the Street?

We Watched London Police Gas Some Window-Smashing Yuppie-Haters This Weekend

A Conversation with One of the Estate Agents Pricing People Out of London