Base publication's interview with Brighton Solidarity Federation about their collective organising around housing issues.
December 24, 2018
In June 2017, Brighton Solidarity Federation started a focused campaign against the housing crisis. Our experience living in Brighton has been that of rents rocketing up (an average increase of 18% in 2015, compared to 4.9% nationwide), while conditions were getting worse. Huge increases in student numbers led to ever more scumbag landlords and letting agencies shoving more and more people into ever smaller spaces, and becoming increasingly brazen in withholding deposits.
Meanwhile, landlords with ‘sitting tenants’ deliberately allow their houses to fall into severe disrepair, in the hope that the tenant will move out and that they can start making the market rate in rent. Brighton and Hove is also a city with an incredibly transitory population, and this – combined with letting agents’ belief that because Brighton is somewhere people particularly want to live, people will put up with anything – makes it ripe for the worst kinds of exploitation of tenants.
We immediately knew that we wanted to focus on our direct action approach, rather than a legalistic model. While we made sure to inform tenants of the possibilities of going this way and signposting where appropriate – for example in cases of deposit theft using the Deposit Protection Scheme (DPS) – we have been clear to explain why we don’t pursue these cases through these channels. For example with the DPS, landlords and agencies have three different protection schemes to choose from, so it would not be in their interests to consistently rule in favour of tenants. Moreover, agencies have staff dedicated to undertaking such administration, who have knowledge and experience of the regulations, meaning that the deck is stacked in their favour even when an agency is blatantly in the wrong. We also think that public campaigns and direct action help to highlight that many of us share these problems, and that our power lies in working together to fight them. DPS procedures keep these problems individualised and private, helping agencies guard against the formation of solidarity and support amongst their tenants.
Over the past year, we have primarily organised with tenants to campaign against deductions to their deposit and poor quality accommodation. These direct action campaigns have resulted in a number of victories, winning over £10,000 for tenants in reclaimed deposit money, repair works, and compensation for poor accommodation. Winning back money has shown landlords and agencies that they can’t exploit us without consequences. However, in many ways what we’ve been most focused on (and encouraged and challenged by) is the task of building confidence to fight back, thinking about how to look after one another whilst doing so, and challenging the power dynamic of landlord and tenant. Often this results in some kind of financial victory; of equal importance to us is developing a sense of being less alone in situations that are designed to isolate us. Below are some of the things we’ve found helpful for doing this:
1. Picking problems that affect us as tenants
When we started thinking about organising around housing problems, a number of us had previously or were currently experiencing issues such as deposit theft, as well as serious damp and mould in our flats, and neglected disrepair. We thought that winning fights against these problems would make tangible improvements to our lives. It would also give us a set of tools that other tenants could use in their own situations.
2. Finding out the basics of our legal situation
As tenants, we know the law isn’t on our side. It’s difficult to understand and even harder to enforce through the formal channels. That being said, as we began to organise disputes around deposit, damp & mould, and disrepair issues, we soon discovered that agencies were keen to make legal threats against us (more on that later). Via some research, we also discovered that many were flouting their responsibilities, particularly in relation to damp & mould and disrepair.
We also knew that taking direct action is scary – agencies may advise landlords to evict tenants forthright when a six month tenancy is up, or use other tactics of intimidation to try and pressure tenants who are fighting back. We’ve developed an understanding of the basics of our legal situation not because we think the courts will help us, but because ourselves and the tenants we’ve organised with feel more confident to take action when we know where we stand. It also helps us to make demands that go beyond something that has a basis in the law. As much as possible, we’ve tried to do this research together, as it’s easier to navigate and understand legislation when reading it collectively. We’ve also tried to disseminate this information, both internally and publicly, as much as possible, for example in the housing union section of our website.
3. Making demands on landlords, letting agents, housing associations, and councils
As tenants, landlords of different types hold an incredible amount of power over our lives. When dealing with these situations on our own, we often found ourselves asking for things, rather than demanding them, out of fear of the repercussions of being too direct. What we also found was that the things we asked for wouldn’t get done. Taking collective action gives us the confidence to demand things rather than ask for them, because we know that there are a group of people looking out for us if things go wrong. In our experience, demanding things – stating them directly and unequivocally – also makes it more likely that we’ll get them, because it makes it clear to our landlords/agents/housing association/council that there’ll be consequences if things don’t get done.
4. Direct action doesn’t have to be anything spectacular
It can be as simple as a constant and organised stream of emails or phone calls, or getting your friends together and visiting the agency, handing out information to the public and customers. Every situation will be different, so being creative with our direct action and responses is important. Taking any action helps change the dynamic between tenant and landlord, slowly breaking the hold they have over us. We need to be organised, and we need to be ruthless in our actions, remembering that agents and landlords are the barrier between us living in safe and stable housing.
5. Publicising legal threats
A common theme of the housing disputes we’ve had over the past year and a half has been legal threats from landlords and estate agents. Our response to these has been to make them public. Whilst legal threats can seem really intimidating, they are usually based on a claim of libel or slander that would be incredibly difficult to prove, particularly against an organisation with no formal legal status. It also looks terrible for estate agents when it’s made public that they have tried to deal with a tenant’s grievance by threatening them with lengthy and stressful legal action. No agency who has ever threatened us with legal action has ever actually taken it, but every agency who has threatened us with it has paid up.
6. Talking honestly about how we feel about the disputes we’re engaged in
Threats of legal action, being shouted at on the street by aggressive agency staff, being assaulted by agency staff, dealing with the police on picket lines; these are all really stressful situations. We are by no means perfect at this, but we do try to talk regularly, both formally and informally, about how we’re feeling about disputes. Especially when organising with tenants who are new to direct action, this can involve talking them through the different scenarios of how a dispute might play out, being honest about the possibility of something like a legal threat whilst also reassuring them that it’s something we can fight.
It might also involve meeting up early before an action and talking through it, clarifying what we’re going to say to an agency at the start of a dispute and making sure everyone is comfortable about dealing with the police if they turn up. We are also trying to get better at rotating organising responsibilities for longer disputes, so that people don’t have the toll of dealing with aggressive and threatening agencies week in, week out, and also so that the invisibilised work of a dispute – printing flyers, arranging meetings and so on – doesn’t always fall on the same person. In our experience, our energy for action generally correlates to the time we have put into caring for one another; giving people breaks when they need them, talking through problems unrelated to the dispute, and doing things just for the sake of having fun.
7. Making sure the action is right for the situation
Direct action, particularly publicly visible direct action, isn’t always possible. It might just provoke an eviction, or a tenant might not be in a position to undertake it for another reason. That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing we can do. We can help each other write emails, do research into our legal situation, accompany each other on visits, and so on. For example, a tenant who no longer lives in a flat and has had their deposit stolen is probably going to take a different course of action to someone whose agency is refusing to fix their fridge. Taking the time to talk through what’s going to work has helped us to better understand the right kind of action for the situation, working out how to be disruptive without putting ourselves in unnecessarily difficult situations.
by a number of members of Brighton Solidarity Federation | @BrightonSolFed
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