How to start a housing movement

Radical groups working on housing, racism, poverty, sex worker and migrant rights are springing up all over London. Embedded in local communities, they are seasoned activists, precarious workers and families.

Submitted by Ed on November 25, 2017

What does HASL’s work involve?

Our regular meetings are probably the most important part of our work, as this is where we build experience in different types of housing issues, housing law, how councils behave, and possible solutions.

The group meetings mean that we can draw on this experience and everyone can contribute in whatever way they feel able. One of the best things is when someone who came to the group with a housing problem, sorts it out and is then able to share their experience with a new member doing something similar.

We try to make the meetings as accessible as possible. We have Spanish-English translation and we are working on making our meetings much more kid friendly.

We run legal training sessions, again to develop the knowledge and capacity of our group so that we can stick up for each other.

And there’s buddying. A buddy goes along with you when you meet the council. They give moral support, take notes. They support you in asserting your rights. Having a buddy can make the difference between getting temporary accommodation or getting fobbed off. Some of our long-term members (having resolved their own cases) have been really forthcoming about offering this help to new members of the group.

We organise actions together if we have been ignored by the council or if there seems to be no other available options. We plan actions around campaigns that we have been working on. For Southwark council protests, we gather as large a group as we can organise and head to the town hall. Going together as a big group means we’re harder to ignore. It is also a really accessible action, everyone can be involved and it breaks down language barriers.

Sometimes it works and gives direct results. Sometimes it doesn’t. But it is part of a longer-term campaign. Organising together means we don’t give up! Through occupations at Southwark town hall, one family were re-housed by the council back in their local community.

Our tweets and blogs draw support and share experience and intelligence. We’ve used Twitter storms (a coordinated mass campaign) to force Southwark council to house a domestic violence survivor and her children. Councillors don’t like their appalling decisions being publicly exposed.

Building solidarity with other activist groups

We work with sister groups in the London Coalition Against Poverty, such as Haringey Housing Action Group and other groups. These include English for Action, North East London Migrant Action, and South East London Sisters Uncut. We’re planning housing rights workshops with United Voices of the World and a local mums’ group called Espacio Mama.

We’ve been supporting North East London Migrant Action’s campaign and legal challenge against the government’s policy of detaining and deporting EEA nationals caught rough sleeping. Yesterday we joined them outside court for the first day of the judicial review to challenge this hateful government policy. It’s great to support each other’s work and make links between the issues we face. It helps us feel a lot bigger too!

Do you have advice for people wanting to fight for decent housing where they live?
Don’t give up. This came up repeatedly at the last London Coalition Against Poverty meeting we went to. It’s like a mantra of collective organizing. We support each other and we are stronger together. Our successes, like forcing the council to reconsider making a family homeless, show that when we work together we can achieve a lot.

So many of our members deal with difficult situations. Families live in overcrowded housing, people face imminent homelessness, survivors fleeing abuse. All unable to get adequate help.

On top of this, members of our group deal with health problems (often exacerbated by bad housing), they balance this with parenting, full-time paid work, unpaid work. The pressures on us are relentless.

But returning to the group helps relieve some of these pressures. We make progress by dealing with them together, by drawing on each other’s strengths and experience. Our members remain involved even after their cases are resolved. Most of our new members come through recommendations by friends. We have members who’ve been involved in a really committed way for over a year. That they keep on coming to meetings shows how important it is to them.

Setting up a housing solidarity group

There’s a booklet written by LCAP with good advice about organising together on housing. When HASL first started, we used this and the inspiring stories we’d heard about Hackney Housing Group’s organising.

In the beginning, the most useful things that we did include:

  • linking up with other local groups who shared our concerns,
  • leafleting outside housing offices,
  • getting advice from other LCAP groups,
  • and holding a ‘know your rights’ training sessions to build our knowledge.

Make your meetings accessible. Organise translation and childcare for example. Come up with concrete steps and action points. Allocate jobs (ringing the council, writing a petition, managing the Twitter feed). People will then see things are happening and how they can help.

What are the things to think about when resisting gatekeeping, dealing with difficult case work, investigating the state, blogging, staying well, protesting, finding time to be positive and imaging a better future?

I think this is a really good list of some of the challenges we face and some of our activities. I’d add the feeling of the sheer scale of what we face to this list.

In the last year, our meetings have grown from 10 people to about 25-30, which felt like a great achievement. But in less time, an entire estate of private rented flats was built in our neighbourhood. More housing for rich residents. They moved in before we could protest the development by starting an occupation.

And figuring out how to facilitate bigger meetings of 30 people with immediate housing issues has also been a bit of a challenge.

I think doing things together helps make everything feel less overwhelming and often makes whatever it is more enjoyable and just better generally. Our meetings are places where we can check in with each other about our cases and they are a focus for us, because that’s where we can best deal with our issues.

We try to meet up in other ways in between meetings. We’ve run lunch clubs, we meet at our London Coalition Against Poverty meetings. And more recently we set up the homework club which was really busy and popular, with both kids and adults! It is useful to have more time to hang out together and work on practical tasks. People learn from each other, the work is more evenly distributed. It builds solidarity, rather than create a service dynamic, which can be a problem in housing action groups.

What difference does HASL make to you?

After one of our busiest meetings, where we were all crammed into our meeting room, a young boy who I hadn’t met before turned to me and said very seriously: “That was a good meeting.” I was a little taken aback. He was definitely right. I was exhausted from the meeting but there was a lot of energy from everyone there. Then he said it again, “That was a good meeting.” It could have been because we’d just eaten a chocolate caterpillar cake to celebrate one of our members getting council housing. I realised afterwards that I should have asked him what he thought was good about it. Other HASL kids have also asked me when the next meeting will be. It’s really lovely that for them too, the group has become a feature in their lives.

At our last meeting, we celebrated with three families who had lived in overcrowded housing and had finally managed to get council homes. They have been key members for over a year. “We couldn't have done it without you,” one them, Gloria, told us all.

Another member and her family lived in their council home for a year. Every time I have met her since they moved in, she has told me how it has changed their life. “Before I went to the housing office and they said ‘no, no, no’. And then you wrote a letter. Every evening, I sit in my living room and look out of the window and I am thankful.”

For me personally, I’m so inspired and proud seeing my HASL friends, often dealing with terrible housing situations, fight their cases and support others. It’s really inspiring seeing collective organising, support and solidarity work and win. To help facilitate that and be involved is really special.