On Saturday 16th November, as part of Let Down, along with other members of private tenant groups in London, Southwark Tenants were involved in occupying a flat in Stratford Halo in protest against the government’s Build to Rent policy and more generally at the failure to address any of the problems that private renters face in London. Tom Gann, a Southwark Tenants member, was interviewed by Dazed Digital, who edited the interview quite extensively so I thought I’d post my original answers here.
– So, why did you occupy a luxury flat in East London, and whose idea was it?
The flat we occupied is being let by Genesis who are applying to receive large sums of government money through the Build to Let scheme. Build to Let provides subsidised finance that because of the low rates of interest charged (below even the rate the government can borrow at) is going to cost the public at least £90 million. The cheap money is being offered without any demand from the government that the properties built are genuinely affordable. From a freedom of information request we made it seems almost certain that the properties being built are likely to be very similar to the one in Stratford Halo which we occupied. The rent on a two bedroom flat in Stratford Halo is £1700 a month, in order even to be allowed to view the property a group of four of us had to pretend our annual income was £150,000 a year. Instead of a considerable subsidy to big developers to build more unaffordable houses the government should be addressing the housing crisis by building more council houses (the £1 billion being loaned to developers at a loss to the public could have built 10,000 new council houses), reintroducing rent controls and making tenancies more secure. We noticed too that the policy had attracted almost no criticism so wanted to draw attention to it, since our action Owen Hatherley has written an excellent critique of Build to Rent for the Guardian.
The inspiration for our protest was a French militant housing group Jeudi Noir who, as well as other actions, have occupied expensive rented properties (Thursday is the day rental adverts appear in Paris) and held parties in them to highlight France’s housing crisis. We thought if public money is subsidising Genesis we should move into our homes and have a housewarming party.
– Who was involved in the protest, and how many took part?
The protest was carried out by Let Down which is a campaigning group born out of London Renters, it includes members from Digs (Hackney Renters), Haringey Private Tenants Action Group, Tower Hamlets Renters, Lambeth Renters, Southwark Tenants, Camden Federation of Private Tenants and Advice for Renters (Brent). About 15 of us occupied the flat and held a housewarming party, ten more people held a solidarity demonstration outside the tower and handed out leaflets to the public.
– Why do you think private renting and property development is in trouble?
– Who do you think is to blame for the situation?
I think it probably makes sense to group these questions together.
I don’t think property development is in trouble- at least in London and the South-East (and one reason for the problems private renters face is the concentration of wealth and jobs in London); private renters are, however, and the two are linked. On one level nobody is to blame, except for the rump of remaining council housing, housing in Britain operates within a capitalist system, this is becoming even more acute as housing associations abandon, with some encouragement from the government, a social duty in favour of a logic of profit. For a tenant a house satisfies a need but for developers and landlords properties are capital, and an extremely good source of income, and given the problems in the British economy one of the only good sources, at least in London and the South-East. This also means as private tenants we experience our house in a radically different way from our not only our landlords but also a media and government obsessed with growth through increasing property prices. Housing being a vehicle for profit is not restricted to “British” capital, the new “luxury” properties (although they’re going to be much smaller than the council houses they replace) in the Heygate in Southwark are being marketed first in Singapore and Guangzhou (China’s most neoliberal city). Unsurprisingly developers and landlords want to make as much money as possible so not only are extremely resistant to any policies that will bring down rents but also influence the government (and the current government are very happy to be influenced) to introduce policies that will help them make more profits. Build to Rent is an example of this, it’s not exactly a free market policy, it involves government intervention to favour big developers, if I were a small landlord I’d be up in arms about the policy too.
Equally, most other countries, including most states in the USA have government policies that ameliorate the worst capitalist aspects of housing such as having more social housing, various forms of rent controls and longer and more secure tenancies. I don’t think we grasp how odd our housing situation is in comparison with other countries and successive British governments have made the housing situation much worse for the vast majority: Thatcher’s for abolishing almost all rent controls and selling off council housing especially as it was sold off in such a way that councils couldn’t replace it, Blair’s and Brown’s for doing very little to address the situation and the current government for making a horrendous situation, particularly for families, worse through Housing Benefit caps and the Bedroom Tax.
– For you personally, when did you realise that something needed to be done? Was there a personal encounter you had, or a tipping point?
Actually, unlike a lot of private tenants in London I haven’t had any abnormally awful experiences, my landlords have usually been personally quite pleasant. Like any private tenant in London, though, despite the pleasantness of most of my landlords I have had to move house at short notice, had my rent increased considerably, had to pay extortionate fees to letting agents, struggled to find a home I could afford, lost some of my deposit and had difficulty getting repairs done. All of the members of Southwark Tenants have had similar and often much worse experiences renting in London.
– What did the protest involve, and how long did it last?
You can see on the video we made and in the photos. We occupied a flat for just over an hour and held a party with cheap sparkling wine (a few people, thinking it was actual champagne have criticised our Bollinger Bolshevism, though, actually, on my salary I can afford very occasional bottles of champagne, I certainly couldn’t afford the rent in Stratford Halo) The weirdest thing was that the letting agent was showing someone round while we were holding our protest. When the police arrived and turned off the music we cleaned up to avoid being arrested for criminal damage and left. Genesis described the protest as “relatively peaceful”. I’m not sure where that relatively comes from.
– What did the police say when they came to break it up? Did they seem sympathetic?
The police seemed fairly sympathetic- much more sympathetic than at other political action I’ve been involved in. I think some of this is due to the fact it would be increasingly difficult to live in London on a police officer’s pay. We asked one police officer whether he would be able to live here and he said he wouldn’t but then said that was “just the way of the world”. I think that long-suffering attitude is what we need to fight against.
– What kind of future do you envision, if the situation continues at the same pace?
I think it’s pretty obvious, everything that’s happening at the moment will continue but will intensify- the catastrophe is just that it goes on like this. There will be more street homelessness, which will be compounded by cuts to shelters and women’s refuges. Much of London will become affordable only for the very rich, particularly as housing benefit cuts take effect. For all London’s flaws and injustices one thing it has had is that rich and poor have, unlike in say Paris, lived in fairly close proximity to each other. However, because London needs ordinary workers people will have to commute long distances or live in “houses” that are crowded to the point of being deeply unsafe- the housing conditions of a lot of workers in London will look very similar to those of the workers in Guangzhou who are generating the capital used to buy up a lot of developments. It will be close to impossible for all but the very rich to raise a family in London. Finally, and compared to these it’s much less significant but vital to the “character” of the city, living any sort of creative or artistic live will become close to impossible. All of this is happening now but it’s going to get much worse.
– What should regular people like you and me do to help the situation?
Organise. If you live in Southwark, Lambeth, Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Camden, Brent, Haringey or Islington get involved with the excellent private tenants groups there. If you don’t, set one up, it’s not too difficult, any of the existing groups will be happy to provide advice. Familiarise yourself with your rights as a tenant, you don’t have many rights but landlords often do break the law and exercising your rights won’t only help you but also discourage landlords from some of the worst abuses more generally. We’re doing research at the moment that suggests perhaps up to 40% of tenants haven’t had their deposits protected, it’s possible to get quite a lot of compensation for landlords breaking the law here. Southwark Tenants are going to be running a joint event in early 2014 with Lambeth Renters to help tenants know their rights. Lobby government, especially local government, a number of local councils including Southwark are introducing or considering introducing forms of landlord licensing which, whilst it won’t resolve all the problems private renters face will improve things if it’s introduced. There are council elections in 2014 which gives you a bit of power. We’re going to be asking Southwark Council candidates to establish a not for profit letting agency which will hopefully undercut the absurd fees most letting agents charge.
– Are you planning to occupy more luxury condos in the future?
Given the problems private renters face aren’t going to be solved soon we’re going to be taking more action.