England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

The housing crisis: how can we fight back

Monday 21st September was the day that the Government lifted the temporary ban on evictions of private renters in England and Wales during the COVID pandemic. It was a ban that the government had been pressured into making and were very keen to abandon.

The same day over 100 renters and campaigners, including members of Socialist Alternative, gathered in a noisy protest outside a luxury Canary Wharf hotel owned by billionaire property developer John Christodoulou. Christodoulou is 82nd on the 2020 Sunday Times rich list and a resident of Monaco, a tax haven for the rich and well-connected.

He has, it is estimated, a net worth of £1.8 billion, up from £1.6 billion in 2019 – COVID pandemic and economic downturn notwithstanding. It is believed he owns 2,000 residential and commercial properties in central London, as well as others in Liverpool and Manchester, and yet more as far afield as Brazil and the USA. Christodoulou also happens to be the elusive landlord of Somerford Grove properties in Hackney, East London.

Tenants get organised
Back in the Spring, Somerford Grove Renters, a group representing tenants on the 170 flats, requested that the agents of the estate, Tower Quay, consider a 20% rent reduction and no evictions during the pandemic.
That modest request, which reflected the harsh economic difficulties being faced by many tenants in COVID Britain, was contemptuously rejected. Residents were told to find money saved in lunch, entertainment and travel during COVID to pay the rent. There would be no consideration of a rent reduction or a freeze on evictions, even though meeting the renters’ demands would hardly make a scratch on the landlord’s huge accumulated wealth.

Far from responding to the concerns of the renters, a campaign of surveillance and harassment of the organisers was set in motion. In July, two of the principal renters’ organisers, Jordan and Mark, were informed by a Section 21 notice that their tenancy would not be renewed. It is clear to everyone in Hackney why Jordan and Mark were threatened with eviction! Collective solidarity, with the support of the local community and trade unions, can ensure the threat of eviction is not carried through.

Somerford Grove has become a lightning conductor for the battle against evictions with the lifting of the ban. However, even during the period when the ban was in place, evictions continued at an accelerated rate throughout the Summer. In particular, there was a big upsurge in landlords’ use of Section 21 notices to secure possession, without giving a reason. The catchall nature of this provision has led to massive abuses – so much so that even the Tories under Theresa May had previously pledged to ditch Section 21 notices, a pledge apparently forgotten about in recent times.

Increase in unlawful evictions
Alongside this ‘legal route’, it is also estimated that there has been a 50% increase in unlawful evictions during the pandemic, with an accompanying increase in harassment, intimidation and violence towards tenants who have fallen behind with the rent.

But the lifting on the ban threatens to turn this into an avalanche of evictions over the coming months as courts start to deal with cases again. Although most tenants will be allowed six months’ notice, those that have been deferred from before the pandemic will only be entitled to two months’ notice. 55,000 tenants had been served with eviction notices prior to lockdown, and these now go to the top of the list as possible pending.
Hundreds of thousands have now accumulated huge and unpayable rent debts as a result of unemployment, loss of income and ineligibility for furlough payments, or inadequate or delayed benefits payments. A survey conducted for housing charity Shelter in June indicated that 174,000 tenants have already been threatened with eviction by their landlords or their letting agency. Meanwhile Citizens Advice have seen a 332% surge in debt advice calls.

Even before COVID, private renters were financially vulnerable, with a third of disposable income on average spent on housing, With incomes then falling, many renters were faced with a stark choice of paying rent or putting food on the table.

Situation will get worse
The replacement of the furlough scheme with the Job Support Scheme from November 1st will rapidly worsen the situation. Up to 300,000 could face homelessness. In September, the property firm Shaftesbury had a fifth of its (mainly central London) apartment flats lying empty. The oversupply has created a downward pressure on rents, with many big landlords trying to recoup their profits at the expense of their tenants. Incidentally, Shaftesbury has also seen a dramatic fall in its rental income for commercial property.

Around 6.2 million adults are in work and live in privately rented accommodation in the UK. While homeowners, including buy-to-let landlords have been able to benefit from mortgage holidays, no such entitlement has been extended to private renters.

Apologists for lifting the ban argue that landlords face costs and need to make a living. Socialists differentiate between landlords such as John Christodoulou and small landlords who, for instance, rent out spare rooms and floors in their homes. In major cities such as London and Dublin, many tenants resort to illegally ‘subletting’ their spare rooms to make ends meet. Small landlords should also be able to make the case for compensation for loss of income on the basis of proven need.

A socialist programme against the crisis
The movement against evictions, and in general for reduced rents and increased tenants’ rights, has been growing and will continue to develop over the coming months. Part of this has been reflected in the increased activity of tenants’ organisations such as ACORN, Generation Rent, the London Renters’ Union and the student-led Rent Strike campaign. Socialists will play an important part in tenant organisations and will always seek to link campaigns for tenants’ rights to wider working-class struggle.

Socialists will also point out how the struggle for decent housing for working-class people is intrinsically linked to the fight for a new socialist, system. As Friedrich Engels argued in the nineteenth century in his book “The Housing Question”, a ‘market’ for housing can only exist if there is a shortage of housing. In a socialist society the potential would exist to build for need, and in sufficient quantity, to do away with the housing shortage that underpins the market.

What we say:

  • A freeze on all evictions through inability to pay
  • Local ‘rapid reaction forces’ of campaigners and the local community’ to block the carrying out of evictions
  • Building local and national campaigns for rent strikes, for working tenants and in student halls of residence, to be built for with days of action
  • The immediate scrapping of Section 21 notices Properties left vacant for any length of time without good reason to be brought under council ownership
  • An end to the sale of council housing
  • The urgent making safe of all council and privately rented property, including the immediate replacement of dangerous cladding
  • Legally enforceable rent control
  • An enforceable register of private landlords in every local authority to ensure basic standards of provision are brought under a regulatory framework
  • A crash program of council house building to provide homes and to create employment
  • Construction companies to be brought under democratic public ownership
  • An end to the housing crisis through fighting for system change and a democratically planned, socialist economy

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