We spoke to Jordan Osserman, a Socialist Alternative member in London and organiser for the Somerford Grove Renters campaign that launched last year. The campaign has been covered in national media, including the BBC, and serves as an important example of what renters can achieve when they get organised.
What was the background to the campaign at Somerford Grove? What issues were tenants facing and why did you decide to go public?
It started organically really. There are 170 flats in our block, and some of us were in a WhatsApp group we had set up as neighbours. Occasionally it acted as a space where people complained about the letting agents and the landlord, but when the first lockdown came in March it became a much more politicised space, with people on furlough or who had lost their jobs writing about the fact that they were struggling to pay rent.
Against the backdrop of already feeling mistreated as tenants, a mood developed to join together and to try to get some money off the rent. People just started messaging on WhatsApp about what we could do. We found out that at the same time, a similar thing was happening at an adjacent building, owned by the same landlord. We had a few zoom calls and drafted a letter to the landlord requesting 20% off rent, as well as a guarantee that no one would be evicted.
How did you manage to turn these WhatsApp groups into a public campaign?
My household had been distributing links to the WhatsApp group into people’s post boxes for a while anyway. But once the letter got going, we held regular online meetings which regularly got 30-40 people turning up. After this, we started thinking more strategically about outreach and getting people involved.
Once it was safe to do so, we started doorknocking wearing masks, giving out flyers and discussing with others in the building. This was buoyed by the press taking an interest in the campaign – people would have seen us on the news and then we’d knock at their door and speak to them.
What has the response been like from the landlord? And what results have you all achieved?
It hasn’t been easy, and the early responses were really quite bad. We faced a raft of union-busting tactics we weren’t prepared for. The biggest setback was the legal threat that, if we were convincing people not to pay rent, we as organisers could be held legally responsible for all the thousands of pounds of withheld payments, and we had to get legal advice. The landlord, agents and security were very hostile, and there was even a “mole” in the WhatsApp group reporting back on what we were doing.
But there was also a lot of sympathy and solidarity from the public and the local community. Things started to shift when the publicity we were getting forced the council to get more involved – especially when my household was served a no-fault eviction notice. It was clear this was just an attempt to victimise us for campaigning. As a result though, we were able to get various investigations done around negligence in the property, including some issues with the licensing. This meant we were able to fight back legally.
The initial eviction notice was found to be invalid, and it was found that tenants in flats without the right property license are legally entitled to up to a year’s rent back. This was significant because after months of feeling defeated we now have a strategy for a concrete win!