Rent strike in the Covid conjuncture?

As the knock-on effects of the Covid-19 pandemic make it impossible for many workers to pay rent while meeting their own basic needs, Allan Struthers examines the prospects for large-scale rent strikes in Britain

Turnpike Lane, London

The current coronavirus pandemic has triggered an economic and social crisis that has unsettled expectations of the possible. The regime of austerity has been ruptured as states have been forced to spend billions on social provisions in economy-salvaging interventions. And in light of this, the fact that so many workers remain a missed payslip or two away from not being able to meet the essential costs of living – in a time of heightened health insecurity – has given rise to a resurgence of discussion around the political tactic of withholding rent.

It makes sense that in the UK calls for a rent strike seem more realistic now than before. In France and Italy, government measures have included not only mortgage payment freezes, but also a freeze on rent payments. The British government’s self-described ‘radical package’ has implemented only a mortgage holiday, a freeze on new possession proceedings, and a temporary 3 month ‘suspension’ on evictions during the crisis. Meanwhile, as wages are hit by the effects of lockdown, gaps appear wherein household income falls whilst rent remains the same, without effective protection from the government.

Landlords argue that they should still be able to expect rent payments from furloughed workers on the government’s 80% wage scheme, turning a blind eye to what a 20% wage cut does to their tenants’ ability to pay, whilst those employed more precariously are left hanging on unreliable state financial support and private credit. As the government’s strategy for ‘reopening’ society starts to materialise, renters will feel their ability to pay depends more evidently than before on political decisions made at the level of the state. The sudden proliferation of job insecurity and rent debt has apparently sparked a growing belief that protecting tenants necessitates building a mass movement with the aim of collectively withholding rent, both as a necessary act of immediate working class self-defence, and as a tactic for cohering renters into an economically confident and consciously political force.

Groups organising to strike

Throughout the UK there are a number of groups working directly towards realising the conditions in which a rent strike of significant scale could gain traction. For perspective, it’s important to remember that a rent strike is a tactic rather than an end in itself. The course of action here involves applying pressure and disruption, and mobilising broad support, to wring material concessions from the state. The question is, are the types of organisation that we currently have likely to succeed in winning the demands?

A joint call for rent suspension from LRU, ACORN and Living Rent

Renters’ unions, such as London Renters Union (LRU), ACORN, and Living Rent face in this current crisis a crucial test. It should be recognised that the efforts of these renters’ unions are currently setting up the field for everyone else intending to campaign and mobilise. However, these organisations, which are substantial though not yet massive, face a dilemma: failure to act decisively in mobilising their rank-and-file will make them appear ineffective, whilst a miscalculated action leading to numerous evictions would be disastrous for those evicted and likely to jeopardise members’ trust in those unions. It’s no wonder, then, that they have acted quite cautiously thus far.

Prior to COVID, these renters’ unions (all of which have been set-up within the past 6 years) have taken on casework for individual tenants and mobilised crowds around local instances of housing injustice. In the case of ACORN, direct action campaigns have successfully pushed back against landlords responsible for dangerous housing, harassment, deposit theft, and illegal eviction attempts. The renters’ unions have also used their numbers to pressure councils and the government with political demands, as Living Rent did with their campaign to prevent SERCO from conducting a mass eviction of asylum seekers who had been refused asylum. Though clearly, none of these demands have been of such scale as those we now find urgently necessary in this exceptional moment.

As such, much of the work undertaken by these groups up to now has involved testing for strike feasibility through surveying their members, and coordinating with or providing technical assistance to groups of renters who have already decided to withhold payment as a response to the crisis. Recent attempts to evict tenants despite the government’s emergency suspension have also been blocked in some cases through union interventions.

So long as people are struggling to meet the cost of rent as a result of recent economic shifts, organisers and activists must engage in an urgent project of politicisation around the inability to pay. The government must not be permitted to preside over millions slipping into personal debt.

It is in this context that the LRU’s ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay‘ campaign has been launched. Previous petitions from both ACORN and the LRU calling for the government to enact rent suspensions have attracted nearly 150,000 signatures combined. The Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay campaign signals the next stage in this fight. Five demands aimed at pressuring the government to introduce greater renter protections are coupled with an online form reaching out to renters in London who are already struggling to meet their basic needs due to continuing rent payments. For those who are able to keep up the payments there is an option to pledge support for striking in solidarity with those who can’t.

The demands are to the government are:

  • Suspend rent
  • No rent debt
  • Make the Eviction ban permanent
  • Introduce rent controls
  • No borders in housing

By way of a private renters’ strike aimed at winning both economic and political demands, this is the most advanced concrete initiative we have so far. The strategy is borne of the necessity to unfold a political campaign from a situation in which potentially millions of people have found themselves suddenly dispossessed, incapable of paying rent, and now facing debt. A government polling well and openly determined to respond with austerity measures won’t grant concessions lightly, but it looks as though public opinion may be starting to turn against the Johnson regime.

As things stand, state intervention has unsettled the normal rules of play for renters and landlords, and the immediate benefits of withholding rent have become greater in the context of deteriorating household budgets. The renters’ unions have set up a gamble: that a campaign to pledge withholding rent can scale up rapidly enough to force further financial compensation from the state.

Beyond the renters’ unions, the radical autonomous political group Rent Strike London has also been set up in response to the issue of housing in covid crisis. As a multitude of activists with experience organising in left-wing spaces, the group is directing its force towards creating a solidarity network that will ready the ground for direct-action in the form of eviction resistance, whilst also promoting the call for a rent strike through creative visual interventions and a noisy online (and where possible, offline) presence. As the government’s ban on evictions is set to expire in June, these groups are making it clear that resistance is to be expected. Though open to working with the renter’s unions, eagerness for action played a part in their calling independently for a rent-strike starting on 1st May.

Image: Rent Strike London / Twitter

Dovetailing somewhat with such autonomous efforts are groups of student rent-strikers. University accommodation was the focus of a rent strike campaign in 2016 that won in excess of £1.5 million from University College London. This situation is distinctive partly due to the coherent relationship between a mass of renters who found themselves in a similar social position, and a monolithic landlord in the form of a university. During the COVID pandemic, many universities, possibly sensing the ability of their students to effectively mobilise, have preemptively acted to waive accommodation fees for the rest of the academic year.

A greater challenge for student tenants now is figuring out how to place similar pressure on the property companies that universities have outsourced housing services and responsibilities to, and private landlords who let to students.

At Lancaster University, students have been coordinating with a local ACORN group, and at Warwick University students have formed an online rent strike group currently being used to build an understanding of which private landlords are renting to students in their cohort.

Whilst these organisational drives are inspiring and can raise the profile of housing activism more generally, the relative dislocation of universities from the wider renting populace mean that successes here seem limited and difficult to replicate in a wider context.

Conspicuous in their absence from these groups involved in coordinating action around housing are the trade unions. Historically, successful rent strikes have had support from this section of the organised left, so forging strong links between the renters’ unions and the workplace unions should be a key focus. There is precedent for this in the UK, as trade unions supported working-class tenants during the Glasgow rent strikes of 1915, and again in 1968 when the Transport and General Workers’ Union supported around 242,000 tenants in Greater London Council owned buildings involved in a campaign to withhold rent. As with university accommodation, it is also less of a challenge to organise withholding rent in council-owned blocks of housing. Holding together a sustained commitment to striking in privately rented homes will be harder.

Image: Rent-Strike.org

With younger unions that are more oriented around grassroots campaigning, such as the United Voices of the World and Independent Workers of Great Britain, some further headway might be made in this direction, though the leadership of more established and bureaucratised unions are unlikely to recognise rent strikes as being within their remit anytime soon, unless pressure can be built from rank-and-file members who have been politicised around the issue.

The fact of there being a modest trade union caucus within LRU gives some reasonable hope to the building of a link between trade and renters’ unions, whilst trade unionists outside of the LRU should consider how they can raise the issue of housing at meetings and through union communication channels, possibly advocating for surveys to ascertain the scale of this issue for rank-and-file members. If the novelty of the COVID conjuncture can improve the basis for securing a position of engagement from trade unions, their added weight to the pressure being placed on the government would be a crucial component of the campaign. As large milieus of non-workplace-specific trade unionists, Unite Community and the Workforce Coronavirus Support Group could also hold some promise for broadening the rent strike initiative. It is therefore important that rent strike campaign organisers make efforts to connect with wider labour struggles throughout the crisis.

Finally, we have the Covid-19 Mutual Aid groups that have emerged via WhatsApp and Facebook. These are genuine community-led grassroots social support projects that have drawn union and political organisers together with those who, though they may have strong political convictions, would not normally seek an outlet for these beyond the voting booth. The tolerance of political articulation in these groups varies from area to area, of course, with some groups hosting vocal conservatives more active in militating against anything that comes over as ‘too political’. But it can and must be argued that rent strikes fall within the purview of mutual aid. As demonstrated in the Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay campaign, offering support for renters who need to withhold rent now is about ensuring that basic needs can be met. The renters’ unions should mobilise members to make interventions in mutual aid groups that could increase the popularity of the rent strike and its demands.

Challenges for the campaign

Of course, a rent strike without the prerequisite numbers may be easily crushed. This is why building bases of support within particular locations or amongst tenants who share specific landlords or property management firms will require the pre-established organisational capacity of unions (both trades and tenants’) if anything approaching a concession from the state is to be won.

In Milan, 1968, residents in municipal housing set up a tenants union in response to a proposed 30% increase in rent that would impact 30,000 residents. A demand was made upon the council that rent should cost no more than 10% of the resident’s wage. Around 700 families went on total rent strike whilst links were built with trade unions and radical student groups, empty blocks of council homes were squatted, and evictions were fiercely resisted. Whilst the original demand was not met, new council apartments and financial compensation were given to 140 families who had squatted the old blocks, deposits were waived, and all evictions and rent arrears were frozen by the council. This was a grassroots political campaign that lasted three years and drew in coordinated support from across society.

Whilst we do not yet have a unified mass campaign across multiple sectors of society geared towards rent strike action, we do have a situation in which the state has, through increasing the value of and reducing access restrictions to Universal Credit and Local Housing Allowance, and in subsidising the massive furlough scheme, produced a shift in what can be expected from an attempt to organise as such.

In practical terms, this means making the case for protecting renters through unions, political organisations, and community groups. The Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay campaign provides a template to cohere some demands, and now hard work must be done to draw current struggles together, whether for safer workplaces, care for the vulnerable, or protection from evictions.

Throughout this campaign, it will be key to resist any attempts to turn the mobilisation into an uncoordinated struggle or set of negotiations between individual tenants and landlords. There will likely be media drives to make landlords appear as victims. There could be attempts for local councils to co-opt any popular attempt at realising a rent strike, with some relief given on a discriminatory basis featuring inevitable exclusions based on pre-existing patterns of tenant insecurity such as citizenship status. And new crisis-level policing could be used to fast track evictions when they once again become ‘legal’. In turn, however, this moment of increased attention to public health may allow ‘radical’ arguments around withholding rent to become more conscionable as they are brought into broader appeals around keeping everybody safe.

While the phrase ‘Rent Strike!’ clearly carries an affective appeal, it refers to a tactic with many gradations, an ensemble of political manoeuvres aimed at forcing the state to accept a move to pull greater wealth and power onto the side of renters. The pandemic has made speaking with neighbours about rent concerns an easier conversation to have, and has also opened opportunities for putting rent on the agenda at trade union meetings, and in local mutual aid groups. If you aren’t yet part of a renters’ union, now is the time to join one. A large-scale mobilisation of tenants against renting conditions has not seemed so possible for a long time.

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