Organising against the expected surge of evictions once the ban ends will be the test of the growing housing movement, argues Alistair Cartwright
In less than a month, the temporary ban on evictions comes to an end. Eviction orders will hit the courts again on 24th August and early warning signs point to catastrophic results.
The Resolution Foundation estimates 13% of private renters, or over 1 million people, are in debt to their landlord. The housing charity Shelter puts the figure much lower at 5%, but reckons 174,000 have already received threats of eviction. Even the National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA) estimates that 10% of tenants have experienced some disruption to rent payments.
We don’t know exactly how many face eviction at the end of August but the scale of the problem is clearly huge. With the furlough scheme coming to an end in October, autumn could see a double blow of job losses and people being turned out of their homes.
However the last four months have also seen growing resistance to a property system built on insecurity and inequality. Thousands have signed up to tenant activist campaigns, while the rent strike has emerged as a popular and powerful tactic in cities around the world.
A bailout for the property system
Campaigning pressure helped secure the temporary ban on evictions, with over one hundred thousand signing the London Renters Union petition calling on the government to protect tenants during the Coronavirus crisis. But the preferential treatment of landlords over renters has been clear from the beginning. Landlords have been eligible for mortgage holidays just like owner occupiers, but there has been no such relief for renters.
The most recent government spending announcement included several landlord and developer friendly moves. The Treasury lifted the threshold for stamp duty relief to include properties worth up to £500,000 – an odd move for a cash-strapped national purse. This is, quite simply, a tax break for buyers of more expensive houses, second homes or investment properties. The policy will do nothing for first time buyers, let alone renters. Families and individuals taking their first step onto the housing ladder already benefit from stamp duty relief up to £300,000, alongside a range of incentives such as help-to-buy government loans.
Other recent housing measures are very much ‘Meal Deal’ over ‘New Deal’. As part of Johnson and Sunak’s bid to build their way out of the crisis, loft extensions will be fast-tracked through planning permission and ‘red tape’ cut to make it easier to convert empty shops to residential units. These moves demonstrate a remarkably short-term approach to the coming shake down in how cities are organised.
The other announcement a few weeks ago was a £12.2 billion programme of affordable homes. In reality, this simply re-packages spending that was already planned. A large part of the fund will be channeled through housing associations, whose delivery of genuinely low-rent homes (i.e. socially rented homes) has, under the impact of highly restrictive government grants, dwindled to little more than a thousand per year in England. Exactly how the £12 billion will be allocated remains to be seen but the clue is in the name. ‘Affordable’, in the official definition, means 80% of market value.
The Conservatives are desperate to maintain Britain’s over-inflated property system. The winners, if they get their way, will be developers, major housebuilders, increasingly corporate-style housing associations, real estate investment trusts and luxury owners. The losers will be just about everybody else, with renters in both the private and public sector suffering the most.
Homes forever, evictions never
Covid-19 turned the world upside down and housing is no exception. In order to fight the virus we were told, initially, to ‘stay home’. What a home is fundamentally worth – a place of shelter vital to human health – became a matter of national importance. Public Health England’s investigation of Covid-related risks suggested overcrowding was a major factor in the disproportionate mortality rates among BAME communities. At the same time, the money suddenly appeared to put a roof over the heads of the homeless. Amid the turmoil, public opinion has shifted rapidly to the left. A YouGov poll showed that an astonishing 74% support rent controls.
Of course the government dropped the ‘stay home’ messaging as quickly as it could, and those housed in emergency accommodation are once again at risk of being kicked out onto the streets. But it will take more than that to unlearn the startling lessons of the last four months.
Worldwide we have seen radical action over housing as communities discover their collective strength. Rent strikes involving thousands have rippled out across Barcelona, New York and Los Angeles. At the same time, activists and certain local officials have issued calls for requisitioning powers to take private assets into public hands. Haringey council has set aside new funds to compulsory purchase empty properties and Barcelona’s mayor has written to the owners of ‘ghost flats’ to say ‘use them or lose them’.
Here in the UK, the London Renters Union has organised a ‘Can't Pay Won’t Pay’ campaign. Over 3,000 signed up to the campaign in the first few weeks, pledging to withhold enough rent to afford essentials, or to act in solidarity with those taking similar action.
But the real test of this growing movement will be August 24th. Plans are underway for protests at County Courts when District Judges begin working through the pile of eviction notices.
Everyone who believes that housing is a fundamental right and not just for the profits of landlords and developers should take a stand. Joining your local renters union or tenants association is a key first step. We also need to connect local struggles to national and city-wide movements. The challenge now is to build broad coalitions with organisations like London Renters Union and the People’s Assembly, while making the links between the housing question and issues such as health, job security, and the future shape of our cities.
Alistair Cartwright is an activist with the Stop the War Coalition and a member of Counterfire.
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