How unions could solve the housing crisis

You don't need to ditch the avocado toast, you just need to unionise.

by Eve Livingston
17 February 2022, 8:00am


Imagine if you could do something that meant you no longer had to put up with mouldy ceilings, anti-social flatmates or endless rent increases? That meant your landlord had to listen to you and actually respond instead of texting back ‘no’ five times and then going AWOL? That maybe even meant boomer TV personalities left over from the 2000s would stop slamming you in the media over avocado toast and Netflix? What if I told you you already can?

Lots of us have heard of trade unions, even if we don’t know much about them or aren’t members ourselves. Tenants’ unions, however, are far less known across the country. Here to help renters take back some control over their living conditions and unfair treatment from landlords, they could be the solution the housing crisis engulfing millions.

Like trade unions, tenants’ (or renters’) unions operate on a membership model, in which members pay a small fee each month in return for the union’s support with their problems. As well as helping individual members with grievances — slow repairs, inappropriate behaviour, soaring costs — unions campaign as a single voice on housing conditions and policy across the country. The logic is simple: you're far stronger together than you would be apart. When a landlord negotiates with one tenant, they hold all the power. When the tenant is backed by a union, the balance is shifted.

Tenants’ unions work because landlords are the bosses of the housing sector. Sure, some nice ones probably exist, who’ll fix your shower the same day and make sure you can manage the rent. But their interests are fundamentally opposed to yours, and their power far greater. For you, your flat means home, comfort, safety and security — but for a landlord it only means profit. And with demand outstripping supply for rental properties in large swathes of the country, landlords can get away with bad and even illegal treatment safe in the knowledge that a new tenant will always be one viewing away.

But herein lies the power at the heart of tenants’ organising: there are an estimated 13 million private renters in the UK; one in five of the population. Imagine what they could achieve as one collective voice.

While today’s tenants’ unions are still relatively young, at least compared to their workplace equivalents, they’re already proving their worth in towns and cities throughout the UK. Across Scotland, Living Rent has organised thousands of tenants to reclaim illegal fees, resist eviction and take legal actions against landlords — as well as successfully campaigning for the Scottish government to adopt rent controls in future. Renters’ unions in London and Manchester have lobbied their respective mayors for protections for renters alongside their everyday organising. And away from major cities, the tenants’ union movement has grown in rural areas and on coasts, where renters are being increasingly pushed out by Airbnbs and WFH pandemic expats arriving en masse from big cities.

The nationwide community union ACORN (Association of Community Organisations for Reform Now) was founded in Bristol just eight years ago, and already has branches in many towns and cities across the UK. Their remit is wider than just housing, with successful campaigns on the benefits system and public services already under their belt. But in the last few years alone they have achieved a series of victories that benefit renters across the country, including the banning of letting agent fees in England and, in partnership with other renters’ unions and campaign groups, a government commitment to end ‘no fault’ evictions in England and Wales. Every day these successes prove how a union model can work to win for renters as well as workers.

And, as well as improving the lives of their members and renters more generally in the present, tenants’ unions also have a huge role to play in wider housing policy and discourse. In the UK, we remain pretty obsessed with the prospect of owning our own homes, often thinking of ownership as a yardstick for ‘real adulthood’ or an ultimate lifetime aspiration. That’s partly a legacy of previous government priorities and policies, but it’s also to do with rental conditions; in other countries where renters enjoy far greater standards and protections, home ownership is less coveted. And it makes sense: if you could have a pet, paint your room, get timely repairs paid for by someone else and know that you can't be kicked out at any moment, you might well prefer it to taking on thousands of pounds of debt and all the responsibilities of home ownership. In other words, transforming renting might not help you buy your own home, but it could stop you feeling like you need to.

Unions aren't the only answer to the UK’s housing crisis, but they’re certainly one part of the puzzle. Building power amongst and between renters is the only way to counter the huge and unchecked power that landlords already enjoy. And in the immediate term, they can help you to take some control over your own life and to improve your housing situation right now.

Ironically, the cost of joining a tenants’ union is about the same as a Netflix subscription, or a few lattes a month. Instead of giving up either, enjoy both alongside a union membership and the sense of satisfaction that comes with knowing you're making a difference.

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