Brighton SolFed writes on lessons learned over the first year of its efforts to build up an anarchist housing union.
After a string of successful cases largely against wage theft in the hospitality sector, Brighton Solidarity Federation launched our housing union in June 2017. Our experience in Brighton was of rents rocketing up, while conditions were getting worse. Huge increases in student numbers led to ever more scumbag landlords and letting agencies shoving more and more people in ever smaller spaces, and becoming increasingly brazen in withholding deposits. Brighton and Hove is a city with an incredibly transitory population, and this makes it ripe for the worst kinds of exploitation.
We wanted to focus on our direct action approach, rather than a legalistic model. While we made sure to inform tenants of such possibilities and signposting where appropriate — for example in cases of deposit theft using the Deposit Protection Scheme (DPS) — we were clear to explain why we don’t pursue cases in this way.
With the DPS, landlords and agencies have three different schemes to choose from, so it is not in their interests to consistently rule in favour of tenants. Moreover, agencies pay staff for such administration, who have knowledge and experience of the regulations, meaning the deck is stacked in their favour.
Direct action public campaigns also help to highlight that many of us share these problems, and that our power lies in banding together to fight them. DPS procedures keep problems private and help agencies to guard against the formation of solidarity and support amongst their tenants.
And of course not all tenants have the evidence required to challenge a deposit deduction. The landlord/tenant relationship is fundamentally exploitative, suggesting that someone only has the right to a home if they line someone else’s pockets. We think this is wrong, so when even more money is taken from tenants via deposit deductions, our solidarity is with tenants whether or not they have the types of ‘evidence’ required by a DPS.
While deposit theft is one of main issues presented we have also been determined not to constrain our actions to this. Where tenants have been forced to live in an unsanitary shithole, and then had their deposit kept on spurious grounds, we have felt that just trying to get the deposit back wasn’t enough, and we should pursue compensation for the terrible conditions they had been forced to live in.
In one case that we had in late summer 2017 the tenants had had to endure damp, mould and a bug infestation. We supported them with a direct action campaign that resulted in them receiving £3,900 in compensation, as well as the return of their deposit (£2,400), from one of the most notorious student lettings agencies in the city.
Another thing we felt important was to not be constantly on the defensive and trying to get back money after people had left the property, and so we have fought several cases demanding repairs, basic amenities (in one case, a working cooker!) or for issues like damp to be dealt with. We weren’t content to just let these issues build up until people were forced to leave.
From the start, we’ve sought to provide advice on rights, and help in composing demand letters to landlords, even where people felt they were unwilling to engage in a direct action dispute — we are regularly holding advice surgeries and drop in sessions.
It’s been important to support people whether they are members or not — the conditions that allow agents to rip us off affect the working class as a whole, and our politics mean we’ll fight against this. We stress that this is their case, and that they are in the driving seat, but that we will offer advice, solidarity and support (so long as it doesn’t contradict our politics).
So far, this strategy has worked well with victories and several tenants joining us as a result of our campaigns alongside them, and many more supporting campaigns other than their own. We want to build our union so we can be an effective class fighting force, not just as growth for its own sake, or to build our credentials for careers in the radical NGO sector.
Along the way we’ve encountered a number of themes — there are a significant layer of exceptionally scummy agencies whose entire business model relies on ripping off tenants’ deposits and not providing even a basic level of service.
At a certain point, as campaigning continues and people become more aware of their basic rights, things will come to a head. So far, some agencies have managed to just about survive direct action campaigns, but at some point we don’t think they will be able to survive their tenants working together put a stop to their tricks and dodgy tactics. If an agency can’t survive without using these business practices, we’re happy to see them collapse.
On the other hand, we’ve also remained aware that even the “good” agents are still fundamentally surviving on exploiting people, and living off people’s need for a home. Even the best letting agent or landlord is a parasite, and where they are exploiting tenants, we will fight them.
This article first appeared in the Summer edition of Freedom Journal