With the second wave of COVID-19 sweeping through the UK like a tsunami, a number of key battlegrounds have emerged which are likely to define the future of the left for some time to come.
The fight for housing security, a basic human right of which many in our country have been robbed, has rapidly become a fight over the shape of civil society more generally, with fault lines appearing across the political spectrum.
As the right seeks to wage a culture war over anything from the Last Night of the Proms, to the ethics of snitching on your neighbours, the left are at the vanguard of the tenants’ rights movement, directly resisting evictions and shifting the tenor of public debate around housing more generally.
The ban on evictions which was introduced in March, at the height of the first wave of COVID-19 was a vital piece of legislation that not only protected thousands of people from homelessness, but made the concept of a “lockdown” actually workable, alongside the tragically temporary end of rough sleeping. As remarked by The Guardian, it was a cruelly poetic twist of fate that the end of the eviction ban should fall on the day in which the grim double act of Prof Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance addressed the UK warning of 50,000 new cases per day by mid-October.
As many as 55,000 people in the UK are estimated to have been served with an eviction notice since the start of the pandemic.
This means that the already overworked courts face an enormous backlog of eviction cases to deal with. Many tenants are unaware of their legal rights in the face of eviction, which calls the already shoddy ethics behind the entire eviction process into question and robs many judges of the chance to grant discretion in housing cases.
It seems absolutely perverse and reckless for the government to once again urge everyone to work from home if they can, but simultaneously work to undermine housing security for thousands of people. A Conservative election pledge last year was the abolition of no fault evictions, but the government has instead decided that those falling into arrears due to the pandemic should stop carping on and get a higher income or a more secure job. Meanwhile, Conservative generosity towards private renters has extended as far as a “Christmas truce”, banning evictions in the run up to Christmas — taking a leaf out of the Ebenezer Scrooge school of housing policy. Ultimately, the Christmas truce is an admission that the Tories and their landlord friends have been waging a class war against private renters for years.
Labour MP Zara Sultana has called for urgent measures to protect renters, highlighting the fact that 300,000 private renters have fallen into arrears during the pandemic, a figure that is highly likely to rise when the furlough scheme ends, currently propping up at least 5 million jobs. Sultana urged the government to extend the evictions ban for another year, cancel rent arrears and scrap no fault evictions. A coalition of organisations including Shelter, Crisis and Generation Rent have also urged the government to extend the eviction ban and offer a short-term package of emergency grants and loans to help renters who have lost income due to the pandemic.
Across the left in the UK, the protection of tenants has become a rallying point around which many groups have converged.
The rights of tenants and renters facing eviction have been picked up by Momentum as part of a widespread “resistance campaign” against residential evictions and a shift towards community-based action. Calls from John McDonnell MP for a “Marshall Plan-style” social housing recovery plan to build 100,000 council homes would go a long way towards elevating many out of precarious, expensive private rented accommodation, and would also create hundreds of thousands of jobs in construction and other industries.
Meanwhile, facing stiff competition for the title of “Worst Landlord in the Country” is John Christodoulou, the billionaire owner of Somerford Grove in Hackney. After campaigning for a rent reduction during the pandemic, residents were subjected to surveillance, harassment and threatened with legal action. The tenants, with the support of Generation Rent, the London Renters Union and Momentum now face immediate eviction, but to put it more accurately, they are now directly resisting their own eviction.
While the billionaire Christodoulou outright refuses to even meet with the tenants, the government and even the shadow cabinet have also neglected their duty of care and protection for renters. Shadow Secretary of State for Housing, Thangam Debbonaire MP was incredibly dismissive when asked why she opposed forgiving private rent debt, bizarrely claiming that it would benefit the rich.
There have been a number of victories in the UK for tenant activists to celebrate this year, such as the People’s Empowerment Alliance for Custom House (Peach) winning a 60% rent reduction and the right to live in council-managed properties. After four years of grassroots struggle, hundreds of families won the right to live in safe, secure and affordable accommodation. The London Renters Union have also been incredibly active in the capital, mobilising hundreds of members from disparate communities to resist evictions, preventing dozens of unlawful evictions over the summer. Acorn, a community-based union of tenants, workers and residents are also providing eviction resistance training for members as well as supporting direct action by members to resist evictions and win compensation from negligent landlords.
As we move into an uncertain future in which tenants are no longer protected by the eviction ban, it is likely that these unions and organisations will serve as a vanguard for many on the left who no longer see their views represented by the Labour leadership, but feel empowered to take matters into their own hands.
Looking abroad for inspiration and solidarity, it is possible to find evidence of the power of tenant’s rights organisations, but governments around the world are brutally allowing the eviction of thousands of people.
In the US, the situation of private renters is fraught, with up to 40 million facing eviction without a further stimulus package. Ominously, an “Uber for evictions” has been launched in the States, Civvl, who are anything but civil, call evictions the “FASTEST GROWING MONEY MAKING GIG DUE TO COVID-19.” However, in a demonstration of how tenant activism can have incredible outcomes, protestors across the US were able to secure an additional 4 month moratorium against evictions, buying time for an election and stimulus plan to be pushed through what will hopefully be a Democratic majority Congress. In Spain, the left wing Podemos coalition have frozen evictions until six months after the end of the current state of emergency. Other countries with more authoritarian governments have not seen this kind of support, for instance, thousands in Brazil have been evicted by force, and slums in Kenya were brutally demolished leaving their residents homeless during the pandemic.
Ultimately, the precarious existence of many thousands in private rented accommodation hinges on the actions of the government over the coming weeks and months.
If their complete rejection of a building safety bill based on the recommendations of the Grenfell fire public enquiry is anything to go on, the Conservatives simply do not care about private renters. In the face of this neglect, community-led organisations and unions are fighting in the streets to secure safe, affordable and secure housing, demonstrating solidarity with their neighbours and standing up to heartless landlords. The fight will be long and difficult, but in the words of Vijay Prashad, “as long as you are resisting, you are not defeated”.
Photo Source: London Renter’s Union on Twitter.
Read Benjamin James Davies’ article ‘Britain’s COVID-19 Housing Crisis’.
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