The Private Tenant Tackling the Housing Market
By |Published On: 26th April 2015|

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The Private Tenant Tackling the Housing Market

By |Published On: 26th April 2015|

This article is an external press release originally published on the Landlord News website, which has now been migrated to the Just Landlords blog.

Heather Kennedy, a private tenants’ rights campaigner, says that politicians do not listen. She is taking a stand against the system with direct action.

Heather, 31, is a charity worker who moved from Leeds to London in 2011. When she tried to find somewhere to live, she was faced with a problem.

“I’ve been renting all my adult life, since I was 17, but I was struck by how much more difficult it was in London because the imbalance of power between landlords and tenants was so much more stark,” she explains.

Heather and her friends felt that the market was against them, so they started researching their legal rights. They wanted to know what they could do about their situation and help others who were also struggling with housing.

She says: “There were three or four of us and we all had some sort of housing problem at the time. I had a completely hopeless landlord who not only didn’t do any repairs, but didn’t reply to any of our phone calls. We just felt completely powerless.”

Heather was shocked at what she discovered: “Not only have you got a legal system that totally weights in favour of landlords, but you haven’t even got power as a consumer. We realised that our housing rights were so few that actually this was going to have to be about calling for change to the system.”

In 2012, Heather established the private tenants’ rights campaign organisation, Digs. Currently, the group has over 250 members in Hackney, East London, where Heather and her friends live. Other groups fighting for renters’ rights around the UK are Liverpool Generation Rent and Oxford Tenants Union.

“I got really sick of this idea you’d hear from politicians and from the media and charities, that private renting was all for students or comfortable young professionals,” Heather says. “And yet I was seeing people around me having a really difficult time.”

She continues: “Maybe some people are doing it because it’s flexible and it suits their lifestyle, but the things they have to endure as renters are completely unacceptable.

“I started volunteering at a local soup kitchen and realised that about a third of the people there were in private rented [housing]. It really struck me that the imbalance of power is much worse the lower down you get in the market, so if you are living really at the bottom end of the market, that’s where you’ve got the most exploitive conditions, you’ve got landlords that really have absolutely no respect for the wellbeing of their tenants and it’s all happening completely under the radar.”

When Digs began, it used traditional methods to try and influence housing policy. It wrote to local MPs, responded to policy consultations and organised meetings. However, nothing came of it. Activists from the group were excluded from conferences and events.

Heather says there was a moment when she realised that things needed to change. She had just put together a well-documented response to the Communities and Local Government select committee inquiry into private renting, but Digs was not asked to give evidence.

“We thought either they haven’t read it at all, or they have read it and it’s made absolutely no impact on their thinking,” says Heather.

Digs stopped lobbying after this, and decided direct action was a better approach. They were right. Before local elections last year, 60 people from Hackney shared their “galling experiences of renting” with Digs. The activists put together a set of demands from these stories and organised a protest outside the town hall to ask hopeful councillors to discuss the issues.

Heather explains how she felt: “It was like we were calling the shots. They basically had to listen to us. That spelled a shift in the power dynamic between us and the council. Since then, the way they relate to us is completely different. They actively seek our views and demands. We have regular meetings with them rather than having to badger them.”

The council listened when Digs wrote to it last year asking it to boycott the international property fair in Cannes, where councils allegedly sell British cities off to investors.

Heather would like Digs to build a local community, something she says private tenants do not have: “You’re moving around all the time, you’re not necessarily getting support from your community and your neighbours. You haven’t got the same kind of stake in your community.

“It’s very difficult to build connections and solidarity with your neighbours. I think that’s one of the reasons why politicians don’t like estates and prefer people living in the private rented sector, because it is very difficult to collectivise around any problems you’re having.”

Digs is also helping other London housing problems, such as the campaign against mass evictions and tripled rents on the New Era estate in Hoxton, and the group of single mothers, Focus E15, fighting for their homes in Stratford.

Heather says that these battles mark a turning point: “The genie is out of the bottle now. The awareness of groups like Focus E15 and New Era and the broader movement is such that people have an analysis for what’s happening now; it’s no longer just this incredibly unpleasant, very individualised situation.

“Seeing the way that the mums who have been affected have gone from people who were in individual housing crisis to people who are some of the most articulate activists about what is going wrong with housing in our society, is absolutely incredible.”

The growing number of housing campaigners today is well networked and poses a real threat to the system. The political parties’ housing policies in their election manifestos has not suppressed the anger over such issues.

Heather is opposed to the Conservatives’ right to buy policy, which you can read about here: /how-would-the-conservatives-right-to-buy-work/.

She says: “It’s very disappointing that Labour hasn’t unequivocally come out and condemned right to buy, as they should. It’s that kind of lack of courage and populism that is part of the reason why I think we’re going to have a low voter turnout, why I and a lot of other people have lost faith in those traditional routes of influencing policy, and why we are going to see many more occupations, eviction resistance and angry demonstrations.”

Heather also believes that Labour’s pledge of longer tenancies with stable rents will do nothing to tackle the affordability crisis. She says that the political parties are “still completely sold on the idea that the market will solve housing need”, but do not realise the importance of housing tenure.

Heather explains: “What’s absolutely crucial is an expansion not just of social housing, but specifically, of council housing.

“There was a real sense that people had a right to that housing, that it was theirs, which I came across as someone in my 30s and thought, that’s staggering; we’ve been completely robbed of the idea that we have any right to any form of housing.”1


About the Author: Em Morley (she/they)

Em is the Content Marketing Manager for Just Landlords, with over five years of experience writing for insurance and property websites. Together with the knowledge and expertise of the Just Landlords underwriting team, Em aims to provide those in the property industry with helpful resources. When she’s not at her computer researching and writing property and insurance guides, you’ll find her exploring the British countryside, searching for geocaches.

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