A crowd of housing activists, tenants, workers, union and trades council representatives and anti-poverty campaigners gathered outside the Department of Levelling Up on Saturday 11 February 2023 to demand a rent freeze across all rental sectors to be funded by central government. The move had broad-based support, including from Action for Fire Safety Justice, Defend Council Housing, Homes for All, SHAC (Social Housing Action Campaign), Movement for Justice, FueI Poverty Action, Ealing Housing Co-op, Islington Trades Council and a Grenfell Community Campaigners.
There was an open call to speak and a mix of personal stories and political analyses vividly demonstrated the urgent need to follow in Scotland’s footsteps of legislating for a rent freeze during the worst cost of living crisis in decades.
Messages of support and solidarity to the victims of the earthquake in Turkey and Syria and to the asylum seekers in Knowsley, Merseyside were both warmly received.
Having learned from the Scottish example, the campaigners are clear that the rent freeze needs to be funded by central, not local government, in order to avoid an adverse impact on councils’ capacities to fund housing repairs and services. The rent freeze also needs to be across all sectors and accompanied by a service charge and eviction freeze, along with radically improved private rent regulations to ensure affordable and secure tenancies.
Following the terrible tragedy of the Grenfell fire, in which tenants had warned of a disaster but been ignored, there were promises of change but the speakers at the protest made it clear that this had not happened.
Alex Considine spoke of how Newlon Housing Trust had failed to respond to tenants’ calls to fix the damp in her block of 54 flats in Islington North in which children were sleeping next to black mould, which had caused herself and many other tenants to suffer from pneumonia over the winter. Water has infiltrated the building’s infrastructure over the last eight years to the extent that the electrics are breaking down and the intercom and lifts no longer work.
Alex says “People are dying. You can hear the water coming out and you can see the black mould bubbling from the water stacks. It’s now gone through so much of the building into the infrastructure, so it’s not just in the apartments, it’s in the hallways, it’s in the corridors, it’s in the communal spaces.”
Yet despite this appalling record, Newlon Housing Trust have been given permission to develop a new ‘Barnsbury’ estate in Islington. Even with threats of legal action, the housing association is only addressing the symptoms not the cause, decanting residents to ostensibly fix their apartments but failing to address the root of the problem, the faulty water stack, and even returning mouldy cabinets to the flats.
We are constantly told by the government that there is not enough money to fund decent and affordable housing, but as Joanna, from Action for Fire Safety Justice, pointed out, the CEOs of Clarion, L&Q and Guinness housing associations, respectively, are receiving annual salaries of £400,000, £328,000 and £245,000.
Clarion, the UK’s largest social landlord, has also seen fit to appoint former Conservative housing minister Gavin Barwell, to their board of Directors, despite the fact that the House of Lords found him to be in breach of the code of conduct due to registration issues with a consultancy business he runs. No surprise then that Clarion tenants are on a partial rent strike, as yet again housing associations are failing to listen to tenants living in appalling and unsafe conditions.
The housing system is broken, with the wrong kind of housing being built for profit. Tenants are evicted from affordable homes so that they can be developed into expensive rental accommodation, which is now the only tenure available for young people on low and median incomes, who are forced to compete with each other for private insecure tenancies that can take up half or more of their wages.
One protester told us that her daughter had found a modest one-bed apartment in Tottenham listed at £1200 per month, only to find the rent had already been raised to £1300 by the time she phoned to confirm the viewing. As the speakers made clear, this underlying housing crisis can only be fixed by a mass council housing building programme, security of tenure extended to the private rental sector and rent caps applied across all sectors.
It was heartening to see the broad-based support, but not surprising as so many are affected by housing being treated as a commodity for profit rather than a basic human need. Everyone supported a coming together of workers, tenants, unions and campaigners – “We need to build coalitions and stand together” – to demand safe, secure, affordable housing for all, as this is the bedrock of all we value – community, work, family, security and mental health.