How do we fix housing in Hackney? Last week Digs hosted a discussion with people in Hackney to figure out what needs to change. By the time we’d finished there was plenty to fill more than a few walls!
The event was kicked off by two experienced and fiercely committed activists; Lisa MacKenzie, rebel ethnographer and LSE researcher and Heather Kennedy, founder of Digs. Both activists shared a frustration that housing policy seemed to reflect the needs of investors and markets rather than the needs of people.
For MacKenzie, the cruelty of London’s housing situation seemed more inhuman than the austerity imposed on estates in the North and in the Midlands where’s she’s carried out research into community and class inequality. The main reason for this she said was one of community. While those outside London suffer from austerity, often they still have access to a strong sense of community and belonging. In London, with its rapid churn in renters and its constant evictions of social tenants, community seems to no longer factor as important in housing policy. Governments and developers in London she said have no problem tearing communities apart. We wondered if this was because you can’t easily put a price tag on the value community has in people’s lives and to society overall.
MacKenzie used to make policy suggestions to politicians, but they only ever seemed interested in the suggestions that could make evictions more palatable. Now she suggests activists need to focus on speaking, not to politicians who have long ago stopped listening but to each other. Residents she said needed to work together to build power and find our own solutions to protect our homes and communities.
Kennedy and other Hackney renters set up Digs in response to the injustices in private renting. She has drawn similar conclusions about going down the orthodox routes of solving the housing crisis. Meeting after meeting with policy makers, MPs and housing officials proved time and time again that the market was being placed above the needs of the people.
Suggestions of rent caps or increases in renters’ rights, which are the norm in cities from New York to Berlin, were seen as potentially “scaring the horses” – the horses being the landlords, whose security was put above all. Activists in Digs also concluded that the market was simply never going to deliver for renters and change needed to come from renters making their demands clear. You can read more about Kennedy’s thoughts on private renting and the evolution of Digs in her Guardian interview: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/apr/22/heather-kennedy-digs-private-renters-rights-campaign-group
People shared the problems they’d experienced with housing in Hackney and London; they spoke about rent increases, the sale of social housing, letting agents fees, benefit cuts, discrimination, landlord’s financial incentive to evict, a fear of landlords and an overall lack of rights for rents that prevented reporting repairs. The list went on and on.
A feeling of anger and hopelessness descended with all of the problems out in the open. There seemed to be an inevitability that families would be forced out of their neighbourhoods, and London altogether, and replaced by more mobile and fiscally equipped incomers. Few renters could remember a time before landlord could double rents on a whim, ignore all health hazards and evict their tenants because of discrimination, personal disagreement or financial incentive.
But then we started to build consensus around the solutions. From despair came resolve. With much animated and loud discussion, the group came up with these three main demands:
- Increase tenants’ rights to resolve the imbalance of power between landlords and tenants, starting with the repeal of Section 21 (no fault evictions).
- Rent control now – not just caps on increases, but real control with decreases across London.
- Compulsory purchases of homes that have stood empty , which will increase sales, renting stock or council housing.
These were the other suggestions people came up with to solve the housing crisis:
- End to all discrimination; social, economic, racial, class, sexuality, gender, disability, that is enforced across the board, including the end of DSS restrictions.
- Abolish for-profit letting agents.
- Scrap Buy to Let.
- Scrap Right to Buy.
- Establish homes as for people, not for profit.
- Have no development that is not community led and approved.
- Implement indefinite tenancies.
- Have no evictions through developments – all tenants to be rehoused back in the community they were during and post development.
These demands will now be brought to our newly elected MPs, and will constantly feed into our attempts to influence Hackney Council. But above all they are a starting point, malleable and changeable, to enter the second phase of private renters activism for Digs and our allies. They will bring together renters and communities around a common cause to fight for the right to a safe and affordable home that has been so easily ignored by policy makers. They will start a discussion that will engage renters in standing up for all their shared and individual needs.
Having come up with these demands, are we going to sit by and trust in our politicians to make them happen? No! We need as many of you as possible to join the movement for housing justice and hold our elected representatives to account. To get involved with making these demands happen, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org