‘We Want a Rent Strike Now’: the People Poised to Take on Their Landlords

by Sophie Hemery

@SophieHemery
4 April 2020
  • Estimated read time: 8 mins

The government has announced a three-month mortgage holiday for property owners, but is yet to announce rent suspensions – despite the fact many have lost much or all of their income.

The only concrete government guidance related to renters is a three-month eviction ban, after which point landlords are free to evict tenants and start proceedings on rent arrears. 

With rent still an obligation, many tenants face pressure to circumvent public health advice and go out to work, if they are able to find any.

Currently, the London Renters’ Union (LRU) is calling for the government to suspend all rent payments immediately in order to protect public health and  prevent an eviction and rent arrears crisis after the lockdown. 

The LRU has started a petition that has reached over 100,000 signatures, and has written to Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, to say that a failure to suspend rent is worsening the public health emergency. 

Many renters are not eligible for the government’s income support schemes – and for those that are, 80% of their income (in June, for the self-employed) may simply not be enough to cover their rent as well as food and other essentials. 

In the absence of government-backed rent relief or rent suspensions in the UK (and in most other places around the world too), people are unable to pay their rent and many say they are ready to go on strike. In some cases people are negotiating with landlords for rent reductions; in others, tenants are already refusing to pay. 

We asked renters about how they feel about going on strike.

Paying rent feels more dangerous even than being evicted“.

Christine, 23, is a bartender in London. 

I was a zero-hours contract hospitality worker who was working two jobs before the crisis hit, and obviously they’re both gone now. One of them has actually furloughed me under the government provision. But that was a job I only did one or two days a week, so I’m getting like £200 a month off it, which is a third of my rent.

My other job has been completely silent on whether or not they’re going to pay us and has advised that we apply for universal credit – I have done, but I have no idea where the application stands right now. I don’t have anywhere near the level of income that I had before the pandemic. When it comes down to choosing to eat or pay rent, I know where my priorities are. 

In my house, four out of six of us are in exactly the same position. Even when benefits come, we know that the way that universal credit is calculated means that it won’t be enough to pay our rent anyway. The two housemates who are still on salaries are supporting everyone else in the house in terms of food and stuff. They also don’t really have the money to pay the rent. So collectively, it’s not going to happen. They’re not going to get the full rent from us. 

We’re going to contact our landlord and ask not pay this month – and not to have debt from it either. Because there’s no situation in which having a full month’s rent worth of debt, or two months’ rent worth of debt, coming out of this crisis, is going to be manageable for any of us. We’re all living hand to mouth. 

Paying rent feels more dangerous even than being evicted down the line [when the eviction moratorium is over], but I want a formal rent strike called because currently it feels like we’re doing this alone – and declaring a rent strike just as a group of six people isn’t a tenable position. The sooner renters are able to collectively organise the better, basically. 

Our landlord will be fine financially if we can’t pay – but I think he’ll tell us we have to pay him back. I think that’ll be his automatic response because the concept of giving money away, or not charging someone to live in a place… It seems like landlords are kind of allergic to that.

We’re hoping that our landlord is not immediately hostile and that he sees the reality of the situation. I hope the general sense of crisis, and the need for support across the country is something that he shares. Otherwise it’s going to become a hostile conversation because none of us can afford to even take on debt, let alone try to pay now.

“We decided we needed to demand something from the landlord”.

Clem, 24, is an actor in London.

Covid has annihilated any work that I had. I’m an actor, and the part-time work I had working with a charity was cancelled – so I now basically have no income at all. I’m not eligible for the government income support, and though I should be able to get universal credit, that isn’t enough for rent plus food. It feels pretty awful.

As soon as I lost my part-time job and my flatmate lost hers, we were kind of worried. We decided we needed to demand something from the landlord, so we sent them a letter outlining what had happened to us due to coronavirus: total loss of income for half of us in the household, and two of us who are unsure about what was going to happen. We sent the letter to our agency, Foxton’s, who got back to us and said they were willing to reduce the rent by half for the next three months.

We’re currently trying to get the landlord to sign a binding agreement because we think that’s really important – in case when the three months are up they go back on what they’ve said and ask us to pay the rest of the rent. It’s hard because the landlord doesn’t want to sign the letter – they don’t want to commit to that. We’ve sought legal advice though, and they’re telling us we need to get them to sign it.

There’s a reason we can’t pay our rent and if landlords don’t lower them to a level we can afford, then I feel it’s our human right to go on a rent strike. But it’s vital that everyone joins a renters’ union to get legal advice and support if there’s an issue.

“It’s only a matter of time before renters get more organised.”

JAZZebell_, 26, is a sex worker in Glasgow. 

I’ve lost over half of my income due to Covid-19, if not more. I was already struggling due to previously being homeless, and not having to pay rent or bills for a very long time. I live in supported housing, and my social landlord was supposed to help me access the benefits I’m entitled to – but the ‘support’ side of my supported housing is just non-existent, even now. 

As a sex worker it’s really hard to access state support, but sex workers are great at supporting each other, and Umbrella Lane – a Glasgow-based organisation – has been so supportive. 

I have a flat to myself, and I’m aware that a lot of people in my block are facing similar issues. So many people have lost their jobs, with very little hope of getting them back. I really believe a charitable housing association should suspend rents even if it hasn’t been laid out by the government. 

I’m in the process of writing a letter to the landlord – not only because I’m just physically unable to to pay due to Covid-19’s impact, but also because my ceiling has had an extensive leak for over two weeks and the only help I’ve been offered is a bucket and a mop. 

I told the landlord verbally that I wouldn’t be paying rent and their reply was, simply: “You can’t do that, you have to pay rent or you’ll be evicted.” Thankfully, the law changed on that. I am worried they’re going to demand back payments once the eviction ban is over, but I know, due to it being a housing association, they are obligated to make sure I have somewhere to live. I know a lot of people aren’t that lucky however. Previously living for years in squats and other unstable housing, I know I’ll be able to survive even if they do evict me.

I am not currently part of any organised rent strike. However I’m inspired by tenants’ unions and their wins – such as the Wyndford Tenants’ Union here in Scotland – and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before renters get more organised. 

“I’m really scared”.

Ellinor, 29, is a barista in London.  

I basically haven’t had any work for the whole of March – and now all of the places I would normally work, like cafes and bars, are shut. I won’t be able to pay my rent because I haven’t made any money. I’m supposedly eligible for Universal Credit, but there are so many complications: the fact I have been in the UK for less than three years; the fact my identity can’t be verified online; and they don’t pick up the phone because all they’re doing now is handling new claims. 

The whole month has been very stressful, and I’m scared because I’m not working – I’m not paying rent this month because I can’t, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to pay the next one either. It’s a bit frightening because I can’t do much about it. I’m applying to whatever work I can, but this whole situation means everything is very slow in terms of employers getting back to you. 

I got in touch with my landlord about two weeks ago, by sending an email explaining my situation, knowing that there was a mortgage holiday for landlords. I said that because of the industry I work in, I haven’t made any money and I won’t be paying rent. I also told the landlord that there isn’t anywhere I can go right now – I’m from Sweden and I’m alone here. The landlord hasn’t been difficult with me yet, but I’m worried they’re going to make me pay my rent debt later – I didn’t get a proper response to that part of my email. 

I would participate in a formal rent strike, but my main priority right now is finding some kind of work. I want to participate in a strike, but I don’t know where I’m going to be in a few weeks, how I’m going to survive. I’m really scared, I’m trying not to panic.

“We’ve had over 200 students pledge to rent strike”.

Tama, 24, is a student in London. 

I’m a graduate student at the London School of Economics. I was staying at a student accommodation owned by a company called Sanctuary Students. I’ve left now, as have a lot of us – partly as it’s so hard to self-isolate in huge communal student blocks. But also, many students have lost  jobs, and some students have had to return home due to caring responsibilities. For some international students, if they’ve left the country, their student loan has become invalid, and they’ve incurred great costs flying home unexpectedly. We’re being forced to pay rent even if we’re not in the building. 

I also left in part because even though we were being made to pay rent still, we had long-unresolved maintenance issues. We’d been reporting plumbing issues for weeks, and finally the sink in our kitchen overflowed, which caused the power to go out in the whole building. I’m now staying with my partner in London, which means I also have to help him with his rent. 

I personally haven’t lost income due to Covid-19, but so many other students have, and are in much scarier situations. A lot of students can’t afford their rent now; it would plunge many of us into debt and be very harmful, including for mental health – so I’m going on a rent strike to show solidarity with them. There is power in numbers.

We’ve teamed up with Liberate the University, a University of London student rent strike, and SOAS, because SOAS students are also staying at Sanctuary Students accommodations. 

So far, we’ve had over 200 students pledge to rent strike, even though it was just called last night. It’s been really inspiring to see the momentum that we’ve been able to get going just from the pure shared goal of needing a solution that won’t plunge us into debt, and leave some of us homeless. The energy has been amazing.

We don’t know how this is going to play out but we’re hopeful that by going on strike we can get our demand to be let out of our contracts met, or even just that they negotiate with us about what can be done moving forward. 

Sophie Hemery is a freelance journalist. In addition to Novara Media she writes for the Guardian, VICE, Open Democracy, CNN, Al Jazeera and Buzzfeed. 

Published 4 April 2020

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