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'Solidarity is a weapon' - addressing the housing crisis together

Acorn members in Bristol successfully resisting an eviction during the pandemic.

This blog was written for this series by Owain Smolović Jones, director of the OU’s Research into Employment, Empowerment and Futures academic centre of excellence and senior lecturer in the Department for People and Organisations, Sanela Smolović Jones, director of the OU’s Gendered Organisational Practice research cluster and lecturer in the Department for People and Organisations and Kulsoom Jafri, an Acorn member and trade union organiser. It explores how resistance to the lifting of the UK evictions ban is being organised.

As the UK government’s evictions ban nears its end, with only four weeks remaining (as announced on 21 August 2020 by Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick), we face the horrifying prospect of thousands of people being made homeless amidst the ravages of a deadly pandemic. COVID-19 has been especially cruel to people in rented accommodation, who tend to live in more cramped, less healthy and often hazardous conditions, and the backlog of eviction cases awaiting the re-opening of the courts will cause further anxiety. Furthermore, years of cuts to local government, combined with the latest huge cash shortfall, mean that, try as civic leaders with goodwill might, it is unrealistic to expect that councils will be able to absorb and solve a large rise in homelessness, even using temporary bed and breakfast and shelter accommodation. Even if you have little sympathy with people facing homelessness, perhaps you might be bothered by warnings from doctors and health officials that the incoming wave of evictions could cause a more general spike in COVID-19 cases. Such a danger is perhaps even more pertinent for women, who are being increasingly pushed into homelessness by an alarming surge in domestic abuse. So, what can be done organisationally to protect the sanity and lives of so many people who face the imminent prospect of being without a home?

We think it is useful to differentiate between higher-order solutions and grassroots solutions, as well as between short-term and long-term solutions. Thinking about the short-term of the coming days, clearly a national campaign to raise awareness and that tries to pressure the government into another U-turn, much as we have already seen in this COVID-19 crisis with school meals and exam results, is much needed. Here we can look to the collaborative campaign of the Ride Out Recession Alliance (RORA), which has brought together an impressive array of organisations such as Shelter, Unilever, Generation Rent, The Big Issue and the National Skills Agency. RORA is calling for an extension of the evictions ban but also for longer-term action on job creation and re-skilling, particularly with an aim to build far more social housing (an issue that despite some recent attempts, has, tragically, failed to gain much traction with the public).

We want to argue, however, that as essential as campaigns such as these are, they are not enough. In addition, we need a solution that works from the bottom-up to educate, organise and inspire tenants and their allies to transform the way in which housing is thought of and practiced. This may seem like a daunting task but the blueprint is already there in the form of trade unionism and community organising. There is a strong case to be made that the motor of history is driven not by powerful executives and political leaders but by the pressure exerted on the status quo by trade unionists and social movements, whose organising gave us a welfare state, health service and, once upon a time, an ample supply of council housing.

To understand why trade unionism and community organising offer a longer-term solution we also need to identify the problem we are trying to solve and that is the increasing commodification of housing. Creeping commodification has meant a steady but dramatic decrease in the supply of council housing combined with spiralling costs of home ownership and rent. It is the young, vulnerable and least well off who bear the brunt of an exploitative system that lines the pockets of landlords and lettings agents while draining the bank accounts and options of tenants. These forces and trends have not arrived out of the blue but have been normalised through decades of legislation, inaction and propaganda, from government policy to soft lifestyle television programmes and newspaper features that position housing as investment rather than home. So the organisational response must be equally distributed and culturally appealing.

Building organisational alternatives

During the pandemic we have been interviewing members and organisers of the community union Acorn and sitting in on some of its online meetings. Acorn and similar organisations, such as the London Renters Union, offer a glimpse of an exciting and sustainable model to drive longer-term, systemic change in UK housing. Like workplace trade unions, Acorn works from the ‘shop floor’ – the street level – upwards, to bring people together to identify local campaigns that will enhance social justice – and it is no surprise that housing consistently emerges as the primary issue. With both union and community organising, the defining ethos is that people already have the solutions to their own problems but that these can only be unleashed by coming together in a purposeful collective, which is facilitated by the tactical know-how of organisers who have developed expertise through study and experience. In turn, new organisers and leaders continuously emerge from a pool of growing membership and are developed through training and taking on tasks such as supporting tenants with problems, researching problematic landlords and organising campaigns.

As with workplace unions, Acorn can also be forthright and confrontational. We can see this most clearly in its actions to protest exploitative and predatory landlords and letting agents, as well as its eviction resistance events. The union will organise protests outside lettings agency offices, as well as outside the homes and businesses of predatory landlords. It also organises and trains for resistance to evictions, with members blocking access to homes so that the bailiffs are unable to enter. These events are visually striking and provide a direct route for people to exercise agency in a world where autonomy over your life can feel like a fleeting, even unattainable experience.

These kinds of actions present three organisational benefits. First, they generate enthusiasm amongst people who might watch videos of actions on social media or television news, share them amongst friends and perhaps even join the union themselves. Second, they communicate power – the surest way of demonstrating to wealthy and powerful people that you can defeat them is by doing just that. Experiencing picket lines and winning campaigns is liberating for people who have spent years being told – subtly and not so subtly – that they deserve nothing more than unhealthy and insecure housing, as well as, no doubt, precarious conditions at work and a cruel benefits system. We have seen first-hand how union members can grow exponentially as people during a campaign, from being meek and self-conscious to walking three feet taller, achieving things in their personal and professional lives that would have been previously unthinkable. Third and most importantly, these actions build solidarity. That most elusive of concepts, yet one rich with potential, solidarity is a word for describing a heady cocktail of forces and feelings: the feeling of loyalty and emotional attachment we hold towards diverse others even if we come from radically different backgrounds; the knowledge that people we stand in solidarity with can be trusted to have our backs and not crumble under pressure from power; and, finally and most importantly, an ongoing commitment to building the confidence and agency of every ally. When these elements come together we enter the sweet spot of collective strength and individual expression and capability: these feed one another and can snowball into a force for transformative change.

Community mutual aid

Not all of Acorn’s solidarity building activity is as ostentatious as eviction resistance actions. During the pandemic its members have designed and implemented a comprehensive system of community mutual aid, where an Acorn member would do your shopping or walk your dog if you were shielding. Indeed, where other similar initiatives have faltered, Acorn’s efforts have persisted and more established organisations have turned to it for access to its organisational reach and membership. In academic terms, this is performative organising – walking the talk and making an organisation’s values a reality through action. Such performative organising is significant because it establishes trust and grows networks, which will now be essential as the union prepares for its busiest ever period – the wave of upcoming evictions. Professionally, patiently and quietly the union has been building a network of community protection teams, ready to advocate on behalf of members facing eviction and, when needed, ready to protest and blockade.

So if you are despairing at the images on social media and news of people losing their homes in the coming days, weeks and months, it is a useful exercise to think to yourself not only what can be accomplished in the short-term by fighting the lifting of the evictions ban but also what you can do to help organise a longer-term, sustainable alternative to the current rigged housing system. Unfortunately, currently the leadership of either of the UK’s major political parties do not seem particularly serious about tackling the housing crisis and we should note that both Labour and Conservative governments of recent decades have either failed to greatly improve the situation or made it considerably worse for renters. But as any advocate of collective leadership knows, it is always unhealthy to invest too much energy in hoping an elite few will solve our problems. If people want things to change, they need to do the hard work themselves – organise and unionise - because, to adopt one of Acorn’s maxims, solidarity is a weapon.  

Photo: Acorn members in Bristol successfully resisting an eviction during the pandemic.