Category Archives: rent strike

Gyms, tiny rooms and massive rent – what we learned about student housing at MIPIM.

by Pearl Ahrens, UCL Cut the Rent

While some of us were outside MIPIM asking delegates to Give Us Back Our Fucking Rent!, others were inside seeing what deals were being done, what people were saying – and what’s going to happen to housing in this country.

Private rental sector and excusing higher rents.

“[We’ll see a] total convergence in real estate generally of housing and the rental sector, of life, work and play not as separate sectors”.

This, according to Matt Yeoman, Director BuckleyGrayYeoman, is the direction of travel for the private rental sector (PRS). He was speaking on a panel about the ‘Future of student housing’.

The upshot of this panel? The future of the PRS is about an increasing similarity with hotels and the hospitality industry. Making renting not about just having a place to live, but about providing a whole inclusive life-experience from the apartment block. This will have a knock-on effect on the private student accommodation sector, and that in turn will impact university-owned halls.

Property providers know the housing crisis is something they have created – Bruce Ritchie, CEO at Residential Land spoke of the “frustration of aspiring young people… most people know where they want to live, it’s just whether they can afford it”. And so, they reap the benefits of their own actions by renting instead of selling, by using the provision of extra services as an excuse to raise rents even further. In the private rental sector, ‘affordable’ doesn’t mean affordable. Affordable Rent means “subject to rent controls that require a rent of no more than 80% of the local market rent (including service charges, where applicable)”[1]

End of halls

Students who don’t get into university-owned halls end up in the private rental sector – a far cry from the ‘halls experience’ where they meet their friends and have the traditional first year of university. Phillip Hillman, chair of JLL UK Alternatives, sees this as a gap in the “immature” private rental market which private student accommodation is filling. For providers, private student accommodation is a great investment – it’s like the fast-growing private rental sector but with a more stable, Brexit-resilient stream of available tenants. Again, the idea is to provide lots of hospitality and built-in services – group study spaces, gyms etc. and cut back on everything else. That students can’t afford these premium apartments is a nuisance providers get around – according to Richard Gabelich, CEO at UK Campus Living Villages (CLV) with this “big focus on affordability, you can get away with smaller bedrooms if you’ve got great study space”. Companies like Richard’s are taking advantage of this opportunity at an extraordinary rate – the proportion of student accommodation administered by private providers went from 18% in 2006 to 41% in 2015/16.[2]. The trend towards providing other services also exists here, as Matt Yeoman said at the panel – “It’s entirely hospitality driven. [If not, it] will fail. [If we keep] upping the bar, [we] will be fine”

This drift towards hospitality ventures means private student accomodation, with these stark takeover rates, are ‘leading’ the way.  “Every PRS scheme we are working on feels like student housing eight to ten years ago”, Yeoman also said.

The problem with all this isn’t simply the provision of social spaces. It’s the social spaces being offered as a ‘luxury option’ and the hike in rents which this necessarily entails. This increase in rent is supposedly legitimised by the expansion of the provision of services, though there’s nothing to stop private student accommodation providers raising the rents to a price above and beyond what it costs to provide those services, and way above and beyond what most students can afford before they are forced to live in dire poverty.

How this relates to universities.

On the part of the universities, it’s difficult to provide enough spaces for all their students in the halls they own, and with gross underfunding from the government, the halls’ rents seem like the perfect source of income, ready and available to tap.The mere existence of private student accommodation allows universities like UCL to excuse their extortionate rents, driving up prices in all accommodation. For example, UCL over-prices all its accommodation to make a surplus which they plough back into the UCL Estates pot. While ‘higher quality means higher price’ attitude of private student accommodation providers is to be expected, one would expect better of universities, considering their duty to students.

If universities were properly funded by the government they wouldn’t have to scrape the pockets of their students to find research funding. However, with talk of lifting the £9000 cap, and with top unis like UCL actively lobbying for less funding from the government, it’s unlikely that they will be adequately funded any time soon. UCL’s former Provost Malcolm Grant was quoted advocating lifting the then £3000 cap all the way back in 2006, so to think that lifting the (now £9000) cap on tuition fees is a sustainable or just solution to funding problems is absurd.

Some of the time, universities and private providers work directly together – in public-private partnerships. The trick of underfunding the public sector until it needs to be ‘saved’ by the private one is at play here, and was acknowledged by the panel. Hillman said that underfunded universities run halls with “half [of student accommodation] well below the standard that universities say is desirable, and the universities have no money, [so] they look to the private sector”. Gabelich, too is fully aware of the difficult situation the government put universities in. He mentioned how the cap on tuition fees is generating funding worries for universities, so private student accomodation provides “an avenue in which they can get capital from the private sector to invest in other areas (like research)… universities are cottoning on more and more to that”.

[1] http://planningguidance.communities.gov.uk/blog/policy/achieving-sustainable-development/annex-2-glossary/

[2] http://www.nusconnect.org.uk/resources/nus-unipol-accommodation-costs-survey-2015

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/student-judges-student-accomodation-awards_uk_580f0d40e4b0f479c0d79810

Student Housing – the facts

Check out our infographic on the reality of student housing. No wonder grads had to ask MIPIM delegates for spare change, or camp out in Unite’s offices.

MIPIM – Give us back our f***ing rent!

by Harriet Vickers, Housing Action Greenwich and Lambeth, Katya Nasim and Becka Hudson, Radical Housing Network @radicalhousing  

We’re in the midst of a global housing crisis – and MIPIM is the command centre. A motley crew of private developers, speculators, politicians and councils gathered today in West London at property show MIPIM, only to be met by graduates holding collection boxes, saying ‘Give Us Our F****ing Rent Back!’, just one of the eye catching protests for housing justice that took place across the city.

MIPIM is an exclusive marketplace where public land and property that should be used to provide truly affordable homes is secretly sold off – or even given away. With a ticket price of £500, and with many deals being done around champagne-laden dinner tables few people know exactly what is said between universities and investors. When these deals do become public the consequences are stark with private halls costing students an average of £1212 a month – more than their student loan.

With a session entitled ‘Student Housing: Coming of Age’, our efforts this year focus on the ‘financialisation’ of student housing.

It is becoming routine that people who want to get an education in the UK must accept living in poverty whilst private companies bloat their rent and rake in millions a year.

Student halls are now prime investment opportunities, with £5.2 billion invested in the sector in just the first five months of 2015. Universities are acquiescing to this – selling so much accommodation that private landlords now make up 41% of all student housing provision and, as negotiated at events like MIPIM, this number is rising.

Whilst investors profit from the land-giveaway, ordinary people are being evicted, priced out of their communities, forced to live in poverty and made to live on the streets. Here’s why we protested MIPIM and what it means for students…

1.If the dodgy deals at MIPIM continue, only the very richest students will be able to get an education:

NUS research shows that the average student halls use up 95% of a student loan, leaving students with small amounts of cash to cover all living expenses, including food, clothes, travel and books. If student housing continues to be sold off at MIPIM, the only people who will be able to survive in higher education will be the richest people who can easily access significant extra financial support.

2. MIPIM is anti-democratic and unaccountable, and it makes student housing just like it: Over half of all universities don’t consult with students when setting rents, and almost half have no policies on supporting low income students with their rent. As they sell off housing to private companies with no accountability to students, these problems only gets worse, narrowing the scope for students to have their say and leaving them shut out of decisions that can drive them into poverty.

3.MIPIM means housing is bought only to be left empty. There are nearly 60,000 empty homes in London while almost 50,000 households are homeless, relying on temporary accommodation such as B&Bs. The number of young people sleeping rough in the capital has doubled in the last five years and the number of rough sleepers as a whole is higher than ever. Squatters and council tenants with a spare bedroom face sanction – while investors are free to leave their properties empty, waiting for the price to rise.

4.Developers say they’re giving students choice, when they are forcing them into poverty: At the moment, students are left with an average of £851 a year to spend on all living expenses after rent. Private accommodation already costs more than university owned alternatives. The more halls sold to private investors at MIPIM, the less money students will have to survive.

5.MIPIM means housing is used for greed, not need. The international property fair began over 25 years ago, and now meets regularly in Cannes, Japan and London. Investors buy up public land of all stripes for developments not intended as homes, but as piggy-banks for multinational investors.

There is an alternative. The anti-MIPIM demo was organised by the Radical Housing Network and UCL Cut The Rent.

The first is a network that brings together over 30 grassroots groups to demand that housing is a right not a privilege, and to fight against social cleansing and for decent homes for all. UCL Cut The Rent are the campaign for lower rent at University College London, whose success with rent strikes this year is galvanising cut the rent campaigns with students across the country.

Today, we forced delegates to face those affected by the housing crisis they are creating.

Today’s demo is part of a housing movement that’s building across Europe, linked to The European Action Coalition for the Right to Housing and the City. Trade unionists, tenants, campaigners and students are coming together, join us to ensure no people are without homes, and no homes are without people.

3 ideas for a rent strike

Following on from Ben’s call to action, here are some reflections on how to develop a genuinely effective rent strike, from Hackney Digs. If you’d like to share any thoughts on rent strikes, get in touch with rentstrikenow@gmail.com

rent strike

1. The safety net needs to be put up before anyone has to step out on to the tightrope.

At the presentation of the fantastic film ‘Si se puede’ at the PEER gallery in March, one of the speakers described how he had faced eviction and gone to his first meeting of the PAH (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca). He powerfully recounted how he had been given two promises by those he met there: 1. You will never be alone and 2. You will never have to sleep on the street.

Some kind of solidarity infrastructure needs to precede any actual striking, and people who will not be in the firing line during the first wave of striking, or people who may not need to strike at all, need to sign up as volunteers and make specific promises to house others who may be evicted, (“I can take two people for 6 weeks”) so that people can be paired up ahead of time and reassured that they will be supported if they need it.

2. Identify and mass against a specific enemy

It would be far more effective to identify a single rich landlord, (ideally a Tory MP who receives millions in Housing Benefit), and to attempt to network amongst his tenants and persuade as many of them as possible to strike at one time. Obviously, the set of people willing at present to take action as drastic as striking is likely to be small. The chance of finding people in this small set who also sharing a common landlord is not great. The intersection in the Venn diagram: ‘shares enemy’ and ‘shares motivation to strike’ may have only a few members. However, if such an overlap can be found, and momentum can be built around it, there is an enhanced chance of scoring a concrete win in the short term: it is much more likely to be feasible to force a specific landlord to cut his losses (court costs, bad publicity, cash flow crisis caused by immediate loss of income etc.) and take a rent reduction (see below), and as New Era showed, there is nothing that builds confidence and momentum like victory.

3. Every tenancy is a social tenancy

When the PAH take over and squat bank-owned buildings to rehouse people as part of their obra social (social work) programme they fix a social rent and ensure that the people moving into the blocks immediately begin paying it. Normally this is set at between 1/3 and ¼ of the person’s wages. Although complete non-payment in the short term may be effective to force the landlord to the negotiating table, I think a powerful generalisable demand that will gain resonance, is the insistence that housing costs should never exceed 1/3 of a household’s income.1 It links housing costs to wages, is inclusive of all tenants and amounts to bottom up direct action enforcement of a completely respectable and totally achievable rent-capping policy. Perhaps strikers could pay their social rent into a separate bank account, with an assurance to the landlord that he will get it all straightaway, the minute he caves in and agrees to fixing rents at this level henceforth.

1. Or 30%? Or 25% – This may require specifying more precisely. Data is provided at p.61 of the GLA Housing in London 2014 report, (albeit from 2011-12 that is probably now out of date), but points out that there are various ways of counting household income: “ Looking only at the income of the household reference person and their partner and excluding benefits, the typical private renter in London spends 46% of their income on housing costs, compared to 41% for social tenants and 16% for owner occupiers with mortgages. But many private renting households include more than two earners, and taking the income of all household members into accounts brings the figure for private renters down to 38%, while taking benefits into account lowers it
again to 36%.

London: It’s time for a rent strike

By Ben Beach, originally published on Vice

There are two types of vehicles that strike a particular fear into the heart of London’s neighbourhoods: police vans and Foxtons Minis. Synonymous with gentrification, the Foxtons car represents the vanguard of the housing crisis, expanding sky-high rents into fresh territory; “discovering” an area before returning to the ubiquitous plasticky offices and their smarmy drinks fridges to market another slice of the city at exorbitant prices.

In an age when you can’t trust what politicians tell you, the fortunes of Foxtons’ share price offers an unintentionally honest barometer of current housing policy. Just hours after the Conservative election victory, Foxtons’ share price had surged by 13 percent. It seems reasonable to assume the housing crisis will soon follow the Labour Party in reaching “Defcon Fucked”.

When so many of us are already anxiously asking the question, “Where are we going to live?”, the triumphant rally of Foxtons makes clear which side of the property market will benefit from the present administration. With inheritance instead of wages once again the real decider of lifetime wealth, it’s probably not going be you. International real estate consultants Cluttons are predicting rent hikes of nearly 20 percent in the next five years – with a 25 percent increase in renters forecasted for the same period. With prices already unaffordable for so many, just how socially damaging this outcome will be is already apparent. We quite literally cannot afford to let these forecasts become reality.

The origins of the present housing crisis are as varied as they are complex. David Harvey suggests they can be traced back directly to the recessions of the 1970s and the neo-liberal economic restructuring that happened afterwards.

As manufacturing industries collapsed across Western economies, traditional investment opportunities disappeared, leaving phenomenal amounts of money all dressed up with nowhere to go. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher’s monumental privatisation of state-owned land and housing stocks, coupled with the removal of currency controls, saw this surplus capital flood into urban property markets. Instead of providing homes for everyone, the function of Britain’s housing switched, and it became an international investment opportunity promoted by successive governments, promising little risk and lavish returns.

The soaring inflation of property that resulted has become the basis for increasingly abstract financial jiggery-pokery; spawning secondary and tertiary markets in complex debt products, securitised on our homes and neighbourhoods. With these markets worth trillions of pounds, financial institutions are so tied up in them that any collapse in property prices risks triggering another 2008-style economic crash.

Put simply: the maintenance of the current financial system depends upon you having to pay eye-watering rent for an eyesore of a house.

A housing campaigner in Clapham, South London (Photo by Chris Bethell)

Away from the spreadsheets, the story of Hoxton’s New Era Estate provides a potent illustration of what the financialisation of our homes looks like in reality. Built in the 1930s by a charity intent on providing decent housing for all, New Era is home to 93 families living on an island of controlled rent amidst a sea of gentrification – making it a perfect target for investment. In 2014, notorious New York investment firm Westbrook Partners spotted the opportunity for some quick cash and bought the estate, planning to refurbish the flats and triple the rents from £800 to £2,400 a month. Unable to afford the astronomical increases, the tenants were handed eviction notices weeks before Christmas.

It’s difficult to imagine the full intensity of the stress and desperation that must take hold when you are a single parent, a carer for a stroke patient, a pensioner or a young family, suddenly informed that you are to be violently forced from your home, your support networks and your life. But it’s not difficult to understand why under the present government, cases like the New Era one are becoming the norm: Westbrook’s initial partner on the deal was Richard Benyon – a Tory MP.

In the run up to the general election the Conservative party received huge donations from scores of property moguls: Lord Fink – a director of a real estate investment company – has personally contributed more than £3.1 million, while a developer named David Rowland has contributed £3.4 million. Elite donors such as these are invited to partake in the “Conservative Property Forum”, a little known dining club with access to senior politicians. Presumably, for £3 million, they talk about something a little more substantial than the weather.

Little wonder then, that for all the talk of free market economics, state intervention in the housing market has seldom been higher. It has never been more apparent who really benefits from this. Between 2010 and 2014 alone, the social housebuilding budget was slashed from £2.3 billion to £1.1 billion, yet the government spent over £115 billion on subsidising the profits of private landlords through tax breaks, build-to-let schemes and housing benefit. The scale of government subsidy to the housing market is so vast that the entire country’s monetary policy is geared towards it: the Bank of England’s £375 billion quantitive easing programme is specifically designed to keep interest rates low enough to avoid any slowdown.

The current housing minister – alongside one in four MPs – is himself a landlord, working for a party significantly funded by landlords. Thinking that the government is going to directly undermine its own economic interests by lowering rents is farcical. If we want to see any meaningful action, we are going to have to do it ourselves.

While the contemporary housing crisis is particular to the present, Britain has faced periods of intense housing struggle before. In 1915, tenants across Glasgow found themselves facing astronomical rent hikes for their slum accommodation. The response was swift: housewives across the city bound together to declare a rent strike – they simply refused to pay their rent.

As landlords instructed bailiffs to evict the strikers, housewives spied on their movements across the city, operating en masse to prevent evictions taking place. If an eviction was successful, the strikers would immediately reopen the house, reinstating the family and their furniture and getting into fist fights with any policeman who attempted to intervene. As support for the strike swelled, soldiers were confined to their barracks out of fears they would defect. The result was that rent controls were introduced across the city.

Far from being an isolated incident, the success of the Glasgow rent strike saw the tactic added to a common repertoire of dissent in times of housing stress. Colin Ward, a noted housing commentator, believed that a society based on profit will never provide housing that working people can afford – precisely because that doesn’t generate profit . The answer, he claimed, was to take immediate action to force the hand of the state. He puts the widespread social housing construction that happened after the Second World War in part down to a massive, countrywide rent strike that happened in 1938.

The effectiveness of rent strikes in reducing inordinate housing costs makes them a tactic that increasingly cannot be ignored. The Sheiks and oligarchs who are putting their loot in British housing markets are doing so because of a favourable political climate that creates a stable environment for investment at a time of international uncertainty. Anything that undermines this sense of stability – even the simple threat of rent strikes – will likely have far-reaching consequences.

The notion of rent strikes is becoming increasingly plausible, in no small part because they’re already happening. Sick of conditions described as “unbearable”, hundreds of students at four Central London halls of residents have withheld rent over grievances ranging from appalling facilities, cockroaches and rodent infestation to incessant noise from building works .

While two of the halls comprised largely of SOAS students ended their strike having successfully won compensation from their landlords, UCL management have resorted to threats of evictions and exclusion from the university. But it is increasingly likely this will backfire, with groups including the Radical Housing Network pledging to shut down UCL’s all-important open day to prospective students on the 3rd of July unless the strikers’ demands are met.

The success of the protesters at the New Era Estate shows that these struggles can be won. As Lindsey Garrett, a resident and single parent, stated at the beginning of the campaign, “When you’re a mother, if you’re backed into a corner you have no choice but to fight your way out.” The residents did just that, publicly forcing Westbrook to sell the estate to a social housing provider – who immediately froze the rents.

Leaflets arguing for a rent strike at a recent London demonstration (Photo by Chris Bethell)

In Spain, the PAH movement sought to bring an end to the housing crisis afflicting the country through resisting evictions, shutting down banks and re-occupying empty homes. Since the beginnings of the movement several years ago, the grassroots campaign has gone from strength to strength: one of its key activists has just been elected mayor of Barcelona on a platform on halting evictions.

This could happen in London, too. Lindsey Garrett has stated her intention to run for mayor in 2016 on a housing platform. If a large-scale street movement uses rent strikes to win against landlords, it is not inconceivable that she could win office and back up the street mobilisations with decent policy.

At a time when the situation is already intolerable, it is clear that the only action from a government of landlords will be to accelerate the housing crisis rather than solve it. But as the nascent social movement that has developed over the last five years begins to display a more mature range of strategies, the housing crisis could soon be over.

If we want to build a democratic movement sufficient to the task, we need to start a conversation in earnest. Today it is announced that the rents now average £1,500 a month in London and have increased by 12.5 percent nationally – there is little time to waste.