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‘Housing will be the basis for all change in our country’: an interview with Living Rent

ByPolly Smythe

Apr 29, 2019

When a migrant single mother living with two young children was left with exposed raw sewage in her flat after a workman failed to finish a maintenance job, her letting agency told her to ‘use a bucket of water to pour down the toilet to flush it.’ Faced with a letting agency who claimed to be ‘too busy to send a workman out,’ and left for days without a working toilet, she contacted Living Rent. As soon as Living Rent came on board, the response from the letting agency was immediate.

Living Rent Edinburgh (previously the Private Tenants Action Group), are a branch of Scotland’s tenants’ union. Working like a trade union for renters, they seek to redress the power imbalance between landlords and tenants. Encouraging the collective power of tenants, they believe that people in houses can come together for their own struggles. I sat down with Rory Maclean, a member of Living Rent Edinburgh, to speak about their work. 

Rory explained that Living Rent Edinburgh divide their time between campaign work and member defence. The organisation’s biggest campaign has been the push for workable rent pressure zones. Rent pressure zones are areas where rent limits are set on how much rents are allowed to increase. They were reintroduced to Scotland in the 2016 Private Housing (Tenancies) Act, but Living Rent believe that the bill ‘has basically been unworkable.’ Rory explains that ‘the information you need to get a rent pressure zone doesn’t exist, the government isn’t willing to create it.’  In addition to that, the existing legislation ‘only includes in tenancy rent rises, so it doesn’t protect people who have to move a lot as well, which means it doesn’t protect the lowest in society who are most vulnerable; young people, students aren’t included.’ Living Rent want to reopen the bill to make it easier for rent controls to be applied. Living Rent’s petition, ‘Scotland needs proper rent controls,’ is currently at well over 17,000 signatures. They are also working on a ‘Winter Break’ campaign, working to make it illegal to evict tenants during the coldest months of the year.

A brief scroll down Living Rent Edinburgh’s Facebook page demonstrates the various horrors landlords inflict on tenants, from failing to register deposits with Safety Deposit Scotland, to charging illegal fees. Rory notes that letting agencies commonly breach the same laws: “failing to meet repair standards, to make a home fit for human habitation […] for instance windows not being sealed, holes, mould.” Furthermore, in Scotland, it is illegal to charge any fee in a tenancy. Despite this, Living Rent often see “people asking for administration fees, processing fees, overhead cover costs, landlord reimbursement fees.”

We both agree that the private rental housing market is in an absolute state. Over the last seven years, the average rent for a two-bedroom property in Edinburgh has risen by a third, a rate that more than doubles that of inflation. According to Council data, there is now one Airbnb listing for every 54 residents in Edinburgh. A Freedom of Information request has revealed that in the six months since launching, local authorities have not added a single entry on the government’s new rogue landlord database. We are living with the legacy of Right To Buy, where four in 10 right-to-buy properties are owned by private landlords. There is the devastation caused by gentrification, the diminished stock of council housing, the cruel and arbitrary Bedroom Tax, or the homelessness crisis that has seen more than 440 homeless people die in the UK in the past year alone. Rather than despair at this bleak state of affairs, Rory believes that “housing will be the basis for all change in our country.” Traditionally, housing is a private matter, which makes “people feel small, and they feel unable to take action.” As such, “it is amazing when you see someone come to us, and they lead their case, they’re at the forefront of it.”

Living Rent is just one branch of the international group ACORN, who have branches springing up in Bristol, Brighton, Manchester, Sheffield and Newcastle, and also include the London Renters Union. Does this spread suggest that change is imminent? “I’ve honestly never been involved in something I’ve been so sure will succeed. In the UK now, housing is the radical struggle that change will come from,” Rory replies. He notes that 70 years ago, when tenants unions were commonplace, “it is not a coincidence that we got rid of slum housing, it is not a coincidence that the government were mandated to build housing for its own people.” In 1915, the Glasgow rent strike saw 30,000 residents take action, forcing the Government to introduce the Rent Restriction Act 1915, which imposed rent controls on the private sector. Rory explains that tenants unions are unique as they disrupt the idea that disputes are “between you and your landlord, two individuals,” instead bringing in tens, fifties of people, to build power. The Glasgow branch of Living Rent has resisted evictions from Serco, a billion-dollar multinational company, proving the strength of group action. “When tenants come together, landlords and letting agents get the message.” A few weeks ago, four housemates in Leeds successfully took their landlord to court, with the help of their local branch of ACORN. 

Rory stresses that Living Rent is not a representative body, but a membership body, training “everyone that gets involved with us in the relevant law and how to recognise breaches in the law.” This training empowers members: “Living Rent don’t do it for them, Living Rent do it with them.” Whilst a lot of the work Living Rent does is encouraging tenants to take action against specific landlords, Rory warns against the idea that the problem is simply rouge landlords: “The system doesn’t enable abuse, the system was created to be abused. It is a system created by the propertied class, for the propertied class. It isn’t created for people who don’t own property.” Much of our conversation comes back to this bigger issue, that we see housing as a commodity, not a right. 

Rory notes “Having a house, you have an asset, rather than living in home, you have something you can sell and increase your own capital value.” A big part of it is that “people are sold this idea that when you own a house you have succeeded,” Rory comments, “[then] giving a bad name to the group in society who still use social housing.”

Housing is the struggle that unites us, evident in Living Rent’s motto: “Block by block, street by street, that is how we build power.” Rory ends our interview with the observation: “When people do come together and use their power as a group, they really are unstoppable.” 


Image from Living Rent

By Polly Smythe

Polly is the former President of The Student, having previously been Comment Editor and then Editor-in-Chief.

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