Day: November 20, 2020

Organising tenants amidst the pandemic: how direct action still delivers

From ACORN Manchester:

Alone we are weak, but together we are strong. Our belief in this maxim is vital amidst a pandemic which has further exposed the injustices at the heart of society. As ACORN, we’ve shown that grassroots organising not only brings results, but by delivering these together as ordinary people, we advance concrete examples of community solidarity to last beyond the pandemic. 

ACORN’s ‘Member Defence’ teams utilise the collective power of the union to fight alongside fellow members on housing issues, empowering them to take action and win. We do not buy into direct action ‘only as a last resort’ – when already rigged in favour of the rich and powerful, going through the system has both little appeal and often little success. Despite the obvious impediments that Covid-19 guidelines have had on our ability to visit landlords and letting agencies in a big group to demand justice, our teams have displayed impressive creativity with incredible results. So much so, that we now have a prominent pro-bono housing solicitor referring people to us, because it’s clear that we can achieve so much more through people power than the courts. 

During the UK’s nationwide lockdown, and before our Manchester Member Defence Team was formally established, Sabrina’s household was hit with a rental increase of 24%. The household had been devastated financially as a result of the virus; the ability of the tenants to cover their rent, let alone manage an increase, proved a severe challenge. One housemate reached out to ACORN for support, and signed up the rest of the house as members – the root of all our union power is getting each other’s backs; if we get your back, we expect you to have ours too by becoming a member. Collectively, with direction from ACORN, a campaign strategy was drawn up. In the end, the mere threat of union action is all it took for the rental increase to be dropped in its entirety. 

This inspired Sabrina to take an active role in the union, getting trained up to join the first cohort of our Member Defence Team (whilst joining our Community Protection Team against evictions and supporting vulnerable people through our food delivery scheme). Sabrina went on to give talks to other fledgling ACORN branches in the UK, such as ACORN Swindon, sharing her insights, and inspiring them to get their own victories. One simple win transformed a non-member into a passionate leader, committed to solidifying the collective power of renters.  

Early on in the COVID-19 crisis, Sophie lost her job and her Universal Credit payments were not adequate to cover her rent and bills. Sophie, like so many others, started to accrue rent arrears. In June, she contacted ACORN for support. We pride ourselves on empowering our members to take action with the union’s backing, rather than us performing a service for them – this is essential to building a powerful and engaged movement. Accordingly, we worked with Sophie to draw up demands and a strategy to win them. Much of the devised strategy was unnecessary, as once it became clear to the letting agents that Sophie had our backing, they quickly relented to her demands. In the end, all it took was an email from ACORN to secure a £500 arrears reduction and a favourable repayment plan. This relatively easy victory not only made a difference to Sophie, but it strengthened our union; the new team members involved gained experience, and Sophie became another determined member of the team. As long as we continue to ensure that every victory – easy or hard-fought – empowers our members, we can build ACORN into an ever-stronger fighting force. 

In another case, a member came to ACORN after being furloughed and having their repeated requests for assistance to their letting agency ignored. The tenants had been unable to move into the property for a month at the start of the tenancy, despite paying full rent, due to multiple pest infestations and the general uninhabitable state. ACORN members took bold and cunning action alongside the tenants, leaving a flood of negative reviews online, tanking the agency’s ratings. This forced them to the table, and even brought the landlord out of the woodwork. With these avenues of communication open, and the backing of ACORN members, the tenants were able to unearth a series of lies and omissions from the letting agent to both the landlord and themselves, throughout the tenancy. With their deceit laid bare, the letting agency conceded defeat, agreeing to refund the first month’s rent and offer an on-going 20% rent reduction. And yet again, our winning member has joined our Member Defence Team, building our power to get even more wins, and on an even more ambitious scale. 

These are just a handful of wins that the four of us writing this article have helped to organise. When we have been able to all go down in-person to a dodgy letting agency together,we’ve managed to stop a member being taken to the small claims court for rent arrears, and win the cancellation of all his rent debt, worth over £1500. 

ACORN gives members the support and tools they need to stand up for themselves. The growth in membership month on month speaks to how people repay this faith shown in them, allowing ACORN to go from strength to strength in the process. Simply put, there is power in the collective – ACORN intends to remind the masses of this crucial fact. 

Written by Chris Moore, Ethan Green, Jack Yates & Sabrina McDonnell. You can join ACORN here.


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