In 1915 in Govan, just south of the river Clyde in Glasgow, bands of women torpedoed flour bombs at creeping eviction enforcers from the towering windows of their tenements. Exasperated by increasingly predacious landlords and the rising rate of evictions for those that couldn’t make their rent, and armed with a sound understanding of the sticky power of flour in the UK’s rainiest city, the women organised. A carefully coordinated eight month rent strike followed, and working class women paved the way for the Rent Restrictions Act 1915, Britain’s first form of rent control.
Such regulation of private landlords survived throughout the majority of the 20th century, and maintained a delicate balance of power between them and renters. The costs facing private tenants grew roughly in line with those of buyers. Rents, on the whole, were affordable. Margaret Thatcher soon sorted this, however, when in 1988 she introduced the Housing Act which deregulated the private rental sector and effectively killed off rent control in the UK.
Thanks also to financial deregulation and easy credit, houses became not only homes but huge money-makers for those with spare cash. A long term increase in house prices ensued and since 1998 houses prices have leapt from five to ten times average earnings. The UK is struggling to deal with the consequences, as the bloated profits of private landlords have propped up the slow growth of an otherwise hollow economy, and the scores of renters helping pay off those landlord’s cheaply credited mortgages have lost out. Much of the rhetoric from politicians still fits within an aspirational homeowner narrative, where voters are told their ultimate goal should be to transcend the renter’s quagmire through hard work and home ownership. But with house prices rising out of reach and with wages stagnant, the old idea of progression from renter-to-buyer is fading on the horizon, crowded out by the yachts of speculative investors and buy-to-let landlords. A coalition of London-based housing groups have been working out how best to protect tenants in this new permanent rental paradigm.
The Renter’s Power Project (RPP) came together in 2016 to think about how to develop a sense of collective identity for renters: as a basis for organising, as a platform for developing bargaining power, as a means to winning increased legal protection for renters and, ultimately, as a way to transform the housing market. Constituted by an ecology of members working at various levels of housing and community campaigning, from national government lobbyists to local eviction resistance groups, the aim is to help renters realise their own collective power.