Comment: We need a London Renters Union to represent tenants in the housing crisis

As rent soars ahead of pay, it's time for renters to organise, argues Sian Berry


With the race for London mayor entering its last few weeks, nowadays I’m out pretty much every night of the week at the various hustings events that communities and specialist interest groups have been holding all over London.

Last Tuesday it was the turn of the campaign group Generation Rent, which had organised a London Renters’ Hustings at Conway Hall, the long-standing radical meeting place in Holborn.

Given that private renting is now the biggest tenure in London and the price of rent is soaring way ahead of pay, you’d expect all the candidates to take the event seriously.

Think again. Amazingly, I was the only one to attend. I don’t mean I was alone on the platform – the other parties sent representatives and some of them were knowledgeable, committed and able people.

But it speaks volumes that none of the other candidates for mayor, in a city where private renters are suffering more than anyone from a housing crisis which all polls say is the number one issue for voters, bothered to prioritise this hustings.

As a private renter myself, I know that rent rises, insecurity, and moving house every few years take their toll. It’s bad enough for me as someone on an average income without children. I can’t imagine how the many families now renting in our insecure market cope when they have children in school.

Nearly a million households in London, with 2.3 million people living in them, now rent privately – and a key pledge in the campaign manifesto I launched yesterday is to set up a London Renters Union to automatically represent them.

Inspired by ‘Mrs Barbour’s Army’ – the mainly women-led households who organised against their landlords in Glasgow during the First World War and forced the government to pass the Rent Restriction Act – it would be funded and supported by a Green-run City Hall.

It would help renters organise to rein in private rents and expose rogue lettings agents. Working together with existing groups and campaigns, it would also provide advice to individual tenants facing problems, and give private renters a stronger voice to lobby for new policies from the mayor, local councils and the government.

Of course we desperately need the government to bring in root-and-branch reforms to address the problems faced by a private renters, who have seen average rents rise 11 percent in London since 2012 while average pay has risen just 1 percent.

That’s why I have been lobbying MPs and the chancellor to introduce legislation allowing the Mayor of London to bring in rent controls and give us the power to replace Assured Shorthold Tenancies with much better contracts and stronger protection for tenants.

Berlin has already done this – largely to avoid the kind of housing crisis we have in London – and it’s high time we had the powers to do the same.

But with the end of a tenancy now the leading cause of homelessness in London, the problem is urgent and Greens at City Hall won’t just sit and wait for those reforms at national level. We will help renters to help themselves immediately.

A renters’ union would work alongside the Community Homes Unit and the not-for-profit housing company that I would set up to help communities make their own plans, and to help small developers, co-ops and councils make the very most of all our public land to get more homes more quickly.

The other thing we need is to stop ripping down the council estates – such as Ham Close in Richmond, Sweets Way in Barnet, West Kensington and Gibbs Green in Hammersmith, the Silchester Estate in Kensington and Chelsea, and Central Hill and Cressingham Gardens in Lambeth – where residents are fighting to save their homes.

These so-called regenerations are designed to favour big developers over the residents, and as the quota of social rented housing falls, the net effect is to push even more people into the private rented sector.

Organising that sector cannot come a moment too soon.

Sian Berry is the Green candidate for Mayor of London and the party’s lead candidate for the London Assembly

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