Two years into the Brighton Solidarity Federation Housing Union, we've had another busy year of working collectively to push back against the city's continuing housing crisis. In this article, we look back on actions and initiatives from the last 12 months and consider our attempts to maintain the momentum of 2017-18 by adopting different strategies and taking on different cases.
The Housing Union in 2018-19
Brighton SolFed started a housing campaign in June 2017, a little over two years ago, in the hope of developing a group of people keen to challenge the poor conditions and high cost of rental property in the city, as well as the dodgy practices of landlords and letting agencies. The problems with rental property have continued to mount up; rental prices have increased 30 per cent since 2011, and the exploitation of renters continues to be a profitable practice for agencies and the property owners that hide behind them.
Following on from the successes we had recouping stolen deposits and fighting poor quality accommodation in 2017-18, here are the cases we took on in 2018-19 and some reflections on the development of our strategies and approaches over the last two years.
What we've done this year
Our actions this year have continued to be focused on deposit theft and compensation for poor living conditions. These campaigns have resulted in a number of successes:
- In October 2018, we challenged an agency we had previously targeted with a direct action campaign. The agency had left tenants with a broken, overflowing toilet for the best part of six months; a demand letter from us was sufficient for them to make an offer of £2,200 in compensation.
- From November 2018 to February 2019, we conducted a direct action campaign against Fox & Sons, forcing two landlords to quit the agency. SolFed locals in Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Eastbourne, and London all took part in this dispute, targeting branches in their local areas, as did the IWW, the ASF and Surrey Cut the Rent. The solidarity shown in this case was amazing, and we ended up costing the agency more than the compensation they owed the tenants would have been – but they didn't pay up.
- From March through to May, we helped a number of different tenants challenge dodgy deposit deductions. One tenant had £450 of her deposit returned from The Property Shop; another had £200 returned from Ashton Burkinshaw, who had tried to deduct £200 for unnecessary (maybe never done) work; another, in Eastbourne, had £100 returned that an agency had attempted to claim for damages that were really fair wear and tear. All of these challenges were conducted either through letters sent directly to the agency or through the Deposit Protection Scheme; we'll talk about why we choose that route at the end of the article.
- We also carried out two cases against G4 Lets. In the first case, a group of tenants had £1,000 of their deposit returned despite G4's attempts to deduct £1,900 from it – again, this was managed through the Deposit Protection Scheme. In the second, we helped a tenant make a complain to G4 after they moved into a property that was uninhabitable, and to threaten to take this complaint to the Property Ombudsman. This threat produced the desired results – despite their initial and expected intransigence, G4 offered him a one-month rent rebate, new white goods, and undertook the neccesary repairs.
- We have also been organising an anti-deposit theft rent strike against G4 Lets, which is beginning to get underway. Essentially, the idea here is that since G4 make it a business practice to skim money off tenants' deposits, the best way for tenants to ensure they get their money back is to withhold the last month's rent and allow G4 to take it out of the deposit. Many student households have collectively agreed to take part in this action: we've laid out some guidelines on doing so here. We hope this will be a further way to pre-emptively challenge their systematically exploitative approach to vulnerable and student tenants.
- Finally, we were delighted to see the beginning of a positive resolution for the long-running and arduous dispute we have been undertaking with Patrick, a member of the local. Following some wrangling with the council over which band he should be on, Patrick has been offered a council tenancy, showing the power of collective bargaining and of his persistence in the face of the council's attempts to fob him off. The dispute over the various ways in which the council mishandled his issues with David Pay and Youngs is still ongoing.
Reflections and changes in strategy
The biggest change in our approach since we started in 2017 has been a move towards supplementing direct action with other ways of fighting back against letting agents and landlords. Particularly with agencies like G4Lets, who have built a whole business model around exploiting and stealing from tenants, there's a limit to what damage can be done to their reputation. They have one office in an isolated part of town, and they deliberately advertise their properties on aggregator sites so that students can often end up renting from them without realising who they are until it's too late. Additionally, drawn-out direct action disputes can be challenging to undertake for some tenants who do not have the spare time to do so.
With that in mind, we focused more on challenging agencies through letters, and through the DPS. Agencies often operate on the premise that they can make unwarranted deductions that tenants will be too busy or too intimidated to challenge; this means that sometimes just sending a firmly-worded and legally-informed letter is sufficient to make them row back on attempts to steal from tenants' deposits. We have been providing tenants with template letters to facilitate this.
In terms of the DPS, while there are obvious limitations to this process – it takes a long time, sometimes three or four months; it is inherently weighted in favour of property owners; it is a complex and annoying system to get to grips with; it requires a level of evidence and paperwork from tenants – we've found that collectivising the effort required to go through it, and sharing our knowledge about how to do so, helps to mitigate some of these problems. For agencies that are inherently resistant to direct action because their reputation is already in the gutter (like G4), we found that it makes sense to go down this route, particularly because another tendency of these kinds of agencies is that they often cut corners and fail to fulfill legal obligations, meaning tenants have a good chance of winning their case with the protection schemes.
Finally, we've also tried to move in a different direction through the G4 rent strike, by bringing groups of tenants together to challenge the agency through direct action that doesn't involve picketing or other actions. Again, this is a case of collectively giving each other the knowledge and confidence required to stop agencies from taking advantage of us.
This doesn't mean that direct action doesn't still have an important role in settling disputes, holding agencies and landlords to account, and making their actions visible. But what we want to work towards is an extensive and flexible set of possibilities that can empower groups of tenants to challenge all the ways that landlords and agencies take advantage of them. Sharing information, putting people in touch with each other and showing that the flimsy excuses of agencies often crumple when challenged, has helped us to do that over the last 12 months, and we intend to continue doing so into 2020 as the rental market in Brighton continues to take its toll on tenants financially and emotionally. Working together, we can make our lives more liveable and stop landlords and letting agents from getting away with it.
If you're having trouble with your letting agency or landlord, or if you just want to get involved, you can get in touch with us at: