Rent Strike—now? A legal and political analysis.

Now is the best time for organising rent strikes in England & Wales since at least the 1980s but many discussions have been ideologically hollow and strategically underthought.

What housing rights we do have (and have had) in the UK were forged in the crucible of rent strikes. The ‘Red Clydeside’ struggles in particular - a mass working class women-led reaction to Glasgow landlords profiteering during the First World War - led directly to the Rent Restriction Act 1914. This new law then set the context for the Rent Acts1: laws that would ensure and protect housing rights for the next 70 years, until they were dismantled by the Thatcher government (Thatcher’s 1985 and 1988 Housing Acts still form the basis of the current housing law framework). Other notable rent strikes followed, including actions in Belfast at a time of mass unemployment in 1932, St Pancras in London in 1960, strikes against internment in the North of Ireland in 1972 and successful university rent strikes at Sussex in the 1970s and at UCL since 2015.

Now is the best time for organising rent strikes in England & Wales since at least the 1980s. The government’s new measures (a month-long extension of eviction notices, and a temporary pause on court cases) are totally inadequate to protect renters from Covid-19-related evictions, but they do give renters more time and protection than the private rented sector has seen in decades. Even the most belligerent landlord would find it extremely difficult to (lawfully) evict a tenant in the next few months. Not only does that give rent strike movements time to organise, but it also ensures that a strike could go on for long enough to generate a noticeable chunk of missing rent.

Rent strikes are also particularly prominent and important now because – with so many people unemployed, inactive or furloughed – there’s little prospect of meaningful labour strikes or public political activity. As the Glasgow and North of Ireland examples show, during times of widespread poverty a rent strike can be a very effective method - or possibly the only method - of effective protest against social problems.

In addition to shift in conditions, opening up a greater opportunity for rent strikes, there seems to be a sudden broader realisation beyond the left that landlords do not provide a service. As economists have argued for centuries, landowners are merely appropriators of value. They do not build homes but hold them hostage, and even the more prosperous tenants seem to be realising the outrageousness of the bargain that’s been struck.

Perhaps most importantly, for many people rent strikes are not a choice. In early April residential landlords in the UK reported receiving less than half – 44% – of the rent that had fallen due, and in the US there were reports that nearly a third of apartment renters didn’t pay April’s rent.

It’s understandable, then, that there’s been a great deal of energetic discussion about rent strikes on the left, from those in organised housing struggles, and from tenants who just can’t pay.

Disappointingly, however, , most of these discussions have been ideologically hollow and strategically underthought. There’s very little sense of what a rent strike is for, or of what the broader demands should be. There appears to be a general under-appreciation of the fact that a rent strike is a tactic, and not an outcome.

Look, for example, at the demands of the London Renters’ Union – a fantastically active group at the forefront housing struggle in London. Their petition to the Prime Minister calls for the suspension of rent during the crisis. It is underpinned by a Novara Media article called “We Want a Rent Strike Now’: the People Poised to Take on Their Landlords”. Plainly, calling for the suspension of rent is not a rent strike: petitioning for the legitimisation of not paying rent (in the form of legislation suspending rent) does not amount to taking on the landlords. Their approach is to insist that the government obviates the need for a rent strike by suspending rents, rather than organising a strike in support of more ambitious demands. This is not meant as a criticism of LRU, but it’s wrong to suggest that LRU and its supporters are ‘poised to take on their landlords’.

The article also records the views of a number of renters who are keen for collective action but who – correctly – realise that a rent strike is futile unless it is broad and well-organised. LRU is probably one of the best-placed groups to organise a rent strike, but it doesn’t appear to be doing so at the moment.

If LRU are being deliberately cautious about encouraging what should be understood as rent strikes, they are probably right to adopt that approach. This is dangerous territory. Only well organised strikes can win, and political posturing will cost people their homes. The Thatcherite easy evictions regime (under section 21 of the Housing Act 1988) means that troublesome tenants may become homeless even if they repent, and go cap-in-hand to the landlord with all of the missing rent.

At the other end of the scale are those who genuinely are calling for a rent strike, but with no demands apart from legitimising the rent strike itself. There is some evidence of a number of attempts to build rent strikes in various different countries, none of which appear to have any demands beyond the suspension of the very rents that the tenants are refusing (or threatening to refuse) to pay.

That approach is too short-termist even in terms of achieving its own aims. Covid-19 has come in the context of an already serious housing and homelessness crisis, which is itself a consequence of the 1980s legislation, which brought about a massive reduction in council housing and a reliance, instead, on a deregulated private sector, with short tenancies, easy evictions and easily-raised rents. Unless there is more meaningful reform, even suspending all rent during the pandemic would simply kick the can down the road - as LRU concede-: tenants could be evicted in a few months’ time, as any landlord who wanted try to recover missed payments would be entitled to try to enforce debt (or punish errant renters) through eviction claims. This approach - of striking purely to demand the legitimisation of the strike - is also tactically unwise: landlords who are faced with the sole demand of waiving the strikers’ rent would probably suffer similar financial and practical consequences whether or not they agree, so what incentive is there to admit defeat?

This is not meant to discourage rent strike and housing movements, however. This crisis may be too good to waste.

A genuine and effective rent strike lies somewhere between the two poles of ‘please don’t make us pay the rent’ and ‘we are not paying the rent with the only aim of not paying the rent’. There must be longer-term demands. There must be renter-led organisation and effective solidarity networks and the process of building a rent strike needs to help the building of these networks and organisation. A group of renters in Bristol are leading by example at the moment.

Rent strike movements will also need to ensure that there is good awareness of legal rights. The legal and personal consequences of breach of contract can be serious and strikers will need to know the risks, so rent strike movements should be prepared to work with lawyers and advisers.

The group Rent Strike has produced a good pamphlet, though Rent Strike is rooted in student housing, where the stakes are generally lower andit is also easier to organise where there is just one large landlord that’s especially vulnerable to reputational damage, which is very unusual in the context of the wider rental market in the UK. “What are your demands?” the pamphlet asks, “It will be very difficult to maintain a rent strike and keep it focused if you don’t have a clear idea of what you’re fighting for (not just against)”.

Any rent strike will need to insist on the abolition of section 21 ‘no fault evictions’. This is critical because, if it is open to a landlord to simply evict a tenant after the crisis, every counter-Covid-19 measure (whether that’s the government’s vain hope that landlords will be merciful, or the best-organised rent strike) will be frustrated. Abolishing section 21 is not a fringe or ultra-left demand: both Labour and the Conservatives committed to this policy in 2019. It’s also worth exploring, as a matter of tactics, how rent strikers can avail themselves of limited protections against revenge eviction.

It is also vital to organise among those renting from housing associations and local authority landlords. Those renters enjoy greater security of tenure, and evicting them could be a much more difficult process. Strikes by renters with greater security of tenure could increase the amount of time and political leverage that a rent strike has to play with, and would open the avenue of solidarity rent strikes. Of course, it is also critical that one of the broader demands must be a massive increase in council housing.

This is an important subject. The over-inflated housing market is helping to prop up the UK’s post-industrial national economy. For the first time since the 1980s rent striking is a realistic possibility, and if renters are able to interfere, meaningfully, with landlords’ ability to appropriate their incomes, there would be a genuine shift in the power balance between two opposing classes. And more importantly for the short term, unless something is done – something far more meaningful than the government reforms and the demands for rent suspension – there is sure to be an enormous increase in evictions and homelessness in a few months’ time.

  1. William Gallacher, Revolt on the Clyde, (Lawrence and Wishart, 1978).