by Robyn Banks
Last week, students living in accommodation at the University of Sussex staged a rent strike, and successfully achieved their goals in the space of three days. The university has capitulated and agreed to £65,000 of compensation for the students who live in the halls due to the appalling state they are currently in.
“It is undoubtedly true that students and renters have more power than they believe. This strike showed this. Only 3 days after it was announced management managed to fork out 65k they said they didn’t have to 126 residents. When we originally set the demand 10k below this many tenants said it was unrealistic and pie in the sky thinking, and yet we smashed it.”
Duncan Michie, campaign organiser
The strike was organised by an ACORN Tenants’ Union group on campus. ACORN’s goals are simple: they want housing in our country to be accessible and up to a good standard for anyone and everyone to live in, regardless of income or societal status. The action of students previously paying unfair rent on Kings Road in Sussex has shone a light on just how achievable these goals are. It demonstrates that students and other renters who campaign for our rights to be upheld have far more power than we’re told. As Duncan told me,
“ACORN tenants across the country have been winning victories both big and small. Whether it was the two and a half grand we won one tenant in Brighton last Thursday or the fact ACORN Bristol can now dictate council policy, when tenants and people come together we’re more powerful than landlords can possibly imagine.”
The community aspect of the group and campaign is a crucially important factor in its success. We often hear about isolated cases of people being forced out of their homes, or of homes being left in an unlivable condition by landlords, but we rarely hear of it happening to entire communities. Few of us need to be reminded of what happened this summer at Grenfell tower when the housing standards of a community were put aside for the sake of money. The remains of the tower stand as a monument to what is so disastrously wrong with housing in this country. But that tragedy, along with the countless smaller tragedies of cruel rent and shocking conditions that take place every day, is becoming the catalyst for making things better.
Here at UEA, the university makes over £1,200 of profit per student in its on-campus accommodation. They made a total of £5.8 million in 2016-17, and that figure will continue to rise as prices continue to skyrocket with each new academic year. This profiteering is unacceptable and abhorrent. Students are being pressured to hand over more and more money each year without a care being spared for their rising living costs. This is then having a knock-on effect in the off-campus student accommodation market, as private landlords follow UEA’s example and raise their own rates. This leaves students, as well as other renters in the city, being forced to make the choice between paying through the nose for a comfortable, suitable house, or saving some money on something shoddier and living more miserably.
Across the student movement more and more methods of challenging the broken system of student housing are emerging
This is why the success of the rent strike at Sussex and the rise of groups such as ACORN are so important. Rent strikes are an extreme course of action, but they are a necessary one if we are to win the fight for our housing and accommodation to be better. Hitting universities, businesses and landlords directly in their pockets will hurt them most, and will force the reaction that is needed to change the broken system we live in. ACORN are giving a clear example that community action changes not only the community it takes place in but also others surrounding it, improving many lives.
But it isn’t the only example. Across the student movement more and more methods of challenging the broken system of student housing are emerging. In Birmingham, Edinburgh and Sheffield, Student Housing Co-operatives are operating outside the norms of the system to offer alternative, democratic, fair student accommodation (and there’s another group working to set up another such co-op here in Norwich). By giving power to the tenants, housing co-ops have the ability to shape the place they live in, making it a real living house, instead of an empty vessel that just generates profit for the owners.
These examples show that the power really does lie within our communities, with tenants. If we really want to see change in the broken housing system we’re forced to participate in, we need to challenge the university managers that see students as a form of income, not the people that they are. We need to challenge the private landlords and companies that are subjecting students and other vulnerable groups to shoddy housing in order to make a quick buck. If there’s one thing that Sussex students have shown, it is that these challenges can really make a difference.
Featured image credit: Sussex Cut The Rent
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