By Sean Meleady

Norwich may call itself a ‘fine city’, but this isn’t always the case for renters. Despite some positive stories, such as the Goldsmith Street social housing project, many tenants find life in the city tough.

According to figures released following a freedom of information request made by tenants’ campaign group Generation Rent, the City Council received 368 complaints about health and safety risks in properties in 2017/18. 46% of these cases triggered an inspection by council officers. Following these inspections, 60 hazards were found, with 44 improvement notices being sent to landlords. In October 2018, the City Council ordered 25 tenants to leave flats in St Faith’s Lane for their own safety following persistent complaints about mould, electrics and heating. Millionaire property developers Nick and Ayse Sutton had failed to carry out improvement works.

But one group of tenants are fighting back: the Norwich branch of Acorn, the community union. Unlike other union branches, Acorn is based around communities of tenants, workers and residents rather than a workplace, with a particular focus on tenants’ rights.

Formed in Bristol six years ago, Acorn describes itself as ‘a mass membership organisation and network of low-income people organising for a fairer deal for our communities’. Acorn identifies rising housing costs, stagnant wages and spending cuts as key issues, and aims to tackle them through mass member-led community direct action.

Acorn activists taking action during lockdown. Credit: Acorn

As well as the head office in Bristol, where Acorn has built strong support in the community, there are also regional offices in Brighton, Manchester and Sheffield. Last year a branch was established in Norwich. Dan Norgrove, Communications Officer for Acorn Norwich, explained the origins of the group and its purpose.

“Acorn Norwich is just one branch of the wider national union. Myself and a few other people set up the branch well over a year ago now. It came out of a need for tenants and members of the community to be properly represented.

“In terms of the law there is very little in place to protect us as tenants and everything seems to be stacked in favour of the landlords and property owners. It’s about redressing some of that balance”.

Norgrove also explains why the founders wanted to be part of an existing organisation and is keen to emphasise that Acorn is a community union, not just an outlet for tenants to take on landlords.

“As we are part of the national union we get so much backing and support. Acorn is not just a tenants union but a community union, so although tenant’s issues are at the forefront of Acorn campaigns, that isn’t exclusively what we focus on”.

Norgrove is keen to highlight that, unlike traditional trade unions, Acorn is member led.

“The way that Acorn operates, because we are a member led union, is by being there to defend and back up our members. So if one of our members is having an issue with a ‘dodgy landlord’ that’s when we would back them to develop a campaign”.

Acorn prides itself on its ability to get results

So far Acorn Norwich have fought one major ‘member defense’ campaign, supporting a family in Dereham who were forced to leave a 12 month tenancy early because of rising damp and mould that was affecting their health.

According to Acorn Norwich the family were lied to when viewing the property, as they were told there was no mould. Flatfair, the scheme who managed the deposit, demanded that they pay another month’s rent even though they had left and had been replaced by another tenant. At the same time, the landlady ignored the family’s health concerns and demanded that they pay £2000 to fix botched renovations that she had authorised.

Acorn members launched a successful campaign, mailing dozens of letters to the landlady and taking action online against Flatfair to damage their reputation. Within days, the family received a refund of £100 for fees already paid and the landlady dropped her demands for a payment of £975.

Acorn call this process ‘member defence’ – running grass roots, member-led direct action campaigns to defend members in difficult situations with landlords or letting agents. Acorn members receive ‘member defence training’ from the national union, which helps organise direct action targeted at specific outcomes. As Norgrove puts it, “Acorn prides itself on its ability to get results” through this strategy.

An Acorn Norwich information stand on Magdalen Street. Credit: Acorn Norwich

During the Covid-19 crisis, UEA students living in accommodation managed by private letting agents such as Pablo Fanque House have raised concerns about the willingness of agencies to cancel rent payments following the closure of the University. Acorn Norwich expects to see an upsurge in student activism in the near future. As Norgrove says,

“I fully expect that a portion of our members as we grow will be students and I know quite a few of the current members are either current UEA students or have recently left UEA. I’ve heard all sorts of horror stories from students about their housing situation. They are seen by landlords as quite easy prey”.

Norgrove also feels that renters in Norwich have been hit hard by the Covid-19 crisis.

“There is no doubt that renters have been adversely affected by Coronavirus, probably disproportionately so. One of our new members was telling me he was in a really difficult situation because of Coronavirus and it was an option between paying for rent and paying for other necessities.”

Renters in Norwich are likely to face severe challenges in months and years ahead, not just from Covid-19 directly but also the economic impact of the crisis and the growing possibility of further austerity measures and job losses. However, the work of Acorn shows that, by working together, renters can win the security they need.

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Find out more about Acorn or join the union:

Featured image credit: Acorn Norwich

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