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Why a London Renters Union Stands In a Proud Tradition

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We had plenty of big historical anniversaries last year - the Magna Carta, Agincourt and Waterloo - but one that went unmarked by politicians and the media was the centenary of the Glasgow rent strike of 1915.

A hundred years ago, Highlanders and Irish migrants had been streaming into the second city of the British Empire and the population had increased by 65,000 in three years but only 1,500 new housing units were built. A big chunk of the city's housing stock was vacant due to speculation, while tenants paid over the odds to crowd into the remaining squalid tenements. With many of the young men away fighting in France, landlords spotted an opportunity: assuming the workers' wives would be a soft touch, they jacked up the rents still further.

That assumption was misplaced. Led by a fiery carpet-weaver and mother-of-two called Mary Barbour, as many as 30,000 households refused to pay their rent, pelting sheriff's officers with flour and wet clothes if they moved in for eviction. Striking from April to November, 'Mrs Barbour's Army' forced the government to pass the Rent Restriction Act of 1915, freezing rents for the duration of the First World War. It was intended as a temporary measure but the pressure of people standing together kept rent control as a key factor in UK housing policy well into the Eighties.

Relevant

I'm a politician not a historian but I hope it's not hard to see why the situation in Glasgow a century ago is relevant to my campaign as the Green Party's candidate for Mayor of London.

Just as Glasgow was then, modern London is rapidly expanding in population, while a growing number of properties stand vacant because they are being used as investment commodities by wealthy people all over the world who are so rich they don't need to rent them out. House building has failed woefully to keep pace with demand, and the kinds of properties being built are tailored more to investors than the people who are going to live in them.

Meanwhile house prices have soared so that the bottom rung of the housing ladder is way too high for first-time buyers, even if they're earning well above average. The result is that a one-time home-owning segment of society is now in the rental market, fuelling demand still further and spurring landlords - both professional and amateur - to charge more and more. Average rents in London have risen 11% since 2012, while average pay rose just 1% in the same period.

Impact

The impact on ordinary people's lives can be horrible. I've seen families in Camden given a couple of months' notice because they can't afford a the latest rent hike, when they've got children in school and can't find anything new in the same area because prices have gone up so much.

My Green colleague Caroline Russell has this week been helping an unemployed private rental tenant who was evicted because his landlord in Islington wanted to redevelop his building. He ended up cramming what he could into three suitcases and is now seeking emergency shelter having lost most of his furniture and possessions, making a fresh start all the more of a challenge.

And my young friend Clifford, trying to rent a flat in Brixton with his partner and their friend, lost a £250 'holding' deposit which the estate agent demanded to reserve an apartment which it promptly gave to someone else. Even though Clifford has a professional job with good prospects, the reference agency decided his employer had the wrong kind of email address - straight up - and the estate agent said they couldn't move in unless they paid six months' rent (a whopping £11,000) up front. All this was happening three days before they had to move out of their previous place, and Clifford says it's the most stressful experience of his adult life.

Horrific prospect

If you rent yourself - as I do - you won't be surprised by those stories and you could probably match them with tales of your own. People always used to say that buying and selling a home was one of the most stressful life-episodes you could go through, but it's now becoming true of renting one as well - which is a horrific prospect when you may have to do it every couple of years. For a whole swathe of people - including pretty much everyone under the age of about 35 in the capital - renter angst has become part of life, spawning vibrant campaign groups such as Generation Rent and Priced Out.

It's an unsustainable situation in a city like London, which will eventually stop functioning properly if the people who make it work can't afford to live in it. We desperately need the government to bring in root-and-branch reforms to address the problems faced by a private renters. That's why I have been lobbying MPs and my fellow candidates for Mayor to press for legislation allowing the Mayor of London to replace Assured Shorthold Tenancies with much better contracts with stronger protection for tenants.

But with the end of a tenancy now the leading cause of homelessness in the capital, accounting for four in 10 cases, the problem is urgent and Greens at City Hall won't just sit and wait for those reforms. Instead I will take a lead from Mary Barbour, who concluded a century ago that the Glasgow private rental system wasn't fit for purpose and decided the best way of changing it was by mass organisation.

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This morning I am unveiling a plan to set up the London Renters Union if I'm elected Mayor. All of London's estimated 950,000 private-rental households - comprising 2.3 million people - will be eligible to join. Funded initially by City Hall but independently run by renters themselves, it will enable members to organise to rein in private rents, expose rogue lettings agents and launch a Londonwide Landlord Register. It could also provide advice and support to individual renters, support tenants taking legal action against private landlords, and give private renters a stronger voice able to feed into and lobby for policies developed by London's boroughs and the Mayor.

And of course it will build on the amazing work already being done by existing renters' groups in London. A brilliant example is the New Era estate in Hackney, where tenants kicked up such a fuss when a US investor bought their homes and threatened to evict them that the new owner sold them on to a charity which introduced rents based on ability to pay.

At our proposed Union, we may draw a line at encouraging members to pelt council officers with flour and wet clothes. But it's certainly time someone fixed this broken market. I believe the people who know first-hand the extent of the problem - the private renters themselves - are the best people to start doing it, and that's why I want to help them to help themselves. Joining forces always makes people stronger, and renters need no longer be the soft touch their landlords take them for.

Sian Berry is the Green Party candidate for Mayor of London. She is also a councillor in the London Borough of Camden and the party's lead candidate for the London Assembly

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