Community Organising to secure decent homes for all – Liz Cabeza, ACORN Haringey


“Each win sends the message not only to landlords who think they can get away with breaking the law, but to communities who once felt powerless, that housing injustice is not an issue to be tolerated or ignored.”

By Liz Cabeza, ACORN Haringey

The current housing crisis is not a crisis for everyone. In fact for the people in control of housing stock the current situation is allowing them to thrive.  The power imbalance between those who have control of the property market and those who are at the whims of it is at the core of this crisis.

In order to secure decent homes for all there must be a rebalancing of this power away from the profiteers and back in the hands of communities. At the moment people are demoralised. They feel powerless and often scared to ask for even the most basic repairs in case of a retaliation rent hike. They are being forced to absorb the cost of living crisis as landlords raise rents without challenge.

So how do we stop this? How do we fight back and stand up for housing equality?

At Acorn we are a community union with a simple model that works to build power in our communities. We solve problems by identifying individuals who can enact the necessary change, creating lists of demands, holding direct actions that leverage our collective power and consistently putting the pressure on until demands are met. It’s a model imported from the US that has gained  international presence across five continents.

It started here in the UK in 2014 when we took on one dodgy landlord in Bristol and has since grown to have branches up and down the country, not only defending members against landlords, but running campaigns in the wider community that tackle issues such as local transport, leisure facilities and free school meals. The landlord who, once upon a time, found it all too easy to ignore the countless emails imploring them to do basic repairs will now find themselves in a very different situation when they come up against an Acorn member. We don’t do emails. We don’t do waiting for the landlord’s sweet time. We write up a clear and concise letter of demands and we deliver it with a bang.

Recently I helped out in a defence case for an Acorn Member named George in which the letting agent was bullying him and totally ignoring his rights. They were barging into private rooms without notice and claiming it was their property so they could go where they liked. This is the tip of the iceberg, but suffice to say they had made a mockery of George’s tenant rights and on top of this they were raising the rent by 20%. George knew his rights, but the letting agent simply ignored him or bullied him when he complained. However, when he joined Acorn we showed up with him in solidarity and the agent had a rather magical personality change. We arranged a meeting with them while our members stood outside with banners, chanting, eliciting the honks of supportive drivers and engaging with passers by. 

A negotiation meeting has very effective results when the lulls in conversation going on inside are broken by the chants of resistance going on just outside. George was able to assert his rights, get important documents that were being withheld from him and halve the 20% increase, saving him an extra £600 a year on rent.

 Each win sends the message not only to landlords who think they can get away with breaking the law, but to communities who once felt powerless, that housing injustice is not an issue to be tolerated or ignored. And as communities learn the immense power of collective action they are emboldened to strive for more.

In Brighton, where Acorn has been building power with victory after victory, our members identified the rising market of second homes as a key issue putting pressure on the dwindling housing stock and pricing working class families out of their communities. This year they decided to campaign for a ban on second homes, forcing the local council to fight back against profiteering property developers and block any new developments where the homes would be sold as holiday homes or to overseas investors. The council policy motion passed in March and Brighton is now the first city committed to banning second home ownership on new build properties.

Acorn has also been working Nationally as a part of the Renters Reform Coalition to create the policy changes that will go towards addressing the current power imbalance. These include a stop to Section 21 no fault evictions, making all tenancies open ended, addressing the affordability crisis in the private rented sector, measures to prevent rent increases as de facto evictions and access to legal aid for renters.

The White paper for the Rent Reform bill has now been published and does address some of these issues but worryingly it actually makes it easier to evict tenants who fall behind on rent due to the cost of living crisis. We must keep pushing for reforms that protect everyone. We must hold our political leaders to account and pressure them to stand up for housing equality as a key issue.

The role of unions and coalitions in this fight is vitally important. People are angry and they are only going to get more angry as the cost of living crisis continues to take its toll on the most vulnerable. Acorn is a union that taps into that anger and empowers people to channel it into change. We train members to resist evictions, teach them how to lead their communities, empower them to stand up for what they believe in and support them to take direct actions leading to the improvement of their material conditions.

It is by uniting together in our trade and community unions that we can tap into the incredible potential we have to achieve decent homes and a decent standard of living for everyone. Every eviction we resist, every rent increase we hold back and every local campaign we win proves to people that they deserve better and that direct action works. It is the momentum and support gained in each of these smaller wins that builds power so that we can also achieve bigger victories through policy change too. I highly recommend that everyone gets involved with Acorn as well as their trade unions.

The only way we’re going to see meaningful change in this country is if we can get ordinary people organised and fighting back against the growing inequality we face.

  • Liz Cabeza is an organiser for ACORN Haringey. This article is a published version of her speech given at the Solidarity – Struggle – Socialism Conference hosted by Arise Festival on December 10th, 2022.
  • For more information on how to get involved visit our the ACORN website here. You can follow ACORN Haringey on Facebook and twitter; and ACORN national on Instagram.
Featured image: residents and ACORN activists celebrate a victory over fire safety in Bristol. Photo credit: ACORN/twitter

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