Tenants can’t afford five more wasted years
Gordon Maloney on the disfiguring inequalities of Scotland’s housing crisis, and how landlords have profited from pandemic.
The last twelve months have been a disaster for tenants in Scotland. While the government did – after enormous pressure – take some steps to stop evictions during the pandemic, this has done little to address any of the fundamental problems renters face – or the ways that the pandemic has made them worse.
A temporary ban on eviction was necessary – and an important step – but politicians have done nothing to address the mounting debt tenants have found themselves in because of lockdown. Given that for many tenants these debts are unmanageable, it is now widely recognised that we face an unprecedented wave of evictions the moment evictions get the green light again.
In social housing, cleaning work – vital to preventing the spread of the virus in the early days of the pandemic – was one of the first things to be cut. And spending months trapped in our homes has underlined just how miserable Scotland’s rented housing is. Scotland’s rich enjoyed warm homes in the winter and luxurious gardens in the summer, spare rooms to work from home in, and the offer of mortgage holidays to protect them from any financial worries. But tenants have had the opposite: it’s tenants whose jobs were most likely to be closed, rented homes are cramped and cold, ridden with mould and damp, and with no access to a garden. And of course, tenants were offered nothing but warm words to deal with spiraling rent arrears and energy bills.
But the truth is that the pandemic has just shown how bad Scotland’s housing system always was. None of these problems are new.
Throughout all of this, Living Rent, Scotland’s tenants’ union, has been at the forefront fighting back. It was us that forced the Scottish Government to introduce a proper ban on evictions, and we’ve been defending our members where landlords have tried to break that ban. After cleaning services in social and council housing were stopped, we forced the government to get them reinstated. We have fought rent hikes – including one of almost 50% – and demanded rent freezes and reductions during Covid, winning more than £50,000 worth of rent reductions. For months, tenants have protested against the sale of the Collina Street valley to developers, demanding instead a community buy-out. Since January, Living Rent members have been occupying the space to shine a spotlight on the way vacant land is being misused. Living Rent has seven battles ongoing where vacant land is being developed against the wishes of the local community. We argue that vacant land must be prioritised for public housing – especially given the scale of public housing demolitions since the advent of the Scottish Parliament. Over the course of the pandemic, our membership doubled as tenants saw how vital it was to organise and fight back.
But with elections tomorrow, it is clear that we need fundamental, radical changes to how our housing system works. That’s why we made it clear to politicians jostling for our votes that the next parliament must solve the housing crisis – not just tinker around the edges, and at the state of the election we laid out in our tenants’ manifesto what parties and candidates needed to do.
And after decades of the same, broken, neoliberal approach to housing, the election campaign has seen major movement from the parties:
- Labour and the Greens have backed our calls for rent controls, while the SNP’s manifesto recognised that their “rent pressure zones” have failed, and pledged to reform that legislation in order to crack down on unaffordable rents
- Parties have fallen over themselves to make major promises around house building, marking a clear consensus of the need for enormous public investment in our housing stock. This has seen all the main parties outflanking the SNP, calling for thousands more affordable and social housing than they have
- In tenant-led hustings up and down the country, Living Rent members have held candidates feet to the fire on the need to get serious about the housing crisis, prioritising available land for social and public housing development, holding social landlords accountable, fixing the private rented sector and making homes the very best energy standards.
But while all of this is important, we’re not naive. We know – and tenants know – that in order to force the next parliament to put the interests of tenants above landlords, housing associations and big developers, the work is only just beginning. And that is precisely why an organised, confident, fighting tenants’ movement is so important.
Landlords will mount an unprecedented campaign to protect their profits – even if that means tenants being turfed out and driven into poverty. We will never have the money they do (which they take from us at the end of every month), so the only way we can win is to out-organise them. That means joining Living Rent. We’ve got a hell of a fight on our hands, but we simply cannot lose. Tenants can’t afford five more wasted years.