Rent strikes: the Kirkby rationale

Economic benefits don’t just “trickle down”, but collective empowerment does — with rent strikes and concerted action.

Since the start of this month, over 150 Dinwiddy residents have been withholding their rents due to the embarrassing living conditions offered by Sanctuary Management. They were offered a £1,500 compensation, but refused

In September of last year, Aurora Lyngstad’s father was entering what would be his daughter’s home for the coming year: a small cubicle priced at £147 per week. He came across 40 cockroaches and, with the help of his daughter, he proceeded to kill 37 of them. 3 are still reported missing. This vignette highlights how students are a vulnerable tenant-category: they have classes all week, exams, and — most importantly — they can be disoriented when it comes to knowing their rights. Once a resident of Dinwiddy myself, I was guilty of putting up with mould and leakages. Perhaps this was because — like most other residents — I knew my contract was just one year long, and I had little knowledge of my rights as a renter. 

The rationale behind the Dinwiddy rent-strike is simple: poor living conditions aren’t conducive to productive study and good mental health. Cockroaches, mould, leakages and cuts in water supplies hardly fall under the ‘homely’ category. Aurora’s is just one of the horror stories that justifies the students’ response.

Sanctuary Management attempted to articulate a mild intimidation when reminding students to “consider their contractual obligations” with regard to the possibility of a rent strike. This vague attempt at discouraging students from articulating and acting upon legitimate grievances shows just how hungover and disoriented Sanctuary Management thinks its tenants are.

If student housing providers, much like Universities, want to treat us like consumers, they might as well provide services of acceptable quality. Indeed, the most insulting aspect of management actions — or better, inaction — has been their blatant lack of responsiveness to the issue. This changed when their money was brought into the picture, and the issue garnered media attention.

According to the Guardian, the prices of the cheapest rooms have risen by 11% in the last 3 years, much faster than inflation. How, we may ask, are we supposed to continue affording higher education when 95% of student maintenance loans are directed towards accommodation? The answer, for some, lies in action.

The Dinwiddy rent strike is not an isolated case. It certainly is not the first, and — looking at the current housing situation through the lens of the recent Conservative victory — probably won’t be the last. Students at Lancaster have recently organised a rent strike after a 2.5% increase in prices. And UCL residents at Hawkridge have withheld rents after ongoing disrupting construction work that caused all sorts of problems ranging from asthma, noise, and unwanted eyes lurking inside the resident’s rooms from the adjacent scaffolding. Despite receiving compensation of £30,000, which works out to about £132.30 each, a week’s rent, students claim this isn’t enough. And they are right. There is a rationale in financial action when it comes to unfair housing conditions.

The rent strike organised by 3000 tenants in Kirkby against the Housing Finances Act, on October 9 1972, makes the case perfectly, with the caveat that students may generally have it easier than factory workers. Kirkby is a town just outside Liverpool, an example of the mistakes of planning and the myth of the ‘trickle down’ effect. Nick Broomfield’s short portrays a town where the contradictions between the myth of capitalism and reality clash with devastating effects. 

Kirkby residents weree mostly working class individuals: mothers and fathers who spend their days slaving away in factories, trying to make ends meet. Amongst them is Ethel Singleton, secretary of the tenants’ association which organised the Kirkby strike.

Ethel had gained experience three years prior, when organising a rent strike with other residents of ‘the Slums of Vine Street’, a set of houses due for demolition in 1970, owned by the University of Liverpool — but managed by Liverpool Improved Houses Ltd.

In 1969, the residents of 36 streets that criss-crossed Abercromby, joined the tenants association headed by Singleton, and began withholding their rents. The strike was coupled with a mass protest joined, and coauthored, by the Liverpool University Student’s Union, after finding out that their University co-owned the ‘Slums’. Ethel remembers their contribution fondly. She said the “students were fantastic… we couldn’t have done it without them”. The protest decided to target the lavish inauguration of a new Senate House building a few metres away from the ‘Slums’. The inauguration was due to be attended by Princess Alexandra. £5000 were spent on organising the royal visit. On that occasion, Ethel and Princess Alexandra met. The moment is captured in a blurry black and white picture that made the cover of the Daily Mail. The picture proved to be very useful in popularising the protest despite Ethel’s disdain for the media, which she condemned as in the service of “middle-class views”. During the episode depicted, Ethel, 35 at the time, tells the Princess that “there are no bathrooms”, that they bathe their children in “a tub in front of the fire”, that “the walls are crumbling”, the “door leans on its hinges”, the “rain pours in through the roof”. The Princess replies: “It must be awful”.

Ethel Singleton (L) and Princess Alexandra (Liverpool Daily Post, via)

Ethel relocated to Kirkby just to find herself in a similar situation. The Tower Hill estate, where she resided, resembled where she lived in Aberbcromby: both neighbourhoods lacked basic infrastructure, both were enmeshed in the contradictions of capitalism, both were forgotten by politicians. In footage from 1972, Ethel expresses her disdain for the lack of health and safety provided by her so-called ‘home’; the kids on the block forced to play amongst the outdoor sewages, splinters and rusty nails. Ethel, like most of the other residents before major layoffs in the 1970s, works in a factory on minimum wage. What she makes during her 10-hour work shifts, is devolved to yet another crumbling house.

The turning point came in 1972, when a £1 rent rise in 1972 unleashed the collective grievances of the residents and pushed them to act. Mothers and fathers spent their after-work hours at meetings, discussing tactics to defend themselves against the series of attacks they received, ranging from eviction threats, bail lifters, court dates, fines, and arrests. Their actions were not without their consequences: all were threatened, many were tried, some were arrested. The rent strike was eventually successful, reversing the Housing Finance Act and establishing rent caps.

As one resident remarks, feeling too uneducated, too tired, too overworked, to make political claims, to question the status quo, was now a distant memory. She would now question why her rent should double, why the prices went up, and why she was had been served pitiful excuses for a lifetime. “I question everything that comes along now”, she says.

What can we learn from both the Abercromby and Kirkby rent strikes? One main point is that, in the end, it is always worth it. To not take part in the student accommodation rent strikes is appealing. Really: no threats from people in suits, more time to be hungover and disoriented. But unfortunately, it means being complicit with a system in which young individuals are extorted £150 per week, if they’re lucky, to live in substandard conditions.

Inaction doesn’t make the problems just go away. They are shifted onto yet another batch of disoriented, hungover first years. Sanctuary Management’s offer to reinvest £1500 for next year’s students is not only avoiding to deal with this year’s damage, but also merely addressing the symptoms, not the cause.

Whilst the economic benefits don’t ‘trickle down’, knowledge, empowerment, and confidence, do. Ethel Singleton’s successful engagement in the Abercromby strike and protests proved to be a valuable asset when she moved to Kirkby. Her organisational experience, her passion for improving the conditions of the working classes — for tackling the injustice that is the housing market — travelled with her.

Ethel passed away in 2014. Her daughter, Kim, a 9-year-old at the time of the Abercromby strike, is currently writing a history of the rent-strikes and her mother’s struggles.

Follow Olimpia on Twitter: oliburchiellaro.

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