An Interview with Living Rent
Writing: Rachel Flynn
Illustration: Abigail Sarah Featherstone
Raph is a Fourth Year Philosophy Student at Edinburgh University, and has been involved in the Living Rent movement since 2017.
So, Living Rent is a tenants union. Can you explain how the union runs?
Well, Living Rent is a grass-roots, tenant-led union. There are no paid organisers, so it’s very flat in its organisation. There is no hierarchy, just different working groups. There’s monthly general meetings where anyone who is there can voice their opinion and steer the movement in any sort of direction they see appropriate - and most importantly, to get their voice heard. At the moment the structure is extremely open, and at the core of the movement is the idea of member defense. This openness means that literally anyone can come with a problem regarding their tenancy; from their landlord unjustly holding a deposit, to mould on their windows. Anyone can come with a problem, you don’t have to be a member. Maybe that will change when the movement grows and then what a membership involves will more likely be defined.
How did you get involved?
So every year the organisation holds an AGM (Annual General Meeting), and it's a huge meeting of both the Glasgow and Edinburgh branch. Although the Glasgow branch is currently much bigger, last year the event was in Edinburgh and myself and a friend decided to go along. There was talk of big actions, the philosophy of the cause, etc. The most seasoned activist could have one opinion, but if the other members of the AGM did not agree, it simply couldn’t pass.
What are the key aims of the union? How are these aims achieved?
The key aims, I suppose, are keeping the landlords in check and sometimes, holding them accountable. That’s the kind-of day to day running of the movement, but there is also two long-term campaigns: one surrounding the Rent Pressure Zones, the other the ‘Winter Break.’ The aim of Rent Pressure Zones is getting the Scottish Council to freeze zones so that rent prices cannot go past a certain threshold, acting as a cap to how much rent can increase per year. As of December 2017 the Council’s can legally do this, but they don’t - and this is what we’re dealing with. While the law exists to do it, Living Rent aims to show that the people who live in Edinburgh want and need these legal reforms to be put in place. The Winter Break is about the legality of evicting tenants in the months between October and January. In France this is illegal, but there are no similar laws in Scotland. We all know how cold and brutal an Edinburgh winter can be, sadly demonstrated by the recent and tragic death of a homeless man just last month, often sat outside of Waverley Station. It seems obvious, but eviction is the number one cause of homelessness, and we as a group have the power to reduce this. A lot of people have this idea that homelessness is a choice when, obviously, there is little agency of the individual when facing eviction.
What movements do you want to see being taken by the council to improve the housing situation in Edinburgh?
The Rent Pressure Zones is a start, but one of the things that Living Rent is trying to do is to prove that they don’t work. It seems counterintuitive, but we want to get them in to prove that they are not enough. It’s not enough to have Rent Pressure Zones when the caps are still steep, so the point is to make the data evident and show the need for further reform - like a hard cap, for instance. We want to show why the Rent Pressure Zones aren’t enough but to do that we need to put them in place. Also, the law has come in but that doesn’t mean it will effect your particular zone. There are currently zero Rent Pressure Zones in Scotland despite the new law, which in order for us to have an effect, has to change quick.
Your website mentions ‘collective action’ that takes place, under your member defense campaign. In what form does this collective action take?
We are a very action-forward union, and our ideology is that often people’s issues with the landlord is their landlord either breaking the law, or using loopholes to their advantage. While we could take them to court, it’s just not an accessible option for most people when money and time is considered. Our belief is that we have the numbers and this show of force, so we can say as a movement that we will not let landlords get away with it. As a particularly flat union, we don’t want to be doing stuff for those with tricky landlords - instead, we want them to do stuff with us. The point of the union is to have people who feel empowered from us and what we do, who feel like they can, with our help, resolve the stuff for themselves.
However, this does mean that people have to be comfortable with our choice of action. We have a current dispute with DMR Residential who are a letting agency with a flat rate of £60, a sort of ‘post-tenancy fee’ - and it’s just ridiculous. It’s barely legal, but they think that as long as it is mentioned in the signed lease, then there's no problem. But that’s just not true, you cant put undue terms in the lease - this doesn’t make it legal. We had someone come to us whose issue was with DMR, who was charged this fee for ridiculous charges: the evidence they came up with was some crumbs on the floor, and a teabag left in a drawer. The first action we did, which I was involved in, was that we went down to DMR and delivered a letter. We’ll go and meet with the landlord; someone will introduce the issue, another will explain the bulk of what the issue is, one person who keeps the meeting in check. Myself and others were outside with a banner for Living Rents, so people knew what was happening from this Letting Agency. Initially they shut us out and refused to let us in, so we went back later in the week with flyers and petitions for the local area. We even had a hashtag which was #droptheclause, referring to the clause in the lease which ‘confirmed’ the legality of the post-tenancy fee. We often petition on the Middle-Meadow Ealk, and really just raise awareness for our cause as much as possible.
Living Rent Glasgow led a huge movement against a letting agency called Serco, who had private buildings where people awaiting asylum-decisions were living. Serco were found guilty of changing the locks of these properties, thus evicting 300 Asylum Seekers and consequently leaving them out on the street. Living Rent Glasgow described this as ‘a brutal attack on some of the most vulnerable people in our city’ and consequentially led a huge protest in opposition of their mass eviction policy. On a smaller scale, we often name and shame landlords who try take advantage of those who know no better. We couldn’t be doing it without our members, and by standing up to landlords we are making a point to all other landlords trying to take advantage.
What can students do to support the cause/ join the movement ?
When I decided to join, it was really because I wanted to be a part of some activism outside the university bubble. We are almost complicit with some of the issues as students, like rising rent prices, and it is so outside the University bubble. We are working with Muirhouse at the moment, which consist of six high rise blocks situated in the poorest parts of Edinburgh. The blocks are in an unliveable state, some with damp, mould, and asbestos. It’s a far difference between some of the stuff we do on campus; this is by no means saying what we do on campus isn’t extremely important and worthwhile, it’s just something different. Living Rent are so happy and thankful to see students joining the cause; in fact, when I joined I was the only student working with them on a regular basis. The cause is extremely appreciative to see students caring about the wider community, not just within the university. It’s super rewarding, because they do have a lot of power. They’ve been having win after win, so it really feels as though I am a part of something special.