The rent is too damn high!

Guest post by Chris, a participant in the Sydney Solidarity Network.

A few months ago, a Facebook event called “rental horror stories” popped up in Sydney. Within days, it had gone viral. Hundreds and hundreds of people almost overwhelmed the page with story after story of mould, flooding, broken appliances, broken walls, broken roofs, fungi growth, pest infestation, exorbitant rents and arbitrary evictions. The page even made it into a few articles in the mainstream media.

To put it mildly, housing in Australia is a nightmare. Last year, rents in Sydney increased at record levels to reach a median of $500 per week for a one-bedroom apartment. The country as a whole was declared to be in the midst of a “rental affordability crisis” which was leading to “social catastrophe.” In Melbourne, over 80,000 investor-owned properties were reported to be lying more or less permanently vacant and unused. In Sydney over 90,000 homes were similarly unoccupied. Meanwhile glowing articles get written about people such as Nathan Birch, who at age 30 already owns 170 houses (apparently it’s “about 170” but he’s “lost count” of the exact number).

So it seems strange that given how intolerable the situation is for so many people, there have been few, if any, largescale efforts by tenants to collectively do something about this.

In other English-speaking countries, tenant organising is undergoing a resurgence. Last year, for instance, 80 students at University College London won £100,000 in compensation for substandard and rat-infested accommodation after they refused to pay rent for seven months. In March this year, again in the UK, 130 students living at Goldsmiths University announced that they would not be paying rent until the price of college dorm rooms was cut by 30%. Tenants in Bristol have been organising to win repairs and prevent rent increases in the wider community, while there are a plethora of active tenants’ campaigns in the US where areas like Portland, San Francisco and Brooklyn are facing skyrocketing rents and gentrification.

There’s no reason we can’t do the same thing in Australia. While landlords are hard to target and it’s difficult to know what, if any, other properties they own, the real estate agencies they lease out properties through (and who also take a cut of the rent) are much more vulnerable to public pressure. When landlords won’t repair properties or threaten to evict tenants, the real estate agencies they work with could have protests staged outside them, pickets could be set up at property inspections to warn other potential renters of the risks of going through that agency, and real estate offices could be targeted with mass phone-ins to disrupt business. While there are databases in some states to keep records of people who break tenancy agreements, there are heavy restrictions on the sort of information that can be kept in these databases, and it’s not possible to use them to blacklist tenants for any kind of protest activity.

Over the last couple of years I’ve been involved in a group called the Sydney Solidarity Network, which has successfully taken on businesses who’ve paid below the minimum wage or cheated their employees out of entitlements. The methods we used were extremely simple: we stuck up bold, eye-catching posters asking passers-by if they’d been ripped off by their employer, got contacted by people who had been, then together with the affected worker we confronted the boss and demanded restitution, backed up by the threat of further protests if it wasn’t forthcoming – and in almost every case, we won our demands without needing to go any further. I never quite got over just how easy it was to make employers cave in, and it’s quite likely that many real estate agencies would give in to tenants’ demands if placed under similar pressure.

There are a lot of advantages to organising this way with other renters. For one thing, the housing crisis in Australia is widely felt and affects millions of people. On top of that, things like lower rents, repairs, and protection from eviction are inherently appealing, and will make life better in a real and tangible way. Finally, it’s not that had to get started: you could begin by getting organised with the people that you live with, then expand out to neighbouring houses and the rest of the suburb with postering, letterbox drops, door-knocking, and local public meetings. Eventually, a tenants’ group covering your suburb and a few adjacent ones could be set up to take action against landlords and real estate agencies.

The housing crisis in Australia doesn’t seem as if it’s about to go away any time soon. While Facebook events can be useful, and cramming ever more people into sharehouses can alleviate some of the pressure, more and more it seems like the only way to improve the situation is for tenants to organise together and fight to win.