Disturbed: a protest by UCL students at Campbell House, Bloomsbury where rent was withheld over demolition work (Picture: David Dahlborn)
If we learn one thing from the recent rent strikes at University College London (UCL) and the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) it should be this: we won and we can win again. In 21st century London rent strikes still work. And we should use them frequently to win campaigns by concentrating our forces at our enemies’ weakest point.
Oppressive rents, scumbag landlords and gentrification caused by property investment are rampant. There is talk across London and the country of the need for housing campaigns and a “fightback” against property owners and their landlord lackeys. What we have demonstrated is that, alongside well-practiced campaigning methods – demos, occupations and blockades – it will, above all, be rent strikes that enable us to coerce the ruling class to concede to our demands for better and affordable housing. Moreover, they will enable us to seize the initiative and force the bosses into reacting by going on the offensive, enabling us to dictate the shape of our campaigns and our future.
When students at UCL and SOAS launched campaigns in their halls of residence that quickly culminated in full-blown rent strikes they were responding to horrid living conditions and, literally, unaffordable rent. What quickly became apparent, however, was that the landlords became significantly more likely to negotiate and offer concessions under the mounting pressure of thousands of pounds of unpaid rent. At UCL, the mere threat of a strike won residents greater material concessions then a six-month campaign for lower rent that involved protests, petitions and flash occupations. At both colleges the power of both strikes was also reflected in the repression and threats from management. Withholding rent en-masse is effective precisely because it immediately deprives landlords of the cash flow that forms the basis of their power and the stability of the property market. Without it they are put in a situation where their only options are to react compliantly, react with more oppression or face chaos and utter capitulation.
The victories of what is possibly the most successful bout of rent strikes in London in this century can easily be repeated and surpassed. At UCL we are currently planning how to build on our success and experience to launch local bottom-up housing campaigns involving hundreds if not thousands of renters. Through local residents’ assemblies and clear political objectives of reducing the cost of living and better living conditions we are certain we can strike and win again. All we need are volunteers who believe in the viability of this project to help unionise tenants, and external support from groups who can call on management to meet our demands or mobilise radical actions to counter victimisation, as the London Radical Housing Network did at UCL. However, for this tactic to succeed on a wider scale we also need coordination and cooperation between many student renters’ groups. If you believe in asserting maximum pressure on your landlords and management to put them on the back-foot and forward or vision of affordable housing on a grand scale, contact the UCL Cut the Rent Campaign – we want to talk to you and share best practice. This will be a summer of preparation for a serious, concerted struggle and we need to contact each other to maximise our chances of success.
Rent strikes are a progressive way to fight education cuts and exploitation from the bottom up. We believe that we have developed a campaign formula that can deliver a decisive blow to the soft underbelly of our corrupt and profit-driven housing market and higher education system. Furthermore, if we can prove that we can continue our victories against the university landlords, this campaign carries the potential to gather huge momentum. Student movements have a tendency to indicate the general direction of radical trends in society. Just as student protests spearheaded the general anti-austerity movement after the elections in 2010, waves of coordinated student rent strikes could offer a powerful sense of direction for the movement for social housing and tenants’ rights. This will be a social movement that doesn’t only react to the government’s agenda of cuts but pushes an entire programme of demands of social justice and equality into the face of the establishment while cutting short their rent exploitation by the power in our own hands. Get in touch with our campaign at UCL and let’s put the bosses on the defensive!