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Guild Of Students To Launch Renters' Union

1 Jan 2022

George Shealy

Guild Of Students To Launch Renters' Union

Since COVID, renters’ unions have risen to prominence in their communities in reaction to the lack of meaningful support offered by Westminster politics. Where many had not heard of Acorn, or the London Renters’ Union before, they undoubtedly know now, and so do the badly behaved landlords being held accountable by them.

This isn’t a subject that should feel alien to students, especially those in Birmingham, who occupy an important position within this struggle waged by renters. The mistreatment faced by Birmingham students in Selly Oak isn’t tolerable because we’re only hear for a few years, or because poor housing seems ‘business as usual’ to the student experience. This mistreatment, and sometimes outright exploitation, is endemic to a power imbalance across the housing market, meaning if it happens at university, it will happen after.

When speaking to Guild President Mikey Brown on the issue of student housing, BulsEye were excited to hear his plans for launching a renters’ union at the University of Birmingham. We took the opportunity to sit down and talk to Mikey about his and the Guild’s future plans.

I think a good place to start, especially for those who might be unaware, would be what is a renters’ union and what does it do?

Good question. So, our renter's union in general is a bit like a trade union, right? People get together as an organisation, as a community, and organise to act in the interests of their members. So, for us that will be specifically around housing issues, like things to do with rent, about being turfed out illegally, all that sort of stuff. It's about taking collective action to prevent that and fight back against exploitation.

For somebody who might not be that involved in politics and not even think about themselves as a tenant with rights, what would you say is the biggest positive impact that this union might have on the average Student’s life?

The union will take account of fact that we've got a very particular situation with students and renting. It politicises that issue, which will become more vocalised and visible through the Guild's channels, as well as having specific social media accounts available and encourage everyone to join. Students as renters with rights will become more of a mainstream issue. There are some things that the Guild does on issues that are felt very deeply by small selection of population, but this is something that is felt widely and deeply by a lot of students.

We might start small and then grow, and grow, and grow, because I want this to be something that outlasts me. If we can change behaviour in the marketplace, that will affect everyone. If a letting agent or a landlord is getting into the market with students at UOB, and they know the Guild is there and is a strong force to make sure that students won't be exploited, that carries a certain weight with it. That's the situation I want to get to.

People can have preconceived notions about what a union is or what it means to be a part of a union, they might raise the point that students need to take on more responsibility for knowing their rights and the law. What would you say to that?

That’s a good question. When having this conversation, you can’t ignore the role of government and local authorities in driving up standards, enforcing behaviour, and in licensing landlords. If there is greater regulation, then that means there is less on the shoulders of students to fight for their rights. In an ideal world, students wouldn't have to be worrying about these things and wouldn't have to go to the lengths of educating themselves. If we can take some of the burden off and make easy, accessible, convenient through the guild and renter's union, that's great. If you look at this situation, which is founded upon unequal power relations and sometimes exploitation, unless students organise and get support, they are at risk of being exploited.

I don’t like to deal in black and white. Despite this not being the most desperately popular opinion, I think it’s true that there are nice landlords around - I’ve rented from them. But student accommodation, ultimately, it is an investment opportunity for some. And for students, at its worst, it is a way of having money extracted from them.

The Guild has had support on offer in the past, but I think it’s fair to say it’s not particularly well known. How does the renters’ union differ from what’s on offer already and/or how will it extend that?

From a guild perspective, the renter’s union is definitely going to expand on what is already on offer, but it is going to look significantly different to what is currently available as it will introduce lots of new services. This will be quite gradual in terms of how we bring that in.

But essentially, in terms of the Guild, we can talk about this by separating it into three different streams, one being right’s education: we're going to help members of the Guild to be super equipped with all the information they need on how to rent successfully. Now you say renting successfully is a bit of a poor choice of words because it's not always down to students, it's also landlords and agents dictating if someone has a good experience. But we know that people are exploitative. We also know particular letting agents in Selly Oak are exploitative. We want people to know how to approach renting in a way that means they're not going to be taken advantage of. No one's going to take them for a ride. No one's going to trample on their rights. Students will know they're going to live in a place that’s warm and not damp, and if there is a maintenance issue and things do go wrong, absolutely fine. If they get fixed, that's absolutely fine.

So, it's about making sure people are equipped. When people move into their new home, we want them to know what they should be expecting in the inventory, what their rights are regarding their deposit, and how their landlord or letting agents should be behaving. If people know their rights, they can stick up for them and can fight back on that micro level of bad practice.

The second stream work is advocacy and advice. That's casework, essentially. I want to expand that service and be able to offer more in the way of advocacy. I'm hoping to be able to publicise some of what we do and some of our successes because if we help a student to solve a problem, or even win compensation, that’s something that I think we should shout about. Because if we do, we then create change by putting that out into the public domain and make it clear that we're coming for people who are doing the wrong things.

The third stream, which involves most of the new services we’re bringing to UOB, and where I think renters’ unions really come into their own, is campaigning and direct action. I'm going to be leading it quite a lot as president along with the other Guild officers with the aim of getting out into the community to change behaviour of landlords, letting agents and people in the marketplace.

Could you speak more to this idea of advocacy and campaigning? This is especially important since its where the Union comes into its own and as markedly different to what we’ve seen already from existing services.

Yes, so it will be led by myself and Guild officers and we want to recruit people to do some organising, especially as the Union is launching and the social media aspect starts to become more important. We will put out calls for people to help become organisers and help them get thorough training in that area.

And if you want a concrete example of what the outcome of what campaigning and advocacy looks like, and this is hypothetical of course, we might pitch up to a letting agents’ office with 200 people and not move until they did the right thing for our members. That might be something we could do. Something that other renters’ unions have done has been resisting evictions by using those methods. Obviously, we've got a slightly different situation because we're not talking about people being evicted from student combination. They're there for a year and tend not to have that problem, thankfully.

Another key element of this is to have a robust press strategy to be assertive and say things are not good enough. When letting agent X is causing us problems, we are going to let people know letting agent X is causing us problems, and if their behaviour doesn’t change, we’re going to use our organising powers to pressure for change. With a press strategy, we can also recommend to our students to not come to you. We're going to do everything we can to change behaviour of people in the market.

Previously, we didn’t have much visibility when people gave advice through the Guild. There wasn’t enough clarity over what the issues or who the culprits were. That’s going to change.

I think it’s important to stress that the Union is still attached to the Guild because that could potentially raise some questions over how much leeway the Union has, and how assertive -and even how political- it can be. Could you speak to that point a bit?

So that’s a very interesting question, and I’ll unpick it slightly. The Guild is a charity, which means that it’s resources can only be used for its charitable purpose. Therefore, the Guild can undertake political and campaigning work when it meets those charitable objectives. It can't be party political, right? And the way it interacts with political policies must be done in an even-handed way. I can't endorse the Labor party, as an example.

What we can do is undertake campaigning and political work on behalf of our members in areas that affect them as students. So that's a key distinction, right? Renting in the private sector as a student is an issue that affects students, especially when considering all the particularities of that situation as well.

Undertaking work in that area is completely within our charitable objectives. And we will do it. So, the Guild can’t be party political, but it can do political work. In this sense, the work we would be looking to undertake is absolutely political, and that starts with trying to bring about change through the politics of direct action, through organising, through working with outside agencies and decision-makers, like the council. We can apply political pressure to the council and other change-makers of other decision makers in the local area to do those things. So yes, and again, that's why it's different than what we've done before, because we haven't, you know, we've given advice, but we haven't yet really stood up and fought for our members in this way.

How would you sum up the current housing conditions that students face at UOB, and how does COVID and the pandemic come into that? I think students are generally aware of horrendous letting agents, and I understand at this point you can’t go into specifics…

That's an interesting question, and no, I’m not going to comment on individual letting agents, but I am certainly aware of them!

First off, there is enough housing. And I think students face pressure to rent early because there is a myth that there is insufficient housing, and those who perpetuate this myth are behaving in quite a predatory manner.

I also think that lots of the housing is of acceptable quality. It's not desperately poor quality. We're not talking about slum housing, but sometimes it isn’t not great and in general there isn’t a great balance between affordability and quality. I’m not convinced on that front. I'm not convinced. There are some places that are low quality accommodation and people are being overcharged for it.

This isn’t the whole picture, though. The way people are treated is where I believe the fundamental issues with housing for UOB students resides. One aspect of this is letting agents barging in with little to no notice to stage a viewing. You have a right to quiet enjoyment and a part of that is not being barged in on. Another aspect is getting maintenance issues fixed in a timely manner. I’ve had numerous people talk to me about how their property takes ages to be secured after they’ve been burgled. This is a massive safety issue. You’re combining the trauma of the sanctity of your home being violated and then having to live in that situation whilst it’s not been properly secured.

On the whole, those are my instincts. We’re not talking primarily about the quality of housing, although there exist concerns over that, but about how tenants are treated. I’ve still got to develop thoughts on this because I haven’t visited every house in the area but gaining a fuller understanding of these issues is what a renters’ union is about.

We have Acorn in Birmingham – could you see yourself working with them at all?

I think that's something to aim for in the longer term, but yes the short answer is I would love to. I haven't had conversations at this stage with them but getting in contact with third-party organisations is going to be part of our growth. There are organisations like Shelter that do a lot of advice work they’re doing a lot of work on a new deal for renters which I think is worth having a look at. So I’d be keen to collaborate with them and other established organisations centred around housing, like the London renter's union as another example, to create a relationship. We would do that.

A big part of this is that we need to build up our institutional knowledge about housing so that we can serve our members better. And if we need to obtain advice and training from outside parties, we would be prepared to do that. I think that's the right thing to do to make sure we can do our best.

Last year, because of COVID, we had a situation where a lot of students were privately renting accommodation that they weren't using because they couldn't get onto campus. Had the renter's union been in full swing back then, do you think things may have gone differently?

That’s probably the hardest question you’ve asked me because I’d have to get my crystal ball out! I'd like to think it might have been different, but I don't think it's fair of me to that because the previous people working in the Guild spent an awful lot of time on this. It’s a harder scenario because of the legal position of those renters you’re referring to. You can apply pressure, but that doesn't change their legal position – they still have to pay up.

Maybe we might have been stronger. Maybe. But I don't think rent striking in the private sector would be a safe thing for us to encourage because those renters are exposed to eviction. As willing as I am to take things quite far, I couldn't in good conscience put those renters in risk of having their legal position exploited and potentially being evicted.

And we don’t want to be wasteful. We have few resources and activism like direct action and can be fun and make you feel good, but unless it delivers results, it ultimately hasn't achieved the change you originally envisioned. We’re not doing this for the fun, we’re doing this to create change.

What can we be expecting to see from here on out?

Because of the nature of, you know, the cycle of students coming to uni and looking for accommodation, what you’re going to be seeing is low level stuff. You’re going to see some branding on social media and focused advice, and then we’ll build it up.

As people begin making decisions in the new year that’s when we want to be prepared and organised for then, but overall things may wax and wane due to housing issues cropping up at certain points in the year, but we’re doing lots of prep work to lay the foundations for our next moves.