Q&A | Luke Samuel on working with Acorn Manchester to protect tenants

Affordable, secure, quality housing is becoming further and further out of reach for many, particularly in urban areas. In the UK, this can be traced back to the ill-judged policy choices of the Thatcher years, and the ongoing prioritisation of commercial and corporate interests by subsequent administrations, over those of the broader public/s they’re supposed to serve.

Acorn is a tenancy union designed to counter this failure, by teaming with vulnerable tenants to ensure their rights are recognised and protected. Sarah caught up with Luke Samuel, one of the coordinators of the Manchester chapter, to find out more.

What is Acorn, and why did you start the Manchester branch?
Acorn is a tenant’s union, an anti-poverty organising union that is a model of community organising that came over from the States, and in the UK has resulted in a number of branches being set up in different cities, mainly around the issue of private renting and tenants’ rights. It’s particularly taken off with private renting here, and that’s because the private rental sector in the UK is a complete mess.

There was a wave of deregulation in the 1980s and early-90s which did away with long-term tenancies and rent controls, and other sorts of protections for tenants, and meant that the UK private rental market is one of the most unregulated private rental sectors in the world. That meant that the sector grew very rapidly in the 1990s and the 2000s, and with that taking place at the same time as the sell-off of council housing, which began with Thatcher and was continued through the New Labour years – combined with rising house prices, which have more or less been rising continuously since the mid-1990s, people can’t buy their own houses in the same way that they used to.

“Social housing is increasingly scarce, and private renting has sort of filled that gap. That means a huge number of people are in tenancies with landlords who don’t know what they’re doing.”

Social housing is increasingly scarce, and so private renting has sort of filled that gap. That means that a huge number of people are in these tenancies which are with landlords who don’t know what they’re doing, they’re sort of casual investors. They’re people who’ve often made a lot of money out of the price of their home rising, and then have bought further properties – as opposed to investing in something. And don’t take the job very seriously.

We set up the Acorn branch in Manchester because Manchester’s somewhere where the rents have been rising faster than anywhere else in the country. There’s a huge number of young professionals living here, who can’t afford to buy, and students who are in rental accomodation as well. People who are privately renting, who are on housing benefits, because they can’t get access to social housing.

One of the biggest issues for Manchester, like a lot of other cities, is housing. You see that with homelessness, and at the same time there’s loads of empty buildings and there’s lots and lots of sites where new blocks have been built, partially, and then were never completed. Manchester City Council are notorious for avoiding building new affordable housing. And there’s a huge problem with speculation – where private developers have land, but they won’t build on it because they’re waiting for the value to rise. There was a great article that discusses some of these dynamics and the effect on music and other cultural scenes, written by Kate Hardy and Tom Gillespie, recently.

Read Tom Gillespie on creating an urban commons in Manchester, with Partisan

So, myself and a bunch of other people, many of whom I knew from campaigns with the organisation Plan C were inspired by some of the stuff that we’d seen other Acorn branches do. The Acorn group in Sheffield has protected tenants who were under threat of eviction. There were actions where members and supporters surrounded a property and stopped the bailiffs getting in.

There’s been a successful campaign to make the Council in Sheffield commit to no evictions caused by the move towards Universal Credit coming in. Universal Credit is a flagship Conservative government welfare scheme which they say simplifies the various benefits you can receive. In practice it is extremely complicated for people to navigate; constitutes a significant cut in benefits for most people, particularly disabled people and precariously employed people; and is another step towards eliminating the benefits system altogether.

There have been massive problems with the roll out of Universal Credit. Most people will lose out as they pass to the new system, and there are usually long delays – sometimes months – before payments start. Often people get into arrears during that period. That was something we wanted to look at in Manchester as well.

“In practice [Universal Credit] is extremely complicated for people to navigate; constitutes a significant cut in benefits for most people…and is another step towards eliminating the benefits system altogether.”

Acorn Manchester started holding organising meetings in September 2017, and we launched in February in Manchester in the Friends Meeting House. Which was great – there were about 100 people there, and we decided our first campaign would be to do the same thing they did in Sheffield, and try and get the Council and housing associations, and big institutional landlords as well, to commit to no evictions caused by Universal Credit. We had a big boost for that recently at the Manchester Renters’ Forum when Manchester’s Mayor Andy Burnham pledged his support to the campaign, which is a great start!

We presented the first member support case to the people who came to the launch. That was a student house in Fallowfield, where they’d had no central heating all winter, and had repeatedly gone to the landlord and estate agent to get it looked at. They’d been repeatedly ignored, basically. They got in touch with us and said, we haven’t managed to make any headway with this.

We helped them write a letter, which set out some demands: that this would be sorted, finally. That all the other repairs in the house were seen to, because basically they’d had a series of problems which had just been ignored. That they got compensation for the electric heating that they’d had to use to substitute for this central heating system that just didn’t work.

And that was before you launched?
This was before the launch, yeah. We got them to gather all the information together about the email exchanges that they’d had as well. And the estate agent went over to talk to them, had a five-hour meeting with them, and by the end of that she’d agreed to all 15 of the demands. Within the same afternoon someone had been called out to fix the boiler and the central heating system. They gave them compensation for the electric heating bills. It was really successful, and one thing that was really nice was how inspired the students were by this, and how they want to be involved now, in the union.

Read Junefe Gilig Payot: Collaborating with Philippine cities for affordable housing

For the next few months, there are several tasks. We want to grow the union, so we need more members. Anybody can join the union, they don’t need to be privately renting, they don’t need to be socially renting, and we ask for an hour’s wage a month [subscription], or whatever you can afford. We’re also going to try and make some headway with the Universal Credit campaign. So that’ll mean writing to the Council and the housing associations, and trying to work out what the situation is in terms of what each actor is planning to do before we decide what we’re going to do in terms of further action.

We’ll be carrying on with member defence cases too, like in the case of the students – so we’re looking out for people who are in a situation where they need our help.

A human barrier.
Yeah, although the ethic of Acorn is that we don’t do it for people; people do it with our support, and they get involved through that process. That’s a kind of community organising model, where you try and work with the people most directly affected by a situation.

You’re an academic researcher as well, and your field of study is not irrelevant to your work with Acorn. Can you talk a little bit about how the two interact, if they do?
My research looks at the political struggles around Airbnb in different cities – I’ve particularly been looking at Barcelona in the last six months. I suppose the issues are similar, in that that work is about the changing character of urban space and gentrification, and rising prices of housing. In the case of Airbnb, and in the context of Barcelona, that exacerbates the tensions that are already there around tourism being unusually concentrated in the historic centre, and that meaning that rents are rising in those sites.

“In one sense we’re trying to build an organisation which has a capacity to act collectively in Manchester, and produce changes which mitigate, or diminish processes around gentrification.”

Partly directly because there’s competition between tourist flats, which earn a lot more money for landlords, and also indirectly in that increasingly those areas stop feeling like they’re for local people. There’s often a kind of a domino effect, where one flat in a building becomes an Airbnb lodging and this puts pressure on the rest of the block. The different kinds of schedules, and practices and behaviours of tourists to residents means that existing tenants often start to leave at that point and finally it becomes entirely holiday accommodation.

I suppose I’m interested in the movements that are contesting those kinds of processes in my work, and in one sense we’re trying to build an organisation which has a capacity to act collectively in Manchester, and produce changes which mitigate, or diminish those sorts of processes around gentrification. I guess we’re inspired by some of the social movements that have sprung up in Barcelona in recent years, around housing.

The platform for people affected by mortgages (La PAH) – they’re an anti-eviction social movement that was phenomenally successful, stopped tens of thousands of evictions, at a time when the real estate bubble in Spain burst and meant lots and lots of people were foreclosing their mortgages.

It’s all to do with precarity. Although, you could argue that a lot of people sign up to Airbnb and rent out their properties to deal with their own precarity. I guess it becomes kinda complicated.
Yeah. And that’s one of the defences that Airbnb, and a lot of other businesses in the sharing economy put out, which is that since the crash there are a lot of people who are middle class who are struggling to get by, and actually renting a spare room to people in a city is a way of them being able to monetise an asset which they’re not able to use otherwise. So it sort of uses this space that’s otherwise unused. I suppose that’s an element of Airbnb which I don’t find particularly problematic, particularly when those properties aren’t in an area which is particularly affected by tourism already.

Read Juliet Kahne on gentrification & Spike Lee

But it has to be said that that’s a minority of cases. The majority of listings in all cities where Airbnb operates are owned by somebody who has at least one other property. Also, the majority of listings are entire flats. They’re flats or homes that, were they not being rented, could be open for an ordinary resident of the city. Often, actually, they’re not being rented constantly to tourists or visitors.

So that argument about them using underused space or accommodation is often pretty misleading. There’s a website by a New York-based activist, Murray Cox, called Inside Airbnb, that sets out the data for most of the major cities where Airbnb operates, and shows the disparities between what is being claimed is the model and the reality quite effectively.

Although they’re really different cases there are big pressures on housing in both cities, and I’ve only talked about some of why that is. There are similar dynamics around speculation in Barcelona to those we have in the city centre of Manchester, and recently Spain has started to deregulate private renting too, reducing the length of tenancies for example. There’s also very limited social housing over there.

Acorn in Manchester is just part of a growing housing movement in the city that also includes the amazing Greater Manchester Housing Action and Tenants Union UK, who specialise in the the legal side of problems with renting. We’re also working with other groups including the Greater Manchester Law Centre, Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) and Unite Community Manchester in our campaign against Universal Credit-related evictions.

DPAC are organising a day of action against Universal Credit in St Peter’s Square on the 18th of April at 2pm, and some of our members will be supporting that as well as calling on the Council to commit to Andy Burnham’s pledge of support to do everything in their power to stop evictions caused by this new benefits system.

Luke is a campaigner with Acorn Manchester, and an academic. For more on Acorn and how to get involved or seek their help, find and follow them on Facebook or via the website.

Sarah Illingworth is Editor at Impolitikal, and a Communications Manager with the Open University’s Learning and Teaching Innovation portfolio. She has an MSc in Poverty and Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.