Tag Archives: housing

Launched

This is kind of what I said a couple of weeks ago at the Renters United launch. If you haven’t joined yet and are interested in these issues you can do so here: http://www.rentersunited.org.nz/join

In the ongoing debate about housing, renters are conspicuous in their absence. Politicians and the media, comfortable in their first, second and third homes, tend to look on renting a temporary circumstance. They view renting through rose tinted glasses: three character-building years in a freezing beer-soaked flat before getting on the property ladder.

As such, all the problems of — and solutions to — the “housing crisis” are about home ownership. Well I think that we all know that is not the whole picture, its time that renters got together and said so. This is what we want Renters United to be: a democratic union of renters campaigning to make renting better for all renters.

So a few of us came together and starting building for this day. Early on we realised that if we want people to join something, we need to tell them what it is and just as importantly, what it believes.

So, in the great tradition of progressive organisations, we drafted a manifesto. It’s not set in stone, we haven’t nailed it to any doors anywhere, but we came up with seven things we hope will resonate with you all tonight and with renters in general:

We believe renters should:

  • Live in a safe and healthy home
  • Pay affordable rent
  • Find and rent a home free from discrimination, intimidation and harassment
  • Expect a respectful and responsive relationship with their landlord
  • Have a rental agreement that grants them long-term security and stability
  • Have good cooking, laundry and bathroom facilities
  • And make their home their own though reasonable changes

Which of these things we focus on and how we do it will of course be up to our members. So, We, Need Members!

We need members to give us clear direction about where to start, because the issues are big and messy. We need members to spread our messages. We need members to recruit more members and most of all we need members to fight and win for renters.

As well as growing our membership our other initial goal is to connect with the many allies out there already working on the issue. We want to complement the work that people like Sarah and Phillipa are doing to advance policy and research on housing, and — at the sharp end — I know we can work closely with Julia and her colleagues to fight the individual battles too.

We need to challenge those with the power over renters and housing, we need renters demanding change directly and we are going to organise to make that happen.

We need to turn renting from a isolated and atomised experience to a uniting one, and the first step to doing that is to get renters and their supporters to join Renters United.

So all that is left to do is a bit of virtual ribbon cutting. We don’t have a bottle of champagne to break or a velvet curtain to open, but we do have a web server on stand-by ready to make the first version of our website live.

Please stand by:

Web server screen saying the site is now live.

Is the home the new place to organise?

One of my motivations for trying to get something going for renters was my feeling that people on the left need to start thinking about finding new ways to engage and organise people as workplaces becomes more fragmented and employment more precarious.

In the UK, Sarah Kwei is wondering the same thing as casualisation and fragmentisation makes workplace organising much harder there too:

Contrast this with 2014, when more than 1 million workers exist on zero-hours contracts and are told via texts whether they have work or not. The insecurity of the lowest paid is much the same, but the potential for workers to access one another and organise for something better has been undermined by these increasingly individualising practices.

In addition, most low-paid work is unstable. Workers frequently find themselves performing different roles over several months – perhaps a delivery driver one month, a shelf stacker the next – interspersed by periods of unemployment. [With the decline of industrialised Britain, few are able to look to one local company as their most likely source of employment. […] Such a radically different workplace poses significant problems to traditional forms of worker organisation, especially if most workers will struggle to say who their colleagues are or, indeed, their employer is, from one month to the next.

In this context it’s not surprising that some of the most inspiring (and successful) direct political action in the UK is centred instead around housing. Groups like the Focus E14 Mothers have shown that campaigning over quality and availablity of housing can capture the public imagination.

The issues around housing in New Zealand are markedly different from those in the UK but the core idea – that this rediscovered option for community organising has a lot of potential – rings true for me.

Sarah Kwei concludes by saying that she thinks that cooperation between established unions, with their organising expertise and resources and new community organisations is important. I can’t disagree and once we have our experiment in community organising up and running finding common ground and ways or working with unions will undoubtably strength us too.

What do we call it?

Here are some ideas for what this thing could be called:

Wellington Tenants Union

The good: “Tenants Union” is the term most commonly used overseas for these types of organisations and there also a Manawatu Tenants Union. There was a Wellington Tenants Union in the 1970s so there is a nice historical connection there.

The bad: As already discussed, I’d prefer to use the term “renter” over tenant and for some (not me) union can variously have a militant, stuffy, out-of-date or rigid connotation.

Tenants Protection Association

The good: This is the name of existing similar organisations in Christchurch, Auckland and Hamilton.

The bad: Has a strong advocacy focus, both in reality for the existing organisations and in its description (protecting tenants, not organising them to defend their own rights).

Generation Rent

The good: Has “rent” in it and there is an NGO in Britain that is interested in similar issues with this name.

The bad: Generation Rent in the UK is very much in the NGO mould, as opposed to being a member-driven democratic activist thing. It also feels to me like it is focussed on young people (perhaps due to the association with Generation Zero).

Renters together

The good: Uses the word renter and provides a sense of unity without saying union.

The bad: Doesn’t mention Wellington (Wellington Renters Together doesn’t work I don’t think), possibly a little passive sounding?

Wellington Renters / Renters Wellington

The good: Has who and where right there on the tin.

The bad: Doesn’t say what it is or give a sense of collectivism or unity.

I’d love to here what you think of these options or any other ideas you might have.

Ever more expensive

This week two different reports made plain the escalating cost of housing in Wellington (of course – as always – focussed on home ownership).

The first report made plain the widening gap between housing cost and wages (a.k.a. “housing affordability”):

The average annual weekly wage increase of $28.06 was not enough to offset a $30,000 increase in the national median house price and an increase in the average mortgage interest rate from 5.52% to 5.86%,” the survey found.

In Wellington, this meant that housing affordability dropped by 7.7% for owner-occupiers.

The second demonstrated that while “first time buyers” are finding it harder, property investors are buying up more and more properties:

[A]ctivity among investors who owned two or more properties had hit a 10-year high. Big investors with more than 10 properties were the most active, buying about two out of every five homes in August.

Of course, this all puts more financial pressure on renters, with forecasts suggesting that rents in Wellington will rise even faster than the cost for owner-occupiers.

For those who can afford to buy, they are having to do so further and further away from the city:

The figures also suggested people were looking further afield for a first home, such as in northern Wellington suburb Tawa and in Hutt Valley, while multiple property owners were buying in Karori and other central-city suburbs, including Mt Victoria and Oriental Bay.

How long will it be before only the rich can afford to live in our city? How can we fight to make renting affordable and secure for people of all incomes?


Photo credit: Jason Jones via Flickr.

Keeping in touch

In my day job as a web designer it’s easy to think that every problem can be solved by the internet (ha!) but the reality is that there is still a significant minority of people without internet access at home.

Statistics New Zealand says that 85% of households in Wellington have internet access. Of thosewho don’t most report that they don’t have internet either due to a lack of interest or because of the cost and opting out of internet access because of the cost grew between 2009 and 2012 (when the most recent data is from).

I think it’s a fair assumption that a fair proportion of those without internet access will be low-income renters and we certainly want to reach these people and get them actively engaged in our campaigns and other work.

With this in mind we need to consider whether we can rely on the internet as our only – or primary – medium for recruiting and communicating with members.

As with all organising face-to-face engagement is usually the most effective way to get people involved but even once we have recruited someone we need to consider how best to keep them up-to-date and active.

So, setting aside a website for the organisation for now, this graph is great place to start when considering how we might reach out to members and stay in touch (after all, we’ll be just like one of the family):

A few observations:

  • Direct contact via phone or text is likely to be the most effective method.
  • Texting is the clear favourite for frequent communication.
  • Social media does not feature in that graph, though you might expect that a majority of the “instant messaging” communication is via social networks.
  • Email is very popular too but seems to be used less frequently.

We will need to ensure members have control of how and when they get contacted as we don’t want to flood inboxes or turn people off with a barrage of texts. Instead, I think we want to try and establish and nurture personal connections with – and between – members.

For example, rather than a bulk text from a generic number, wouldn’t it be great if we could establish a texting version of phone trees (OL’SKOOL!) so every member got the information from an activist or contact they had personally met at some point?

The status quo

If you’ve rented in Wellington you’ve probably come across the property management company Quinovic, one of the largest (if not the largest).

Recently they published their post-election ‘analysis’ of the political landscape:

The summary take away – National would suggest they are creating a supportive / lower touch Government that allows the investor/property owner to get on and pursue their objectives, and earn a return for the resources they commit to the economy.

Setting aside the assertion that residential property owners are nobly contributing to the economy (how?), I think in this statement we see why we need to start challenging landlords to do better for their tenants.

From Quinovic’s perspective a status quo that delivers sky-high rents that keep rising, dangerously unhealthy housing and a total lack of security for renters is just spot on thank you very much.

Of course this is not surprising. Quinovic are – after all – managing property and tenants to maximise the profit for their clients. These profits require maximising income and minimising cost and so what the status quo really means for renters is an ever worsening situation where it becomes even harder to find and retain a safe, secure and affordable home.

This is why we need to start hearing from renters loud and clear, because a status quo that sees a baby die in an overcrowded mouldy house and families living in cars because they can’t afford a house is not the kind “business as usual” we need.

What does three years in a student flat tell you about renting? Not much.

A question: how many of the politicians, civil servants, journalists and academics that discuss and debate housing are renters?

Whether sympathetic or otherwise, the reality is that few of the people involved in the public discourse around rentals have substantial experience of it.

Of course most politicians will have a nostalgic experience of a #characterbuilding experience in a drafty old flat, feeling that a couple of cold winters under three duvets offers them an insight into the reality of renting.

But this actually serves to reinforce the idea that renting is a temporary experience. For hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders renting is not temporary. It is living. The “dream” of home-ownership is just that, a dream.

For people without the means to pull together a deposit and the stability of income to commit to a mortgage their path to a securing a healthy, safe and affordable home must be through renting.

And yet we have nothing in place, legally or otherwise, that can deliver this.

We need organisations that work towards making this happen, that is what I want to get going. So that renters speak for themselves on these issues and so it becomes harder and harder for politicians to wax lyrical about their student days in Aro Street.

Renting is not a temporary or transitionary circumstance, especially in a distorted housing market like Wellington. We need to hear more renters in the public discourse because at the moment all the solutions proposed to the housing crisis only aim to address the supply of housing for homeownership and thus ignore one third of all households in our country.


Photo credit: Nick Thompson via Flickr.

First thoughts on an organising approach

Building a new tenants’ union from scratch is a daunting task. I’ve spent the last few weeks thinking a lot about what the organisation might be, in particular what it’s approach and values are, but I keep coming back to a big unanswered question: How do I get it started? What is our organising strategy?

In recent conversations a few ideas have come up, far from fully formed. to some extent this is a bit premature but I’m very keen to hear what people think about both the principle and the practicality of this so I’m putting it out there:

1. “Values” based recruitment

Initially, I’m not sure that the a tenants’ union operated completely by volunteer activists can make many grandiose promises to prospective members about the benefits of membership. I don’t think we will be able to promise to resolve everyone’s problem with their landlord or ensure every home is fixed up or rent reduced. As a consequence I think this kind of transaction recruitment strategy will fail.

Instead, I think that we need to be able to clearly and compellingly express the values and purpose of the union, alongside the strength that collectivism brings.

If people join because they believe in the purpose they are more likely to contribute back to the union and recruit others, less likely to expect miracles for stretched activists and, I think, more likely to see membership as a commitment that in the longer term forms part of their identity.

2. Campaigning from the outset

Campaigns are the expression of the unions values and purpose as well as it’s key mechanism for change. Without campaigns we will be stuck trying to explain the union only in terms of its values, which is often a exercise in abstraction and empty platitudes (like this blog).

For those who we recruit because they are interested in or share the purpose of the union we need to give then the opportunity to participate in a meaningful way. By connecting campaigning activity back to our values we can express to members and potential members exactly what type of change we want to see.

The approach I imagine is similar to that undertaken by the living wage campaign which unites people around a specific demand but ensures that it is supported by common values:

As the gap between the rich and the poor grows in New Zealand and poverty increases, more and more New Zealanders don’t get paid enough to meet their needs, enjoy their lives and participate in society.

3. Establishing a presence in the community

Being visible and available to talk to interested people is going to be very important in early recruiting. This will likely mean that with limited resources we will want to target our efforts on particular suburbs or areas with Wellington, probably those with high concentrations of rentals and families.

Person to person contact will be important so attendance/presence at regular events like markets and contact with people through pre-existing community networks like churches and schools will be a good place to start.

Alongside this, we should create a distinctive “brand” for our activities, activists and supporters (t-shirts, badges, shop signs etc.) so as the union establishes itself in the community this becomes more and more visible.

4. Proactive organising

One possible organising approach would be to tackle recruitment on a street by street basis. Assuming (big assumption) that we have a a small core group of activists, an activist (or maybe a pair) could be assigned a street to organise.

Ideally this would be the street on which they live as service of their own community would help with both initial conversations and in the longer term. Having good data about which houses were rentals and would also help a lot.

In a sense these activists would be analogous to shop stewards or delegates: providing a (very) local point of contact, visibility and intelligence for the union and coordinating members to support campaigns and other activities.

If this kind of structure gets established then it would need to be supported by good training and support and succession planning to ensure that as activists inevitably move around the city those movements can be used as an opportunity to establish or strengthen membership in other areas.

As always, very keen to hear from anyone who wants to talk, get involved or has ideas or experience to share.


Photo credit: Flimin via Flickr.

Stuck between a “rock and an ocean”

Today’s Dominion Post has a grim story about the conditions in some private rentals in Cannons Creek:

Water running down walls and gang members beating disgruntled tenants are just a few of the perils of private rentals in Cannons Creek.

Bill Hiku who is involved in the local residents and ratepayers’ association offers a particularly telling insight into how landlords get away with offering up these sub-standard conditions.

Desperation:

“These people can’t get into Housing New Zealand homes. They have nowhere else to live. It is a rock and a hard place.

Fear:

“It becomes almost an insurmountable mountain. It’s this fear of making waves and getting kicked out.”

And intimidation:

He even knew of a landlord who used a gang member to keep his tenants in line.

“The gang member’s role was pretty much to make sure everyone behaved and, if they didn’t, he would intimidate them.”

When one tenant complained about some work that needed to be done, the reply was a bashing at his front door.

The landlord/tenant relationship is has within it an inherent power imbalance.

For some this power imbalance has trivial consequences, a door handle that doesn’t get fixed or a lawn goes unmowed, but for those without the resources – especially financial – there is little to no meaningful “choice” in housing and under these circumstances landlords can be at their most exploitive.

There is power in unity and community and this power imbalance can be countered by collective organising and action. Communities can stand up to these landlords and their thugs but it is a long hard road to build a movement with the scale and capacity to reverse the decades of prejudice and victim blaming that permeates our culture.

If you want some evidence on that last point I refer you to some of the comments on the stuff.co.nz version of the article, though I would never recommend reading those.

The right to secure occupancy

In her explanation of the Government’s obligations for housing in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Elinor Chisolm explains what the right to secure occupancy should mean:

Everyone needs not just a house, but a home, regardless of whether they want or can afford to buy one. We need to adjust our laws so that a tenant, if they want to, can make a home, and establish relationships with their neighbours, their local school, a doctor. They can settle in, for 6 months, for a year, for many years, and feel at home, relieved from the anxiety of the threat of upheaval when the landlord arbitrarily gives a 90 or 45 day notice.

For many tenants – especially those in low-paid casual work or on benefits – the insecurity of their housing is not just related to the whether their landlords exert their “right” to end the tenancy but also to their ability to make their rent when pressure comes on their finances. Under such circumstances parents have often have little choice but to move.

Education unions and the Child Poverty Action Group have a particular concern about the effect that constantly moving around has on education:

“We must address the causes of [educational] transience by introducing housing policies that actively address the shortage of secure, affordable housing in areas where low-income families live.”

A tenants’ union could work with schools and other community institutions to tackle these issues in communities. For example, it could campaign to extend tenancy periods (or notice periods) for families with school age children so no family was required to move during the school year and could support tenants who are struggling with their rent without them having to resort to either abandoning their home or surcumbing to loansharks – both legal and illegal.