Tag Archives: tenants

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.

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.

Tenants or Renters?

Since I started thinking and writing about this idea I generally been using the word tenant to describe the people we will aim to organise.

Tenant is the legally defined term and is used by existing organisations in other cities (the Tenants Protection Association in Auckland and Christchurch, the Manawatu Tenants Union in Palmerston North) and of course the Tenancy Tribunal, so naturally I fell into using it too.

A few days ago someone who has been thinking longer and deeper about renting in New Zealand suggested I consider renter instead. My initial thought was of the baggage that term carries with it thanks to the TV show Renters, but on further reflection I think there is a case for using renter over tenant.

First, many of the people we would like to recruit and organise are not the formal “tenant” of the property. Nevertheless they will be paying rent and even if they don’t immediately identify with renter they sure as hell know they are paying rent so there is an association there. If someone is not familiar with the term tenant (which is somewhat technical and legal in nature), or if their renting situation is not legally a tenancy – such as boarders and other “grey-market” renters – the term renter should offer a sense that this thing if for them to.

Second, I feel that the word renter is more active and feels like something that common cause could be built around. In my head it feel analogous to worker, whereas tenant feels like it reflects a passive contractual relationship, more akin to employee in a workplace setting. This will help us express the need to focus on campaigning for wider change, rather than focussing on advocacy services for individual members.

This may be a somewhat trivial matter but I do think that language matters as organising is fundamentally about communicating. We need to choose our words wisely.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

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.

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.

Handling case work

If a tenants’ union is to get off the ground it will need a strategy – from the outset – on how it handles casework.

It’s clear that many potential members might reach out to the union and/or join to get specific help with a problem they are having with their landlord, property or property manager. But if the tenants’ union is to bring about meaningful change for tenants its effort and energy need to be focused on recruitment, campaigning and organising.

Casework can be very draining on resources, both in terms of time and emotionally and a clear plan needs to be in place as to how individual cases can be used to recruit, empower local activists and build the capacity of the union to take action.

People I’ve talked to so far have suggested a number of ways this could be handled:

Clinics

Regular clinics could be established. These could be at a publicised time and location and inquiries outside these times could be directed to them. This could help keep the amount of work manageable, especially if referrals and resources (see below) are employed well. These could be run by volunteers/activists with a particular interest in doing casework.

One obvious question about this approach would be how often should they be held? What if a member has an urgent issue or can’t make it to a clinic?

Train activists

An organising union should always be seeking to develop its activists so they can provide help and support to their networks. Good training can go a long way to giving activists the tool and confidence they need, especially when it’s supported by experience.

The strength of this approach is it should reinforce local organisation and networks over time.

Resources for self-empowerment

A bank of practical resources could be developed. These could be designed to empower members to resolve matters for themselves. For example, model letters, checklists, model tenancy agreements (with better than the legal minimums) and step-by-step guides to resolving common issues.

Case studies

The right piece of casework could be taken on as a case study to attempt to establish a new formal or informal precedent. as it stands less than 10% of cases brought to the Tenancy Tribunal are brought by tenants and where tenants win it is rarely publicised or reported in the media. In contrast, even small wins in Employment Court are heavily publicised by trade unions and you’d hope this makes other employers think twice before repeating those actions.

I’m sure there are many other options to consider, get in touch and I’ll trade you a coffee for your ideas.


Photo credit: Mark Crossfield via Flickr.

What is to be done?

Like many others, I was struck by the election result last month. As I watched the results come in I was not surprised by the left’s heavy defeat (depressing as that was) but I was more affected by how many of my friends on Facebook and elsewhere were lamenting the result and fact that the issues that they care about would now suffer another three years of inaction. Strongest amongst these statements was a sentiment of disconnect, comments like “I don’t even know you New Zealand” were common.

I get this, but I also think that we cannot wait for or expect our political parties or politicians to make any change happen for us. On election night I expressed it like this:

Only thing I have to say is that progressive change is achieved despite the political (-tician) class, not because of it. Pick something you hoped tonight might change and go and do your best to change it.

I’ve been thinking a lot in the subsequent weeks about what I hoped the election might change and how I might go about fighting to change it (after all this post was mostly a challenge to myself).

Like many, I am appalled by the reality of the poverty that a significant number of New Zealanders live in. I don’t think that charity can solve those problems, however noble the effort. Instead, I believe the left as a whole need to find new and innovative ways to reach out to and organise people to strengthen their own communities and fight for what they need to live happy, safe and fullfilling lives.

Of course many unions and other organisations are working very hard on this already, but organising those who are suffering most in our neo-liberal experiment of a society has it’s own sets of challenges. Work is casualised, fragmentised and contracted out and even where unions are able to make gains the transience and precarious nature of the work means union membership and organisation is a constant battle against entrophy.

And so my mind turned to considering whether there were other areas where complementary organising effort could reach out to and organise those that unions find hardest to reach. I arrived at housing and in particular that hundreds of thousands of people who will be life-long tenants.

Rent is usually a household’s single biggest expense and the failures of the market to provide healthy, warm and safe houses is already well documented.

So, my far from fully formed idea is this: a Wellington tenant’s union (working title) that organises tenants to fight for an affordable, safe and stable home for everyone.

I’m talking to anyone who’ll listen about this at the moment so get in touch if you’d like me to buy you a coffee.