By Grace Atkinson
The Greater Manchester Housing Action and Tenants Union UK hosted the Manchester Renters’ Forum at The Mechanics Institute on Thursday, inviting renters, landlords, front-line support services, and councils, into a dialogue of solidarity and change.
Housing issues have never been more pressing in Manchester, particularly for those who rent their home privately, and many renters face insecurity, rising rents, poor conditions, and dodgy landlords.
For students, this issue is no less prevalent, and so many of the 85,000 students living in private renting face poor living standards, deposit theft, instability and even illegal activity from landlords.
But this is a problem that stems much deeper, as eviction has become the number one cause for homelessness in Manchester, overtaking relationship deterioration.
Greater Manchester Housing Action (GMHA) are an alliance of citizens, charities, academics and workers unions, who work to tackle the current housing crisis in Manchester by giving back a voice and power to Manchester’s renters.
Prior to the event, Andy Burnham said: “For too long Parliament has neglected the private rented sector. As a result, renters have been left without rights and without a voice. In Greater Manchester, we want this to change, and that’s why we strongly support the Renters’ Forum. This Forum is an opportunity for renters to come together and share their experiences of renting in Greater Manchester, as well as discussing what needs to change and improve, and I welcome it.”
Before and during the event, The Mechanics Institute hall, birthplace of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), was filled with stalls from housing organisations such as Shelter, ACORN, Tenants Union UK, The Mustard Tree, Just Life, and Greater Manchester Law Centre, for the public to find out about specialist housing advice, as well as campaigns and action to get involved in.
The evening was then introduced by co-founder at Tenants Union UK, Laurence Elliott, who said: “We’ve organised this with greater Manchester housing action because we think it’s really important that constituents, citizens, and renters have a say on housing policy.”
Siobhan Donnachie from GMHA, went on to explain her own past difficulties renting in Manchester, both as a student and after graduation, saying: “I lived in lots of really bad properties. For example, back in 2011, I lived in a house where the mould and damp was so bad there were mushrooms growing out of the wall.”
She added: “When I moved on from being a student I thought I was going to have more stable tenancies, and I was going to have a bit more security, [that] I’m not going to be taken for a ride so much, because I’m not a student anymore. When I graduated in 2013, I thought that was going to be the case, but since then I’ve lived in ten different properties […] At the time it had quite a big impact on my mental health because I had no roots. It’s just really stressful.”
This is an insight shared by people all across Manchester, and Donnachie continued by saying: “I’m one of 400,000 renters across Greater Manchester, there’s a lot of us, and there was a report done by Shelter last year that showed that 40% if people renting a property were experiencing poor conditions which included damp, mice and rat infestations, and bad electrics. That’s 40%, that’s a lot of people.”
“I think in Manchester, and I guess across the UK, affordability is such a big issue. In greater Manchester rents are meant to rise by 20% by 2021. And for a lot of people, individuals or families, that means that sometimes you are choosing between paying your rent and topping up your electricity metre, or paying for food, paying for essential goods, so a lot of people are living in pure poverty and are experiencing cycles of despair that they cant really get out of.”
Debbie Blandchard, also from GMHA, went on to discuss the issues of “no fault evictions”, infrastructure, universal credit, and discrimination.
As a young person, it would seem that description can be a huge issue in the private rental market, Blanchard explaining: “No under 25s, over 30s only, mature applicants only, that’s all the time. […] What’s really heart breaking is when you turn up to a viewing with a group of young people and the agent screws up their face and suddenly the property is taken, only a month later the letting sign is still out there. So there a lot of discrimination going on.”
Not only this, but Blanchard explained how no fault evictions lead to insecurity across all types of renters: “It’s perfectly legal for a landlord to kick you out just because they don’t want you there, for no absolute reason at all. In Rochdale there were 36 no fault evictions and 41 illegal evictions, in my opinion, those cases should be recharged to the landlord that created the problem.”
Most shocking of Blandchard’s talk was her illumination on sex-for-rent deals: “It is not currently illegal to have a sex-for-rent deal and we need to look at closing that loophole in at least Greater Manchester by any means possible. If the central government cant do the right thing, then we need to do the right thing and protect the most vulnerable tenants from the most appalling abuse possible.”
Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham was last to speak, and began by emphasising his support for a change in the housing situation, saying: “I feel that something like this is the right initiative at the right time, that’s why I wanted to be here tonight to say that I support it. […] If the evolution is going to need anything, it is about giving a voice to people who have perhaps been ignored in the wider political system in recent times.”
Burnham went on to explain how, to him, the root cause of the housing situation is down to ‘right to buy’ policies, and an owner-occupation obsession.
One solution Burnham discussed was tougher regulation on housing standards, saying that: “If homes are beneath the decent home standard, and if their in receipt of housing benefit, I think we need to make it plain that that is not an acceptable state of affairs and we need to consider the use of compulsory purchase. Where homes are in that condition, they are putting the tenants’ safety at risk, they are pulling the community down with them, that is just not acceptable, and we have to get much tougher.”
Burnham finished by asking us to look at the Grenfell Tower tragedy, in London, June 2017, saying: “It needs to be a bigger campaign for housing justice for everybody. Anybody who is living in those properties now, that are not safe, that is where this debate has got to go, in my opinion, that is where we’ve got to take it. And we need to make this a campaign for housing justice, not just for here, but for all over the country. It should be a right; people should have a right to a safe, decent, affordable home. That’s what we should be calling for. We’re miles from there at the moment, but I can feel a movement like this is the right place to start.”
After the talk, participants were invited to join Greater Manchester councillors and housing organisation members to discuss personal experiences in groups, and devise a chart of current problems and posed solutions to the housing situation. These charts centred around notions of affordability, knowing your rights, renter representation, instability and insecurity.
This was an incredibly inclusive, hands-on and efficient experience, as every individual voice was given a platform to be heard. The outcome was a clear representation of the public, as well as an assortment of solutions posed by those who experience housing issues most directly.
The data collected from this event will be compiled into a document and sent to the city council, as well as published publicly.
You will find this document, as well as find out more information and how you can get involved with GMHA and the Tenants Union UK at gmhousingaction.wordpress.com